Tesla built the world’s biggest battery. This one could be three times bigger.
An energy company wants to build another huge solar farm in the open desert east of Palm Springs — and maybe the world’s biggest battery.
The Crimson solar project would span 2,500 acres of public lands south of Interstate 10 in eastern Riverside County, at the base of the Mule Mountains. The San Francisco-based developer, Recurrent Energy, has asked the federal government for permission to build 350 megawatts of solar power at the site, and up to 350 megawatts of battery storage. That would be several times larger than the biggest battery currently in existence, a 100-megawatt system that Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. installed in Australia last year.
It’s unclear whether Recurrent will actually build a 350-megawatt battery. It doesn’t have a buyer for the electricity yet, and the federal permitting process will take several years.
Still, experts say it’s an encouraging sign for the clean energy industry to see Recurrent planning for that big a battery. There’s a growing need for energy storage in California, where the rapid growth of solar power has led to excess electricity in the middle of the day and a reliance on polluting gas plants when the sun goes down. Energy storage could help solve that problem by making solar electricity available in the evenings.
Fortunately for California, the costs of battery storage have fallen dramatically the last few years. The result is a growing market for more and bigger batteries.
“This is something that we’re going to see a lot more of — solar companies baking in the potential, if not the outright installation, of storage into their systems,” said Daniel Finn-Foley, an energy storage analyst with GTM Research, a clean-tech consulting firm. “If you’re looking ahead three, four, five years out, it’s going to be increasingly a story about storage’s ability to enhance large, utility-scale solar.”
“If they actually installed 350 megawatts, that would be a bombshell,” he said.
It’s hard to say how much electricity a 350-megawatt battery would actually store. That varies based on a battery’s duration, or how many hours it can operate at full capacity.
And ultimately, how much storage Recurrent builds will depends on market demand. Possible customers for Crimson include big utilities like Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, as well as city- and county-led energy programs known as community choice aggregators, or CCAs, that are increasingly replacing traditional utilities. CCAs are planned in Riverside, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
“If someone wants it, we’ll build it,” said Scott Dawson, Recurrent’s director of permitting.
Riverside County is already home to four big solar farms, which cover thousands of acres of open desert between the Coachella Valley and the Arizona border. Recurrent’s Crimson project, about 100 miles east of Palm Springs on I-10, would be the fifth.
Conservationists have opposed many of the big solar farms that have been built or proposed in the California desert, seeing them as sprawling industrial facilities that could harm iconic but threatened species like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. The California desert is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states, and it’s already been degraded by urban sprawl, highways and other human activities.
But it’s possible Crimson will avoid the fierce environmental battles that have slowed or halted other solar farms.
Dawson, Recurrent’s direct of permitting, said the company has reconfigured the project to avoid the most sensitive habitat. Crimson would disrupt 30 acres of sand dune habitat used by the Mojave fringe-toed lizard — down from 580 acres under a previous plan of development — and just 1.2 acres of biodiversity-rich microphyll woodlands, down from 95 acres under the previous plan. It wouldn’t infringe on any critical habitat for the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.