Last Monday I had the pleasure and privilege of accompanying a delegation of eleven companies (ABB, Altairnano, AEP, Dow Chemical, Dow-Kokam, DTE Energy, Duke Energy, EaglePicher, General Motors, KEMA and S&C Electric) to a meeting with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in Washington.  The delegation was part of a working group of companies that produced the recent NAATBatt white paper entitled “Distributed Energy Storage: Serving National Interests”.  A copy of the white paper can be obtained on our Web site at:  www.naatbatt.org.

The purpose of the meeting was to present Secretary Chu with a copy of the white paper and to drive home two of its key points.  We spent about 45 minutes with the Secretary, which was for many of us, including myself, a great delight.  One can argue the pros and cons of some of the decisions the Department of Energy has made over the past three years.  But there is little denying that no one in the world has done more over that period to support the development of critical new energy technologies than Secretary Steven Chu.

The delegation stressed two points to the Secretary:  First, that the best and most valuable way to store electric energy on the grid is to store it on distribution systems, proximate to the ultimate electricity customer.  Storing electricity on a distributed basis offers the greatest flexibility and the highest value to the grid.  Moreover, as the white paper describes in some detail, many of the benefits that distributed energy storage provides are difficult to quantify in monetary terms. 

As a consequence, other studies focused on the value of different storage applications tend to undervalue the actual benefits of distributed energy storage.  Those difficult to value benefits include stabilizing the national electricity grid by providing back-up power to local distribution systems, integrating renewable energy (and in particular the rapidly growing distributed generation of renewable energy) onto the grid, and making electric vehicles more convenient and affordable to consumers.  The delegation suggested that in a time of tough choices and tightening budgets, distributed energy storage should be thought of differently than other types of electricity storage technologies and given priority.

The delegation’s second point had to do with the best way to push distributed energy storage technology forward.  The delegation stressed that the cost challenges of distributed energy storage technology are significant and are driven by many factors, not just the need to improve the energy capacity of battery cells.  The principal opportunities for price reduction lie in giving the utilities that will deploy these systems real world experience with them.  Through that experience new, more cost efficient ways of installing, networking and using distributed storage will develop. 

The goal is to evolve “plug-and-play” systems that can be installed, interconnected and plugged into a network by a standard utility crew without special training. 

As advances are made in electrochemical energy storage, new types of battery cells can be dropped into DES systems.  But letting those DES systems evolve by means of actual field deployments is the key to moving that technology most rapidly down the cost curve.  The delegation urged Secretary Chu to continue his support for DES demonstration projects and suggested that those projects be small, fast, cheap and geographically diverse.

NAATBatt looks forward to following the progress of the distributed energy storage market and to playing an important role in promoting it.  The white paper predicts a possible combined DES/automotive market for advanced batteries of as much as 370 GWh by 2022.  That market may happen, but it will only happen if the groundwork is properly laid for it.  NAATBatt expects to follow-up our success with Secretary Chu with the announcement of two new initiatives at the ESA meeting in Washington next month.  Watch this column for more details.