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GE rolls out battery-based energy storage product

GE rolls out battery-based energy storage product

Reservoir a system that can be built in 1.2-megawatt units
GE rolls out battery-based energy storage product
A rendering of the battery component of General Electric's new Reservoir energy storage system.
Photographer: Provided

NISKAYUNA — General Electric on Wednesday unveiled a new energy storage product, a self-contained unit it developed in Niskayuna to complement the growing number of wind and solar power farms.

The product, dubbed the Reservoir, is essentially a weatherproof box packed with lithium-ion batteries holding a maximum 4-megawatt-hour charge. What’s not visible is the technology that GE is packing into it, which constantly regulates the draw rate on the individual batteries to maximize their performance and lifespan, and enhance the performance of the unit itself.

The batteries will be purchased from top-tier suppliers in that industry, and their housing will be outsourced as well. The entire unit will be marketed and sold by GE Energy Storage, a unit that was created within Schenectady-based GE Power last autumn.

GE expects to start test production in late 2018 and begin shipments in late 2019.

The first two prototypes were assembled by researchers in at GE Global Research's headquarters in Niskayuna last year and a third will be built there this summer, said Keith Longtin, product breakout leader at Global Research. 

It started with a whiteboard idea: Build a box that could be filled with electricity from any variety of sources and could pump it back out as needed. Having so many disciplines of engineers and researchers on the same campus was the key in making the concept a reality.

“The asset we have here at the center,” he said, “is you have this powerhouse of intellect all sitting together.”

Reservoir uses the same battery chemistry as most electric cars are using: lithium ion. There are better chemistries and technologies but they are not cost-effective — lithium-ion batteries’ cost has plunged as production has skyrocketed.

But the beauty of the modular assembly, Longtin said, is that the batteries can be swapped out of existing units as better technology becomes available.

“We’re on a cycle where every 18 months suppliers are coming out with new batteries and the batteries have higher and higher densities,” he said.

The Reservoir box itself is the exact size of a small shipping container, 8 by 8.5 by 20 feet, an industry-standard shape that’s optimal for transport by truck, railroad car or ship.

And General Electric will be buying the components rather than manufacturing them, so it need not invest in a production line, said Eric Gebhardt, vice president and strategic technology officer for GE Power.

The assembly work will be done in an existing GE facility or facilities that have the capacity to accommodate it, he said. The site has yet to be determined.

General Electric started a battery manufacturing plant of its own in Schenectady a decade ago, but it was based on a sodium-metal halide technology whose market never developed as expected, and the company moved out of battery manufacturing

GE’s business model now treats batteries (and solar panels, which it also doesn’t manufacture) as a commodity to be bought from others. Rather than manufacture the components, GE concentrates on designing and managing a system that optimizes the performance of solar or storage components with each other and with interconnected systems.

Gebhart said the Reservoir can provide a maximum flow of 1.2 megawatts, but more typically would provide 1 megawatt of electricity, at which rate it would last four hours. Typically, it would be charged and discharged within a 24-hour cycle; holding a charge for an extended period can degrade a battery’s performance and lifespan.

Reservoir will be marketed to both electricity suppliers and consumers, and can be used alone or in multiples; the pricetag per unit, if it has been set, is not being disclosed by the company. GE said it has a purchase commitment of 20 units, a year before its starts shipping.

GROWING NEED

Energy storage is increasingly important, because renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar are highly variable depending on how brightly the sun is shining or how hard the wind is blowing.

With roughly 50 gigawatts of solar and 90 gigawatts of wind installed nationwide at the end of 2017, there’s a growing need to store electricity in times of high availability or low demand for use in times of low availability or high demand.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal of 1,500 megawatts of energy storage installed by 2025.

That’s on top of the roughly 1,400 megawatts that exists now, almost all of which is pumped hydropower (using cheap electricity to pump water uphill in off-peak hours and dumping it downhill through a turbine to generate expensive electricity during peak demand hours). 

The drive to 1,500 megawatts of additional storage is technology-neutral: There is no designated preferred means of reaching it. But it is expected to rely heavily on batteries. Building a pumped hydropower facility is a major engineering project that can be done in very few places, a vastly greater undertaking than installing a bank of batteries. There are other technology options, including flywheels, flow batteries, thermal storage, compressed air and fuel cells. Of these, only flywheels currently are used in New York state.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and state Department of Public Service are leading the effort to reach the 1,500-megawatt goal, with involvement of the New York Independent System Operator (manager of the state’s electric supply) as well as the New York Power Authority and Long Island Power Authority.

Alicia Barton, president and CEO of NYSERDA, said pumped hydropower is a critical part of the landscape but expansion of energy storage capacity in New York probably will be through batteries.

“Where we see the market developing is lithium-ion distributed storage projects,” she said. By one estimate, lithium-ion prices are down 80 percent since 2010, she added.

The various state agencies involved in the initiative are drawing up a roadmap expected to be issued in mid-2018 outlining how to reach Cuomo’s 1,500-megawatt goal.

The proposed roadmap will be the subject of a public comment period and one or more technical conferences before being finalized by the Public Service Commission.

There is nothing significant about number 1,500 except that it is believed to be attainable in the short term, NYSERDA officials said. The actual need will be greater, and in fact a higher goal will be set for 2030.

How much higher? Who will develop the infrastructure? Who will pay for it? How will energy storage be integrated into the state’s power grid and electric ecosystem? are all questions that will need to be answered as part of the study process.

Barton said NYSERDA believes the technology has advanced to the point where 1,500 megawatts in seven years is an attainable goal. (General Electric and an English firm recently announced a single project in England that will total 41 megawatts.)

The expectation is that there will be a mixture of customer-sited smaller installations and supplier-sited larger installations.

Cuomo proposed allocation of more than $200 million in state money to reach the storage goal. Whether there will be incentives or grants extended to help with these installations is not decided, but Barton said state policy favors a self-sustaining market for electricity generation and will do so with electricity storage, as well.

Other state policies instituted by Cuomo are steering the state to rely on green energy sources that are weather-dependent in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption. 

“When you put all those together, you can see storage is a key link,” Barton said. If the state drove enough activity in the storage industry, it could become a hub of sorts, she added, which would provide its own economic benefit.

“We think that energy storage is a really significant opportunity for New York state.”

NY-BEST, The New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium, is holding Capture the Energy 2018, its annual meeting and conference, next week in Albany. NYISO President Brad Jones and PSC Chairman John Rhodes are among the keynote speakers.

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