Is Energy Storage the Silver Bullet for Distributed Solar Generation?

A major selling point for residential solar generation is the advantages it brings of distributed generation. More precise load delivery, fewer losses in transmission and fewer costs in grid infrastructure and maintenance are just a few of the efficiencies provided by distributed electricity networks. However, many of these grid benefits, particularly when considering solar power generation, stand to improve dramatically at the prospect of energy storage technology.

Solar is convenient in that it tends to increase electricity production as demand peaks during the middle of the day and in the summer months. Yet these are general trends. While excess generation can plug into the grid for nearby electricity consumers like your neighbors to use, there are still inefficiencies when dealing with a largely centralized grid structure that generates massive amounts of electricity from a couple distant (and usually dirty) sources and plugs into the grid. Smart grid meters that communicate back to the grid operator help with efficiently offsetting extra generation when green electrons flow into the grid from rooftop solar. But improvements in energy storage capacity could be the technological innovation that more fully realizes the advantages of distributed generation. A couple companies are already leading the way.

One of these leaders, Eos Energy Storage, in the new cutting edge industry has refined the zinc-air battery technology. The company, based in Easton, Pennsylvania, claims that at a significantly lower manufacturing cost, the zinc-air design can store up to three times the energy of more conventional lithium-ion batteries. A key differentiator in the technology is its use of oxygen as part of the battery’s process of generating current. Read more about the company and its projects here.

A different technology using sodium-ions instead of zinc is also on the rise. Aquion Energy, a Pittsburgh-based company, is developing an efficient battery that they expect to be grid-ready in 2012. These batteries can be manufactured to have a range of capacity between 10 kWh and 100 kWh that can operate for a couple hours. Both of these innovations have the advantage of being cheaper than previous battery technologies, and store energy more efficiently. They have the added benefit of having fewer or no hazardous chemicals, which makes them more viable for residential solar usage, where electricity suppliers are often homeowners with families and property to protect.

These are just two of the several technologies in energy storage that could revolutionize distributed solar generation. Aside from the number-crunching efficiencies that are straight-forward (if not complex in calculation) that can be gained from increasing our ability to store electricity for later use, imagine the psychological effects of knowing you could store your excess generation from panels on your roof. Increasing storage capacity brings people closer to being able to supply more or all of their energy needs, generating significant savings on their utility bills. Thought it’s years past since anybody has even considered a world without battery technology, imagine all the things that run on batteries today: cell phones, remote controls, cars, calculators, etc. Think of how the ability to store energy in those devices made their every day use possible. The same revolutionary changes can occur in residential electricity consumption and production!

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