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Economy

Why Batteries Might — Might! — Solve America’s Power-Line Shortage

Can solar plus storage fix one of the thorniest problems of the energy transition?

Power lines and a battery.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

To talk about renewable energy these days is to talk about power lines. “No transition without transmission” has become something of a mantra among a legion of energy wonks. And following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains a massive pot of subsidies for non-carbon-emitting power but little in the way of delivering it, legislative and regulatory attention has turned to getting that power from where it’s sunny and windy to where it’s needed.

Hardly a day goes by in which some industry group or environmental nonprofit isn’t assaulting the inboxes of climate journalists like myself with another study or white paper stressing the need for more transmission. But I’ve also recently noticed a newer group of advocates popping up: the batterystans.

Now, virtually everyone in the renewable energy space loves talking about the massive growth and potential of batteries to store power generated by renewables for when it’s needed most. Here the Inflation Reduction Act’s honeypot of subsidies and the long economic trends are working together. The price of batteries really is falling dramatically, and their deployment has been ramped up.

For most people, batteries are a complement to transmission upgrades. But to a much smaller group, the falling prices of solar and batteries may obviate the need for transmission expansion entirely.

Let’s start with the more mild case. As Duncan Campbell, Vice President at Scale Microgrids told me, “If you go deep on power grid expansion modeling studies, they all assume an enormous build-out of transmission well beyond what we’ve done in the past and I think demonstrated to be well beyond the current institutional capacity.” In other words, you can pencil in as much transmission build-out as you want, but the chances we’ll actually do it seem at least short of certain. “It’s quite reasonable to suggest when doing something super ambitious that it’s a good idea to have a diversified approach,” he said.

That diversified approach, for Campbell, includes storage and generation both on the transmission part of the grid — like utility-scale storage paired with solar arrays — and on the distribution side of the grid, like rooftop solar and garage batteries. The latter two examples can also work together as a “virtual power plant” to modulate consumption based on when power is most expensive or cheap and even sometimes send power back to the grid at times of stress.

“At the end of the day it seems undeniably prudent to think about what solutions are going to complement large-scale transmission build-out if we want to meet these goals. Otherwise it’s a concentrated approach that carries a lot of risks,” Campbell told me. “Technologically, VPPs and DER [distributed energy resources] can help. Especially in those worst situations.”

This balanced approach would not actually face much opposition from advocates for a substantial transmission build-out, even if sometimes this “debate” — especially on Twitter, I’m sorry, especially on X — can get polarized and contentious.

“They’re complementary, not competitive,” Ric O’Connell, the executive director of GridLab, told me. “Transmission moves energy around in space, storage moves around in time. You need both.”

O’Connell pointed out that storage in some cases could be thought of a transmission asset, something analogous to the wires and poles that move electricity, where power could be moved on very short time frames to help out with extremely high levels of demand, a lack of generation, or transmission congestion. We’ve seen this already in Texas, where storage has helped take the bite out of extremely high demand recently, and in California, where it has helped alleviate the rapid disappearance of solar power every evening.

“The shorter duration storage stuff is working to address congestion and streamline transmission operations. In that sense you can put it in the same category as a grid enhancing technology,” O’Connell said.

While nearly everyone I talked to was eager to say that storage and transmission could complement each other, even if some leaned on transmission more and others were more bullish on storage and distributed energy, there was one person who actually did represent a clear and polarizing view: Casey Handmer.

Handmer is a Cal Tech trained physicist who used to write software for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and founded Terraform Industries, an early stage start up that’s looking to develop the “Terraformer,” a solar-powered factory that would create synthetic natural gas. Immodestly, he “aims to displace the majority of fossil hydrocarbon production by 2035.”

More modestly, he describes himself as “effectively a puffed up blogger who runs a pre-revenue (i.e. default dead) startup in an area peripheral (at best) to grid issues,” but is nonetheless, again, immodestly “pretty confident that my analysis is correct,” he told me in an email.

“My views on this matter are unconventional, even controversial. Arguably this is my spiciest hot take on the future of energy,” he wrote on his blog.

He thinks that the falling price of solar and batteries will make large-scale transmission investments unnecessary.

The price declines in battery and solar will continue, allowing people and businesses to throw up solar wherever, pair it with batteries, to the point where solar is “5-15x” overbuilt. That would mean that solar wouldn’t need to be backed up by any kind of “clean firm” power, i.e. a source that can produce carbon-free electricity at any time, like nuclear power, pumped-hydro, green hydrogen, or natural gas with carbon capture and storage.

While extreme, his views are not so, so, so far off from other renewables maximalists, who view solar and battery price declines as essentially inexorable. If they’re right, resource adequacy issues (i.e. that it’s much more sunny in some places than others) could be overcome by just building more cheap solar and installing more batteries.

“Adding 12 hours of storage to the entire U.S. grid would not happen overnight, but on current trends would cost around $500 billion and pay for itself within a few years. This is a shorter timescale than the required manufacturing ramp, meaning it could be entirely privately funded. By contrast, upgrading the U.S. transmission grid could cost $7 trillion over 20 years,” Handmer wrote in July.

As for the case that transmission is needed to get solar power from where it’s sunnier (like southern Europe or the American Southwest) to where it isn’t (Northern Europe, the rest of America), Handmer argues this isn’t really a problem.

“Solar resource quality doesn't matter that much. Solar resource is much more evenly distributed than, say, oil,” he told me. “Almost all humans live close to where their grandparents were able to grow food to live, and crops only grow in places that are roughly equally sunny.” He also argued that “solar is about 1000x more productive in terms of energy produced per unit land used than agriculture,” so building it will be economically compelling in huge swathes of the world.

As he acknowledges, his view is pretty lonely. He seems to yada-yada away what developments in battery technology would be needed to make this all work (although presumably ever-cheapening solar could just charge more lithium-ion batteries). One estimate suggests that to have “the greatest impact on electricity cost and firm generation,” battery storage would have to extend out to 100 hours — about 25X more than they do now.

This is where I say what you’re already thinking. This combination of technofuturism, contrarianism, work experience in the space industry and comfort with back-of-the-envelope math to make strong assertions makes Handmer sound like — and I mean this in the most value-neutral, descriptive way possible — another proponent of the rooftop solar, home battery, electric car future: Elon Musk. (Handmer used to work at the Musk-inspired Hyperloop One).

When I asked him why he’s an admitted outlier on this, he chalked it up to “anchoring bias in the climate space ... before solar and batteries got cheap, analyses showed that increasing the size of the grid was the best way to counter wind intermittency. But when the assumptions and data change, the results change too. The future of electricity is local. As a physicist, I was trained to take unusual observations to their utmost conclusion.”

Green

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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