A Big Test for Big Batteries
ESCONDIDO, Calif. — In Southern California in the fall of 2015, a giant natural gas leak not only caused one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history, it also knocked out a critical fuel source for regional power plants.
Energy regulators needed a quick fix.
But rather than sticking with gas, they turned to a technology more closely associated with flashlights: batteries. They freed up the utilities to start installing batteries — and lots of them.
It is a solution that’s audacious and risky. The idea is that the batteries can store electricity during daylight hours (when the state’s many solar panels are flooding the grid with power), then release it as demand peaks (early evening, when people get home). In effect, the rechargeable batteries are like an on-demand power plant, and, in theory, able to replace an actual plant.
Utilities have been studying batteries nationwide. But none have moved ahead with the gusto of those in Southern California.
This idea has far-reaching potential. But the challenge of storing electricity has vexed engineers, researchers, policy makers and entrepreneurs for centuries. Even as countless technologies have raced ahead, batteries haven’t yet fulfilled their promise.
And the most powerful new designs come with their own risks, such as fire or explosion if poorly made or maintained. It’s the same problem that forced Samsung to recall 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in September because of fire risk.
After racing for months, engineers here in California have brought three energy-storage sites close to completion to begin serving the Southern California electric grid within the next month. They are made up of thousands of oversize versions of the lithium-ion batteries now widely used in smartphones, laptop computers and other digital devices.
One of the installations, at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations center surrounded by industrial parks in Escondido, Calif., 30 miles north of San Diego, will be the largest of its kind in the world, developers say. It represents the most crucial test yet of an energy-storage technology that many experts see as fundamental to a clean-energy future.
Here, about 130 miles southeast of Aliso Canyon, the site of the immense gas leak in 2015 — the global-warming equivalent of operating about 1.7 million cars over the course of a year — 19,000 battery modules the size of a kitchen drawer are being wired together in racks. They will operate out of two dozen beige, 640-square-foot trailers.
Made by Samsung, the batteries are meant to store enough energy to serve as a backup in cases of fuel shortages. They are also designed to absorb low-cost energy, particularly solar power, during the day and feed it back to the grid after dusk. They in effect can fill in for the decades-old gas-fired plants that might lack the fuel to fully operate because of the disastrous leak.
“California is giving batteries the opportunity to show what they can do,” said Andrés Gluski, chief executive of AES, which is installing the storage systems.
AES is installing a smaller array for the electric utility in El Cajon, a suburb east of San Diego. And separately Tesla, the company perhaps better known for its electric cars, is building an array for a different utility on the grid, Southern California Edison, near Chino, Calif.
The stakes are high for both energy storage companies. If their projects struggle or fail, it could jeopardize not only the stability of Southern California’s grid but also interest in the technology over all.
After a smaller, but pioneering battery project at a wind farm on Oahu in Hawaii went up in flames in 2012, investment in battery storage all but dried up for a few years. That installation, which used 12,000 lead-acid batteries to help even out fluctuations in the power flow, caught fire three times in its first 18 months of operation. The storage developer, Xtreme, eventually went bankrupt. The wind farm turned to a different technology to smooth its output.
Keeping a close eye on the Southern California battery efforts is Susan Kennedy, who helped shepherd California’s energy policy for more than a decade as a state utility regulator and high-level operative for two governors — Gray Davis, a Democrat, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. She now runs an energy storage start-up, one not involved in the battery-building response to the Aliso Canyon gas leak.
“The moment one fails,” Ms. Kennedy said of the big bet on batteries, “they won’t build any more.”
As soon as AES’s chief executive, Mr. Gluski, learned last June that San Diego Gas & Electric had awarded AES the big battery contract, he leapt out of his chair and interrupted a meeting in his board room at the company’s headquarters in Arlington, Va. As employees watched in astonishment, he barreled down two flights of stairs, grabbed a mallet and, with a ceremonial flourish, banged a gong that one of his executives kept on hand for big news.
Mr. Gluski had not had much occasion to celebrate since he had taken the AES reins five years earlier. The company was struggling with debt and trying to coax profits from far-flung fossil-fuel projects around the developing world that are buffeted by instability in politics, currency and commodity prices.
His first steps included an austerity program in which he gave up many of his own executive perks: No more country-club membership. No more corporate Audi A8, with driver. But the more far-reaching part of his plan would be AES’s battery division, which was then fledgling. The unit had roots in two midlevel executives who had been speculating about a Jetsons-like future over beers.