The Role of Smart Batteries in Resilient Cities

By Sarah Singleton

Sarah Singleton is senior vice president of marketing and regulatory affairs at San Francisco-based Sunverge Energy, a leading provider of software for managing energy storage systems and other distributed energy resources.

Hurricane Maria created immense devastation in Puerto Rico, leaving the island and its people facing a long recovery process. Crucially, its electric grid suffered such widespread damage that, a month after the storm, 75 percent of the island remains without electricity, and it could take up to six months before all the power is restored.

There is little the average resident can do but wait. While thousands of diesel powered generators have been delivered to the island, only the wealthy can afford to purchase and operate them. Fuel is in short supply, and the units are the target of thieves, as they have been in the wake of earlier Caribbean hurricanes.

Regardless of its location, no city is immune from large scale outages like this. In May, a distribution substation caught fire in San Francisco, leaving 90,000 PG&E customers without power for as long as seven hours. One of those customers was my sons’ elementary school, which was hosting hundreds of elderly visitors for annual Grandparents Day. Without power for the elevators, wheelchair-bound and walker-dependent guests had to be carried on numerous flights of darkened stairs.

In the midst of these outages, there are pockets of self-created resiliency.

Last year, Fidencio Aldamuy, a customer and solar installer for New Energy Puerto Rico installed solar panels and a 19.4 kWh Sunverge One energy storage system at his home. It replaced a fossil-fuel powered generator for which he would now not be able to obtain fuel. Amazingly, his rooftop solar panels survived the storm, and he has not only been able to maintain power at his home on the island, but also to share that power with a neighbor. Tesla Powerwall customers in Florida also report having power following recent hurricanes.

Highly Resilient Cities of the Future

Imagine what might happen if such distributed power was installed at publicly owned facilities and resources. Every school, every police and fire station, along with critical intersections, could be equipped with an uninterruptable power supply in the form of PV panels and lithium-ion-based energy storage systems. Public spaces, critical street lights and businesses would remain illuminated. These fleets of batteries would be controlled via a virtual network operating center that would ensure the batteries are fully charged during the day and powering critical infrastructure during the night.

This highly resilient city of the future would never need to “refuel” individual generators, field complaints from neighbors about the noisy, fume spewing diesel generators or worry about thieves. When these batteries aren’t providing backup power, they can be aggregated to create a virtual power plant, reduce peak load on the local distribution feeder and provide other grid services. This could provide considerable energy resources for the grid: For example, there are more than 670,000 street lights alone in PG&E’s territory. Add to that traffic signals and public facilities, and there would be millions of distributed units available for highly flexible aggregation.

Electric Utilities and Cities Plan for Storage

Several electric utilities and city planners are already thinking about the important role storage can play in making their cities more energy efficient and resilient to power outages. A large city in California is actively installing distributed energy storage systems in police and fire stations to provide an uninterrupted power supply during extended outages. The city planners are also exploring the possibility of equipping public restrooms in parks and other common areas with solar and storage to improve safety and the facility’s usefulness during outages.

Hartley Nature Center, which serves more than 25,000 visitors a year, in Duluth, Minnesota, partnered with the Clean Energy Group and Minnesota Power to install a Sunverge One to provide reliable backup power to meet operational needs during power outages. Storing power from the center’s solar panels, this installation—the first of its kind in the state — ensures vital Center operations never miss a beat, even when the grid goes down. The Sunverge One also allows the Center to serve as a community charging resource during times of disaster, keeping citizens connected with the people they need to contact.

Another application for distributed energy storage is gas stations. A large percentage of the 114,000 gas stations in the US have electric fuel pumps, so when the grid goes down, the pumps are inoperable. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) issued a request for ideas to make local gas stations more resilient during grid outages. By outfitting each station with solar and storage, the lights and pumps keep working when the grid goes down. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York went a step further and now requires gas stations in critical areas to have backup electricity.

The Importance of Resiliency When Cars go Electric

In twenty years, BNEF estimates 54 percent of new car sales and 33 percent of the global car fleet will be electric. While EV sales to 2025 will remain relatively low, BNEF analysts expect an inflection point in adoption between 2025 and 2030 as EVs become economical on an unsubsidized total cost of ownership basis across mass-market vehicle classes. This kind of EV growth could add 11,000 GWh of new load to the US grid according to researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Reliable backup power will become increasingly critical when our transportation depends on it. Several states are taking advantage of Volkswagen’s $3 billion environmental mitigation trust to build out EV charging infrastructure, including pairing solar and storage on charge stations. The trust, which was created as part of Volkswagen’s settlement with the US government for use of emissions testing defeat devices, is intended to fund State projects that mitigate effects of higher emission levels.

Given the demonstrated lack of resiliency in the grid today, and the inevitability of more and more severe outages, the need to deploy distributed energy resources exists today. As we move into the future, with even more complex energy demands, we’ll need that resilient city of the future.

Discussion

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5 Comments

  1. Solar + storage is a great example of a Green Resilience measure that has GHG mitigation and adaptation benefits.

    Reply
  2. Yes – a great revolution is in the making. In India the new Solar Contracts are going at less than 25% where they were just 18 to 24 months back. Saving is not only in genration costs but also due to deep cuts in the transmission and distribution. With ever falling prices of PV Panels and possibly also of Storage Systems the ubiqutous source of power will be sun not the coal/petrol. Will this shift affect all counries and all people uniformly? Surely the sun belt countries are to gain the maximum. Others will benefit from the new manufacturing that will accompany the shift.

    Reply
  3. Although it’s wonderful that some of the solar panels survived the hurricane in Puerto Rico, it would be useful to get a good quantitative estimate (or better yet, a count) of the actual percentage that survived intact. If it’s a low number, then putting a lot of eggs in that basket when most of that part of the infrastructure would simply have to be rebuilt anyway is not a particularly useful option from a general restoration perspective. We also routinely fail to account for the round-trip losses with batteries which, day-in, day-out, over the life of the assets, are in the 20% range–that may sound like a small number until one does the math on just what that means for generation infrastructure (and it’s cost).

    Reply
  4. It is just amazing to have “Highly Resilient Cities of the Future”, as well as
    Smart cities— using digital technology to better citizen’s quality of life, socio-economic development, and make cities more attractive places to live, visit and do business.
    Safe cities — preventing the risks/impact of adverse events including crime, accidents, pollution and natural disasters.
    Sustainable — reducing the risks of climate change and the environmental impact of municipal operations, local business activities and people’s everyday lives.
    Socially inclusive cities.
    PV, EV, green buildings, wind energy, bioenergy, energy storage systems, etc. are all elements of urban distributed energy networks.

    Reply
  5. Thank you for this well thought out and inspired article for resilient cities.
    In remote areas in Australia where one has to rely on solar panels and battery storage systems, it is the reliability of the storage batteries that is the problem.
    How many battery systems are there available that can be relied upon? Are lithium batteries the only way to go?
    Any further information on different battery systems would help.

    Reply

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