Co-ops Could Go Far with Better Batteries

From an outside perspective, generating and distributing electricity may look a little like herding cats. When power is needed, it must be instantly on hand. When it’s created, it must be immediately moved to where it can be used. And because it can’t be easily stored, supply and demand must be kept in perfect balance—a precise dance where a misstep could lead to an outage.

Unlike other utilities that manage tangible resources like water or natural gas, electric co-ops can’t keep extra electricity on hand—power can’t be stored in a warehouse or a large tank. It’s safe to say that if we could—for example, if massive batteries were designed that allowed us to keep reserve megawatts at the ready—providing power reliably and safely would be significantly easier, and kilowatt-hours would be more affordable.

Stored electricity has several valuable uses. For one, renewable energy sources like wind and solar aren’t always at the ready when electricity is needed. Wind often blows strongest at night when electricity demand is low. But if that unused energy could be stored and put to work the next day, a wind farm would be much more productive and cost effective.

Stored energy could also give the electric grid a needed boost during periods of peak demand—the electric utility industry’s equivalent of rush hour traffic, when people come home in the late afternoon and turn on lights, dishwashers, and all the other comforts of home. That spike in demand is currently met by switching on natural gas-fired generators, which are expensive to operate. A battery could do the same job for a lot less.

And a battery tucked beside the local substation serving your home could keep lights on should a power line leading into that substation fail. The whole process would likely happen without so much as a light bulb flickering, keeping you warm and comfortable while repairs are made.

Because of these potential benefits, electric co-ops are leading the way in searching for a better battery. The Cooperative Research Network (CRN), an arm of Arlington, Va.-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, is looking to put large-scale batteries to the test through three projects (in South Carolina, Alaska, and Hawaii) that could win federal funding before the end of the year. Each would demonstrate how batteries could be used in different ways.

Success could lead to major breakthroughs. If the technology proves effective and affordable, electric co-ops could better stabilize the price of electricity and increase reliability. Herding those cats may one day be a little less complicated.

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