Batteries, EVs and Grid Energy Storage

By Bill Moore

Batteries once intended to power millions of electric cars are instead finding their way into specially-modified 40 feet-long shipping containers that are being dropped, not in parking lots, but power substations. EV World talks with Mark Higgins with the California Energy Storage Alliance on the growth of grid storage and the role of hybrid and electric car batteries.

The idea of storing electric power on the grid isn't necessarily a new idea. Pumped storage, where water is moved from a lower reservoir to a higher one using off-peak power, has been around for decades. As demand dictates, the water in the higher reservoir is released, generating electricity via hydropower.

Well over a century ago, Thomas Edison envisioned homes powered by wind that stored power in large banks of his iron nickel battery. Cheap coal and hydropower from centralized generation plants based on Tesla's alternating current short-circuited his plans.

Now with the resurgence of wind power and rapid price drop in solar PV, the idea of storing electric power is again taking off. One of the earliest organizations advocating for the technology is the California Energy Storage Alliance, formed in 2009.

Mark Higgins is a Sr. Director at Stratagen Consulting, as well as the Alliance. Previously he worked for Pacific Gas and Electric and SunEdison, so knows both the utility side of the coin, as well as the renewable energy side. Given the shift of focus, of sorts, by lithium battery companies like A123, Enerdel, and Electrovaya more into the grid storage, we wanted to explore what role, if any, repurposed automotive batteries out of hybrids like Toyota's Prius - now some 7 million strong - and plug-ins like the Chevrolet Volt might play in this rapidly developing market.

While both companies, along with more power generation-oriented businesses like ABB, are experimenting with recycling used automotive batteries, Higgins doesn't see any significant role for used cells in back-up power storage largely because of the ongoing prices decline of new cells, along with the cost of the auxiliary equipment needed to safely move power back and forth from the grid and storage systems is still a significant economic factor. Then's there's the issue of reliability, warranties, etc.

So, while GM's experiment with ABB and Toyota's deployment of a solar backup system based on used NiMH cells from its hybrids at Yellowstone National Park are interesting and necessary experiments, they may just validate current assumptions that new is better than used when you're talking about creating a reliable and resilient energy grid for the 21st century.

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Originally published: 01 Nov 2014


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