NISKAYUNA — The new field of photovoltaic panels off River Road is neither the biggest nor the most powerful solar farm in the Capital Region, but it is unique among the 9,000-plus solar arrays in the area.
It’s not only generating up to 240 kilowatts of electricity, it’s providing a test bed for power storage on an industrial scale, which will keep the lights on after the sun goes down.
A team of three dozen engineers and scientists at General Electric’s Global Research headquarters is testing two prototypes of the company’s new Reservoir storage unit, and they’re building a third. Company officials hope to bring the battery system to market in 2019 and says it already has one significant purchase commitment.
The Reservoir is a 20-foot shipping container stuffed with stacks of batteries that use the same lithium-ion technology that powers today’s hybrid electric vehicles. That’s not a coincidence: Significant research has been devoted to lithium-ion batteries for automakers in recent years. That research has boosted the batteries’ capacity and reduced their cost so much that they are now a viable means of storing enough electricity to run hundreds of homes for hours at a time.
Johanna Wellington, a mechanical engineer who is the product breakout leader for energy storage at the Niskayuna facility, said integration of battery storage into the power grid is increasingly important, as more electricity is generated by clean — but inconsistent — means such as wind and sunlight.
“The trick of being able to do this is, ‘How do you take a battery and make it integrate with the grid, understanding all the complexities and everything that happens there?’ ” Wellington said. “And we think GE can do that better than the folks that make cars, or are new to the business.”
GE began manufacturing its own batteries (using a different technology) on a new production line it built in Schenectady several years ago. But that line was discontinued when the market didn’t develop as expected. Since then, lithium-ion technology and sales have soared for other manufacturers.
GE does plan to do final assembly of the Reservoir itself, at a location to be determined, but it is not going to manufacture batteries — it will buy them from top manufacturers. The prototype Reservoir units are stacked with batteries made by LG. Samsung batteries also are being tested.
“A key part of the learning is really understanding the life of those cells,” Wellington said. “So even though we aren’t manufacturing the cells, we’re doing an awful lot of testing to understand how they behave in different circumstances.
“Understanding that better allows us to build our controls and optimization tools so that our customers in real-life situations will be able to create these solutions that meet their needs and protect their assets, to the extent possible.”
GE also doesn’t manufacture solar panels, though it is one of the top wind turbine manufacturers.
What the company is pitching with the Reservoir is its expertise in tying the various components and systems together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Reservoir is designed to factor all the needs of the customer’s application — and all the characteristics of the batteries — into an algorithm that optimizes the product’s output and life span.
If individual cells within the Reservoir begin to lose charge capacity, as they almost certainly will after years in service, the modular design allows them to be swapped out. The system is also capable of future retrofits with next-generation technology, provided the individual cells are the right shape.
Wellington said the research is proceeding well. The Reservoir prototypes are packed with 35 percent of the batteries they’d have in an operational setting and producing nearly full output. The learning curve has centered on the interconnectivity between the various components; assembling them into a prototype took only 90 days, but making them work together optimally has taken longer.
“I can’t say that we’ve had any ‘go back to start and do it again,’ which is a good thing,” Wellington said. “We phased it so we learned the things we need to learn before investing in the next phase.”
Like any power source with a potential 1,200-volt, 1.2 million-watt output, there are multiple levels of safety precautions. The Reservoir prototypes have their own chain-link enclosure within the secure Niskayuna campus. When battery stacks are installed, technicians wear heavy protective suits similar to a bomb disposal technician’s garb, due to the risk of electrical arc flash.
There is a manual disconnect switch to reduce the risk, and in real-world industry use, it could be flipped from a safe distance with no need for a protective suit.
A lot of progress is coming together in the 8-by-8-by-20-foot Reservoir, which can hold 4 megawatts of power at a discharge rate of up to 1.2 megawatts per hour. Only a few years ago, that much capacity would have filled a building more than three times that size.
GE expects utility companies to be the primary customers for the product, as they seek to smooth out the peaks and valleys of electricity flowing from green power sources. Neither wind turbines nor solar panels average anywhere near their full potential output, due to variations in wind speed and cloud cover. Unlike a fossil fuel-burning power plant, they can’t be turned up to meet demand.
For that reason, the state of New York is pressing utilities to bring more energy storage facilities online. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in early 2018, announced a target of 1,500 megawatts of storage by 2025, to support the growing use of green energy in the state, particularly solar power.
“It really does take a village to pull it all together,” Wellington said. “As you look forward into the energy ecosystem, there’s no silver bullet — there’s silver buckshot. There’s not going to be A solution, there’s a multitude of solutions.”
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority said that, as of July 31, it had supported 9,339 solar installations in seven Capital Region counties. The majority are residential, but the relatively few commercial and industrial installations are much larger and account for the majority of the electricity generated by the sun in this area.
The following list shows each Capital Region county’s tally of NYSERDA-assisted solar projects since the year 2000 and their combined peak capacity in megawatts:
- Albany 2,502 50.46 MW
- Fulton 348 20.87 MW
- Montgomery 664 13.79 MW
- Rensselaer 1,826 29.01 MW
- Saratoga 1,968, 36.6 MW
- Schenectady 1,697 30.26 MW
- Schoharie 334 3.33 MW