Long hailed as a game changer that will allow unlimited amounts of wind and solar energy onto the electric power grid, big rechargeable batteries are beginning to move out of research labs and find a home amid the real-world tangle of smokestacks, turbines and power lines. Today, the reality falls short of the hype about fossil-fuel-free electricity — but experts say that future could be in store.
For the foreseeable future, electric utilities will rely on coal, gas and nuclear power plants to provide a steady base of power, according to Paul Denholm, a senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. But batteries can help balance the flow of electricity as demand ramps up and down throughout the day.
“That is where the hot applications are right now for energy storage,” he told NBC News.
Traditionally, utilities maintain a little “wiggle room” on their system, he explained. For example, they might run power plants at 90 percent capacity, so that extra juice can be made available when a dark cloud passes overhead and thousands of people flick on their lights.
Operating power plants that way is hard on a system. It’s inefficient, and expensive. Batteries, which can add extra juice nearly instantaneously, are a more cost-efficient way to keep the grid humming. What’s more, this load leveling usually only requires 15 to 30 minutes’ worth of energy. “You can have a relatively small storage device and make a decent amount of money on it,” Denholm said.
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