We Can Send A Probe To Pluto, But Energy Storage Remains Elusive

Jul 24, 2015

Jim and Lyn Schneider at their home near Alcova, Wyoming.
Credit Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

For Jim and Lyn Schneider, the decision to invest in $50,000 worth of solar panels and battery storage was easy. There were no power lines near their property. After buying land in a remote area near Alcova, Wyoming, their utility company estimated it would cost the couple around $80,000 to get electricity in their new home.

"It's like wow, we’re gonna have to be really primitive! We're gonna be cooking on a campfire! We're gonna have to really like each other," Lyn Schneider said between bursts of laughter.

Jim and Lyn Schneider will have to replace three of their 12 batteries this summer.
Credit Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

But their system of relying on solar during the day and battery power at night has worked pretty well in the four years they have lived in Wyoming. Jim Schneider opens up a case to reveal 12 batteries that look a lot like the type of red gas canister you might store in your trunk.

Jim has to "equalize" the batteries once a month which is a method of cleaning that helps them to keep their charge. He's surprised by how much maintenance is involved.

"He's got a clipboard with a bunch of sheets on it that I don't know anything about. He's always got his little clipboard out and he's out here checking everything!" Lyn Schneider said.

Mayla's great-grandparents installed solar panels and batteries at their home near Alcova, Wyoming.
Credit Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

They shoo their great-granddaughter Mayla away from the open battery container while we talk. Another drawback of batteries is that they can be toxic. And they die. The Schneiders have to replace three of theirs this summer.

The Schneiders' experience illustrates both the benefits and drawbacks of energy storage. Those same drawbacks are a big disincentive for large utility companies. Many are choosing to stick with what they know, like overbuilding infrastructure to make sure there is enough electricity to run all of our air conditioners on the hottest day in August.

“The power lines, the substations, the generation equipment, all need to be sized to meet that peak demand even if it's only for one or two hours of the year,” Brian Warshay, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said.

For energy storage to provide electricity on those high demand days, the price would have to come down. The Department of Energy predicts that storage would be economically viable at $150/kWh or less. Although prices are dropping quickly, they are still about twice that amount.

Rocky Mountain Power, a utility with customers in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, has chosen not to invest in energy storage, for now. Over the next decade, they plan to meet demand not by building new power plants but through energy efficiency measures. Spokesperson Dave Eskelsen said that when considering energy storage, cost was a factor for the utility.

“Utilities typically use proven technologies. We’ll probably wait for a lot of technological development before they’re employed in the large scale in the utility business,” Eskelsen said.

Energy storage researchers are part of a global race to get to the point where the technology is both cost-effective and reliable. There are batteries, made by companies like Tesla and AES Energy Storage, as well as people banking away electricity in compressed airmolten salt, and in the spinning wheels of a train.

Inside an Ice Bear, 450 gallons of water freeze at night, storing energy for the next day.
Credit Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

Ice Energy is one of those companies storing energy in unexpected places. It sells a product called the Ice Bear which stores energy in a gigantic block of ice at night. During the day, the ice begins to melt which is then used in conjunction with an air conditioning unit to cool down warm air.

I met Greg Miller, Ice Energy's Executive Vice President for Marketing Development, at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. He explained the process to me in greater detail:

Greg Miller stands in front of the Ice Bear unit at New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Credit Leigh Paterson / Inside Energy

"When it's melting, it's taking that refrigeration from a vapor phase to a liquid phase. And that cold liquid then comes back to the air conditioner, grabs more heat, takes it back to the Ice Bear. It's just a cycle process," Miller said.

Energy storage technology has the potential to be the new frontier. But with real barriers standing in the way, guesstimates put this technology within reach at a large scale sometime between 2020 and 2030.