Renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar PV can only generate power on an intermittent basis. Established technologies such as coal fired power generation can generate power continuously however they can take time to respond to changes in demand. This means that power generated from renewable sources may not be available during periods of peak demand or that a coal fired power station may not be able to respond to a rapid change in demand. Energy Storage Systems (ESS) are emerging as a solution to this problem. They enable the storage of excess power for later use to help manage short term peaks in demand (eg. ‘peak shaving’) and to assist with grid load balancing. ESS technologies such as batteries can dispatch power in seconds, compared with minutes or hours for established power generation technologies.
The use of ESS for tasks such as peak shaving helps with reducing carbon emissions by managing fossil fueled power generation when the electrical grid is taxed with short term peaks in demand. Load balancing helps smooth the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind thus making the grid more stable, reliable and resilient. As more renewable generation capacity is installed, and renewables represent an increasing proportion of total generation capacity, grid stability becomes an ever increasing issue.
ESS as a concept is not new. Batteries in various forms have been around for a long time, however in recent years battery technology has improved and there has been a marked increase in the deployment of higher energy density grid-scale systems based on Li-ion battery technology.
There are some well-documented risks associated with Li-ion batteries. The primary focus is on the fire hazards associated with Li-ion batteries and the potential for a condition known as ‘thermal runaway’. Thermal runaway results from internal shorts inside a battery cell which occur due to a variety of reasons and can ultimately lead to the battery catching fire.
At its most basic level an ESS is a set of batteries which is charged from a renewable source or when surplus power is available and then discharged when required to meet demand. They can be used to supply utility grids, local microgrids (e.g. campuses and neighborhoods) and/or individual buildings. The ESS can be charged from a wide range of potential sources including the power grid (usually during low demand, low pricing periods), solar and wind installations, conventional generators or other sources.
Li-ion battery-based systems are a common ESS design due to the inherent energy density advantages of lithium battery chemistry. However, it should be noted that ESS and Li-ion batteries should not be considered synonymous; Li-ion batteries are only one type of ESS technology. Other chemistries, including traditional lead acid batteries, can be used as well as other technologies such as a “flow” ESS using chemicals such as vanadium. ESS can be located inside a building or, in the case of larger systems, outdoors in appropriate weatherproof enclosures.
When located within a building, the ESS is usually installed in cabinets within mechanical and electrical rooms, and will rely on the base building support systems. When installed outside a building, the enclosures usually contain thermal management systems, supporting electrical and fire protection equipment.
Results from recent free burn tests combined with ongoing research and development have reinforced the following best practices for safety and property protection associated with ESS:
ESS are here to stay and the number and capacity of installations can be expected to grow exponentially over time in parallel with the grow of renewable power generation technologies such as Solar PV. In fact, they are expected to play a key role as the world transitions to a clean energy future.
These systems fill some of the gaps, and compensate for some of the shortcomings of both conventional power generation and renewable energy production. They can help to lessen the burden on an aging electrical grid and reduce our carbon footprint by reducing short term peaks in demand, managing grid instability and smoothing the intermittency issues associated with renewables. Therefore, it is crucial to build and install the most reliable and effective systems possible by designing and protecting them with the best available technology and practices.
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