Intelligent Utility - 15 Dec 09

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 27 Jan 10)

Senator Wyden 1; DOE 0

By Kate Rowland
December 15, 2009

Last Thursday, as I watched the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee hearing on grid-scale energy storage, I was treated to a hint of what some legislators are feeling about the snail's pace of change within Washington bureaucracy, and within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

In this case, it was a frustrated but determined Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon who was loaded for bear. The bureaucrat on the receiving end was Dr. Steven Koonin, the DOE's under secretary for science.

Koonin had appeared as a witness, discussing the DOE's focus on (and funding for) grid-scale energy storage projects, and had, along the way, answered the following question by committee chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman: "You indicated that, by virtue of the funding that you have in the Recovery Act, you've been able to increase the expenditures of the DOE on storage by 50 times. What happens now that the Recovery Act is going to be over with? Is (grid-scale energy storage) something that we can maintain a focus on, and maintain funding for this kind of research and development in this area, or does this fall back to a second-tier pursuit?"

Koonin answered that getting experience with the new technology being researched by the recently announced demonstration projects was a necessary first. "The array of projects that we have lined up right now, and hopefully will be able to begin delivering on soon, I think nicely spans an array of technologies and applications, and we need to get experience in operating these, deploying them, understanding how to use them.and then it really becomes a question of 'can we have gotten far enough down the road so that it becomes attractive for a utility to pick it up', and we move toward full-scale commercial deployment. So, I'm a bit agnostic at the moment about how much more demonstration we need to do. I'd like to see how this first round goes," he told the chairman.

Well, that "wait and see" attitude became a gauntlet thrown down, and Wyden quickly took it up in his very first question to the witness: "Dr. Koonin, I want to make sure I understand what you are saying to Chairman Bingaman, because your answer, I'll tell you, troubles me. He asked you what's going to happen next, and you essentially said, 'Our position is wait and see.' Wait and see is not the kind of activist strategy that I think this country needs to tap the full potential for these energy storage technologies. I don't see this as primarily a question of just spending money. I'm certainly not advocating going out and spending money on dubious ideas.

"But I do want to see a game plan for tapping the full potential. And if what happens now is your agency in effect waits to see what happens, as I think you are saying to Chairman Bingaman, we could be waiting around for years and years and have a lot of foot dragging, when we really want a research game plan, an activist strategy for tapping the full potential...Let me give you a chance to go at this area once again in terms of how we are actually going to get the kind of activist research plan the country needs."

Koonin responded: "So what I have come to understand about energy after five or six years worth of experience is that what we really need are well-chosen, consistent policies that move aggressively toward the goals that we are after. And in science, you always look to assess what you have learned, in order to let you move confidently and quickly to the next steps. So I think we need to balance -- I agree that there is an urgency -- but we also need to make sure that we are making the right steps, the right technology choices, making the technology accessible for the utilities in the sense of giving them confidence to deploy. I would hope that the round that we've got underway will do that, and let us see what happens. I understand the urgency, but at the same time we must learn from what we're doing."

But Wyden wanted more: "I'm all for learning, it's just I see a lot of wait and see here, and what I want is something that's much more aggressive. Because I think waiting and seeing is a prescription in this town for a lot more delay, and I don't think the country can afford it. Can you get us a document that describes what your research blueprint is, and incorporates your ideas about trying to evaluate these projects? When can we see that?"

Koonin: "I'd be happy to get that for you within -- uh, certainly do that as quickly as we can."

Wyden: "A month, 60 days?"

Koonin: "Yes. We can do that."

Game, set and match to Wyden. Now, Oregon has a lot riding on the commercial deployment of grid-scale energy storage. According to statistics released at the end of September 2009 by the American Wind Energy Association, the state currently has 1,659 MW in installed wind energy. And late last week, General Electric announced it would be adding -- substantially -- to that total, having just won a contract to build an 845 MW wind farm in the northeastern part of the state, bordering the Columbia River. When completed, this will be the largest wind farm in operation in the world.

Typically, wind tends to blow at times of day -- and times of year, depending upon the location of the wind farm -- when the added energy might not be needed by the grid. Grid-scale energy storage would allow the grid, and the project developers, to store wind power produced when it's not immediately needed by the grid for use later to balance or flatten peak load. Grid-scale energy storage will therefore allow utilities to add more intermittent renewable energy to the grid, and use it to better balance supply and demand at the same time.

It's both wind-win and win-win.if only we can fast-forward to deployment.

I look forward to discussing this and other issues with all the players in the emerging intelligent utility. If you have a story to tell me, or thoughts you'd like to share, please contact me by e-mail at or by telephone at 720-331-3555.