The push to switch from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy will mean a lot more demand for battery storage. It's just part of massive efforts to modernize the electric grid in New England and the nation to meet the challenge of climate change.
The future of renewable energy in New England depends on more projects that rely on harnessing the power of the sun, wind and water. They generate a lot of electricity, and can't always be turned on and off. The utility-sized batteries of the future could store that excess power for when the grid needs it most — to help shave prices and meet demand without fossil fuels.
“If you're relying on your battery, you're not drawing from the system,” said Ann George, spokesperson at ISO New England, the operator of the regional power grid.
She said New England doesn't have the batteries to match its forecast of clean energy growth yet. “We haven't gotten to a place where we have batteries at a scale that could cover that,” George said.
But that's expected to change. President Joe Biden wants to approve hundreds of wind turbines in New England waters before the end of the year. That, plus large-scale solar and hydro projects, could eventually be stored in large-scale community battery systems. Much smaller models could also provide power at home — including to charge electric cars.
That’s what Roger Kranenberg, vice president of energy policy at Eversource, a major power provider in New England, is banking on.
“Transportation is going to scale it down, drive the cost down, drive performance up,” Kranenberg said. “It's such a large market, it's going to be the primary driver of future tech battery technology.”
Kranenberg said there needs to be major technological advancements to make residential and commercial use of energy storage happen. So far, Eversource is in the lead with the nation’s first large-scale community battery systems under construction in Provincetown, Massachusetts — on Cape Cod.
“This is a globally unique facility,” he said. “I've tested this a million times and I've not found one of its size and functionality in the entire world.”
The plan is for the 25-megawatt, lithium-ion battery system to have enough juice to power the area’s three towns on the Outer Cape. Eversource said it should provide 10 hours of backup power during extreme winter weather and as much as three hours during the summer, when tourists flock to the cape and demand for electricity spikes.
“And it backs up the entire town of Provincetown, when the line that feeds Provincetown goes out, and it gives us enough time to get crews out there,” Kranenberg said.
The battery is expected to be finished this year. It also removed the need to construct a 13-mile distribution line across a state park.
“The classic way you boost reliability and in the electric business is, you know, bring in an alternate supply,” he said. “There's no way to bring in an alternate supply. It’s a strip of sand going up to Provincetown.”
The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities has approved a second Eversource battery facility on Martha’s Vineyard.
As of 2021, battery storage makes up at least 15% of the clean energy proposals for New England — there's 3,700 megawatts of new storage in the works. Some natural gas, wind and solar proposals also include battery storage, according to ISO New England. George said these batteries will help boost reliability and help reduce the need to burn fossil fuels.
“We really need to, you know, hopefully get to a place where you've got batteries that are longer duration, and at a larger scale, to kind of manage the fluctuations on the system,” she said
Lee Hoffman, a lawyer who represents energy providers, said states are only starting to adopt energy storage goals and the policies to facilitate them.
“There are a whole lot of systemic reasons why we don't have real battery storage,” he said.
Massachusetts and Maine have pretty modest energy storage goals by 2025. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, state lawmakers and regulators have three different proposals up in the air that range from ambitious to meek, respectively. New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont don’t have storage goals yet. In all, fewer than 10 states do.
Hoffman said another problem could be how states decide to regulate and value battery storage.
“They bill those batteries as other significant industrial users, like their big factories using electricity,” he said. “And that means that they're paying the most for electricity that they possibly can. And so it's not economical for those batteries to get charged.
“And unless we get there I'm not sure that you can ever fully replace the fossil fueled fired plants unless you're willing to do something radical,” Hoffman continued.
A pilot program in Vermont has kept the lights on in at least 1,100 homes with residential energy storage, supplied by the electric car maker Tesla. The Tesla Powerwall is also being test driven in some rural New Hampshire homes, too.
“But they are not meant for primetime yet,” said MIT energy economist Chistopher Knittel. “Technologically, lithium ion batteries are great at storage over the course of a day, maybe a couple days, if pushed, maybe a week.”
He said it could take tech companies another decade or more to extend the life of a charge using lithium batteries or a different type of battery altogether.
That’s, in part, what MIT Climate & Sustainability Consortium is working on. Launched in February, it brought together giants like Apple, Boeing, IBM, Verizon and PepsiCo to work on transformative climate solutions across industries. The same companies sent a letter to the Biden administration this week supporting ambitious steps away from fossil fuels and onto clean energy.
“Looking at the role of industry in helping to accelerate the transition to reduce carbon emissions, and the idea is that by convening a set of cross economy, leading companies with the MIT community, we can identify pathways towards decarbonization particularly focused on those industries outside of the energy producing sector,” said Elsa Olivetti, the MIT group’s associate director.
The energy system has already had an easier time decarbonizing than, say, the transportation sector, which is New England's top source of emissions. But for now, electric companies are betting that battery systems could help with both.
At Eversource, Kranenburg said they next want to expand their large-scale community battery storage to Connecticut and New Hampshire. They also hope to back up the entire small rural town of Westmoreland, New Hampshire, that’s prone to outages, with a combination of utility-owned battery facilities and residential energy storage.
“What a beautiful showpiece for them,” Kranenberg said. “The other joke I make is we're doing battery tourism, but it's an industry joke.”
That joke could be what powers parts of New England in the next decade.