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Western Pa. hosts projects to link renewable energy sources to batteries

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Workers for Energy Independent Solutions install awning styled solar panels onto the Marquis Office Park building in Robinson on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. The building is in a undergoing a complete renovation.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Workers for Energy Independent Solutions install awning styled solar panels onto the Marquis Office Park building in Robinson on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. The building is in a undergoing a complete renovation.

The solar panels and wind turbines being connected to the electric grid are more powerful and less expensive than ever.

Modernizing that grid so it can fully integrate those sources hinges on two last pieces, advocates say: pairing them with the right batteries and designing a system that allows for smart dispatch of their stored energy to where it's needed, when it's needed.

“Instead of feeding energy from one central location to thousands of customers, thousands of portable or rooftop panels can feed energy into the grid from all around,” said David Danielson, assistant secretary for efficiency and renewables at the U.S. Department of Energy. “This reverse flow creates the need to reconfigure or upgrade our equipment.”

The work to make that happen increasingly is taking place in Western Pennsylvania, where universities, federal research centers and private companies are embarking on projects aimed at wiring together renewable sources and batteries.

Battery storage facilities are being built as the Department of Energy distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for research aimed at developing better storage and technology to link systems.

A battery storage facility recently came online at NextEra Energy Resources' Meyersdale wind farm in Somerset County, and regional grid operator PJM Interconnection lists a dozen storage projects being studied in Pennsylvania.

New Castle-based energy storage maker Axion Power this month announced plans to build a battery system in Sharon, and Illinois-based GlidePath Advanced Energy Solutions presented plans for a storage facility it wants to construct in Whiteley.

“These projects ... are perfectly timed at providing energy solutions and technology into a marketplace that is absolutely going to be booming over the next couple of years,” Solar Energy Industries Association CEO Rhone Resch said last week during an announcement of six Department of Energy grants that include a $2 million project at Carnegie Mellon University. Those grants are part of the department's SunShot Initiative focused on making solar power more affordable.

Getting any real use out of renewables at a utility scale will require more batteries for what grid experts call “frequency regulation.” Because the sun might not be shining, or the wind not blowing, when and where people need electricity the most, batteries can provide the sponge, storing energy and releasing it on demand.

The amount of electricity provided to the grid by photovoltaic panels — the most common source of solar power — has increased 30-fold since 2008 but still amounts to enough for only about 5 million homes. According to Resch, just 1 percent of solar installations include batteries.

“When we really need it, we cannot use it,” said Soummya Kar, an assistant research professor at Carnegie Mellon who is one of the principal investigators on the project that received a SunShot grant. “We need to coordinate it.”

For Kar's project, the university is partnering with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Lawrenceville-based Aquion Energy, which is led by CMU professor Jay Whitacre and makes water- and carbon-based storage batteries.

The project is focused on writing algorithms and designing software that allow all the technology to work together efficiently.

“This has to be a predictive system,” he said, noting technology that integrates solar panels, batteries, specialized equipment and smart thermostats would make the grid more reliable through forecasting models.

The work adds to research at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and the National Energy Technology Lab in South Park that received separate Department of Energy grants this month. Those projects are aimed at high-tech materials used for power converters, system sensors, and testing.

David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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