Elon Musk made the headlines in the energy industry earlier this year, proposing a solution for the power supply crisis in South Australia, make the world’s largest battery. Tens of thousands of homes were being affected by blackouts due to lack of dispatchable generation capacity, and Elon Musk made a bold offer: Tesla would deliver a 100-MW and 129-MWh battery in less than 100 days or it would be free. The project is the largest of its kind globally as of November 2017, and it was delivered in only two months – well ahead of schedule.
Seeing the potential, industrial energy consumers in Australia are also deploying their own energy systems with combined renewable generation and battery storage. For example, GMA Garnet are deploying a 3-MW system for their mining facility in West Australia.
Advantages of Utility Batteries over Gas Peaker Plants
Most power networks in the world have a time of the day where demand increases sharply and remains high for a few hours, and it is necessary to have spare generation capacity with a fast response. This normally happens in the hours after sunset, when everyone is returning home and using all sorts of electrical appliances. The issue is even more challenging to manage when there is plenty of solar generation capacity, since the power network operator must handle the loss of solar power after sunset combined with the peak in demand.
The conventional approach is to use gas-fired power or hydroelectricity, since both offer a fast response. However, hydroelectricity requires a river with a suitable site for a reservoir, while natural gas has unstable prices that can lead to expensive tariffs – this is exactly what happened in South Australia.
Batteries have been held back by their cost, but they are already becoming competitive in places with expensive electricity. Some of the best examples are Australia, California in the US, and many island nations.
When compared with gas peaker plants, batteries have three distinct advantages:
- They do not pollute during operation, while gas power plants are a constant source of greenhouse gas emissions. They pollute less than coal or fuel oil, but have emissions nevertheless.
- Utility-scale batteries can be deployed much faster than gas peaker plants, as demonstrated by the recent Tesla project in South Australia. California has also deployed batteries in a record time to cover natural gas shortages.
- Peaker power plants require a certain scale to be viable, which means their capacity cannot be expanded gradually. Rather, energy companies must wait until there is enough demand to justify a new plant. On the other hand, battery system are modular and offer scale flexibility.
Another advantage of batteries it that they are viable as centralized installations or as a complement for distributed solar power systems. In addition, multiple batteries can be linked through the Internet and controlled, even if they are spread across many buildings, to optimize their storage capacity. This way, the control system can manage the available storage capacity to improve the power supply reliability.
Batteries and solar power can achieve synergy because they have two similar features: a modular design that allows any installation size, and flexibility to operate under a wide range of site conditions.
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