Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Electricity Storage Challenge

This week, many professors have gathered in Stevenson, Washington for the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation's Fifteenth Annual Institute for Natural Resources Law Teachers, and we have been inundated with interesting and sometimes surprising information. We have learned, for example, that the National Marine Fisheries Service (now the NOAA Fisheries Service) approved limited lethal management of the smart sea lions that troll the waters of the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam for abundant salmon snacks.  The Humane Society successfully challenged this action on appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Oregon.  According to the Ninth Circuit, the NOAA Fisheries Service's explanation for allowing sea lion killings was "incomplete and inadequate to permit meaningful judicial review;" the Service found that sea lions had a "significant negative impact" on salmon populations by killing between 0.4 and 4.2 percent of salmonids annually, but it found no significant impact to salmon when humans killed 5.5 to 17 percent of the population.  This May, the NOAA Fisheries Service re-approved sea lion euthanization at the dam, but yesterday the service announced that it would suspend sea lion killings through September 2011 because the Humane Society and the Wild Fish Conservancy once again have sued the agency.

This post is supposed to address electricity storage, though, so now to my main point.  During this conference, discussion of the Bonneville Dam has raised several challenging issues--not just sea lion euthanization.  Most of us already know that transmission is an exceedingly important component of our energy system.  The transmission grid is an aging, delicate structure that can fail in an instant, and it requires constant monitoring and maintenance if blackouts and brownouts are to be avoided.  It is also the bottleneck that is holding up many proposed new generation projects--including renewable projects.  But for me, this point hadn't fully sunk in until this conference, where we heard from several speakers about the Bonneville Power Administration's inability to accommodate the massive quantities of wind-generated electricity produced in Washington and Oregon--even after the BPA received several billion dollars in federal stimulus loans to expand its transmission grid.  The BPA simply doesn't have room in its existing lines for the wind power, and the BPA argues that it cannot spill more water and reduce the quantity of hydroelectricity now flowing through the lines.  So the wind farms have been "curtailed" and could lose millions of dollars in production tax credit money, which only flows into the farms' accounts when the farms are actually producing electricity; according to ClimateWire, wind energy producers could lose "as much as $50 million per year under worst-case conditions of excess generation and limited transmission capacity to export power out of the region."

The problem is that most electricity must be consumed at the moment that it is produced because we have very limited storage capacity for electricity.  And if more electricity is produced than is demanded, renewables may continue to be curtailed--or they won't be built in the first place.  As David Spence concludes in The Political Barriers to a National RPS (42 Conn. L. Rev. 1451, 1459 (2010)), "[A]s renewable generation is deployed, it will not displace fossil-fueled power on a megawatt-to-megawatt basis, unless and until we develop the capacity to store electric energy in larger quantities. While a great deal of research energy is being devoted to this problem, commercially viable alternatives that solve the intermittency dilemma remain unavailable." 

This situation leads to the obvious question of why we haven't invested more in storage projects.  Is America's general lack of commitment to storage simply part of our general underinvestment in R&D?  Is improving storage not as popular of a political infrastructural goal as, say, repaving a highway?  Do the groups that support storage lack sufficient lobbying power?  I don't know the answer, but I can point to some of the storage efforts that are in the works and to materials that describe potential storage solutions.  In 2007, Congress had sufficient political inspiration to enact the United States Energy Storage Competitiveness Act of 2007.  Among other things, the Act directs the Secretary of Energy to "carry out a research, development, and demonstration program to support the ability of the United States to remain globally competitive in energy storage systems for electric drive vehicles, stationary applications, and electricity transmission and distribution."  The Department of Energy's general introduction to energy storage is available here, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's description is here; NREL also has published a longer energy storage report.  The DOE posts a list of some of the storage projects that it has funded, which include, for example, compressed air storage, "superconducting magnetic energy storage," and flywheels.  Finally, the Pew Center has a useful report on electricity storage for renewables, a May 31 article in RenewablesBiz summarizes the federal funding available for storage research (thanks to a student for alerting me to this), and Drew Thornley has a discussion of electricity storage in Texas Wind Energy:  Past, Present and Future, 4 Envt'l & Energy L. & Pol'y J. 68 (2009), which does not appear to be available on SSRN.  Deborah Behles, in Why California Failed to Meet its RPS Target, 17 Hastings W.-N.W. J. Envtl. L. & Pol'y 163 (2011), also has a useful analysis of storage, including operating storage projects in California. 

I'm sure that I have missed many important sources here, and I welcome comments and suggestions. Questions about underinvestment in storage seem ripe for more law review analysis. 

-Hannah Wiseman

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