Electric America

The People and Places Powering the USA

Filtering by Tag: Energy Storage

Electricity Production & Storage- Corrections

In the following piece "Why Salt is This Power Plant's Most Valuable Resource" for Smithsonianmag.com I inaccurately described how electricity is produced in the first three paragraphs. I regret the errors. 


Power companies are not always making more power than they expect you to consume; they make exactly what you demand. They have enough power plants and technical know-how to make exactly the right amount of electricity at the moment it is demanded by homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals on the grid.

Additional explanation:

There are enough power plants to provide electricity during peak moments, meaning at other times, when demand is lower, some power plants are shut off and sit idle. This can happen, for example, when wind turbines are spinning hard but demand is low and a nuclear plant or a coal plant is already providing sufficient power. The coal and nuclear plants take longer to shut down and start up again.

If power from the wind farms is not needed, the wind farms may be shut down, instead of the coal or nuclear plants, and the potential energy is effectively wasted, along with the environmental benefit.

The swing in energy demand and the longer shutdown and startup times for baseload power plants discourage the use of some renewables, specifically wind power, which is generated mostly at night when winds are strongest.  In short, a lot of electricity, and importantly, clean electricity, is produced at the wrong time.  

That’s where energy storage comes in. Storing energy when it's made and releasing it when it's needed helps keep the grid reliable and paves the way for introducing intermittent renewables like wind and solar to the mix.

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The (Electric Vehicle) Elephant in the Room

t’s a beautiful spring day, and I stroll with friends along a city block in DC. We pass a garage with a sign outside showing the classic plug-in symbol indicating it has charging stations where electric vehicles can juice up. 

My friend turns to me and says excitedly “ Look Mol, a place to plug in your car- it’s for electric vehicles!” She’s so happy to see something I’m interested in, and a sign of environmental progress.

“Yes... and charge it with what power?” I return.

A blank, confused face stares back at me.


It’s true-beautiful, flowing electrons power the vehicles, and leave no tail pipe emissions. But charging your car with electricity doesn’t imply it’s clean electricity, and doesn’t guarantee it is better for the environment.

The Unseen Fuel

More than likely you’re powering your car with a fossil fuel, just not direct oil. There is no longer a small machine within it burning oil, producing the energy needed to drive. With electric vehicles we get power from far away power plants, and it flows through transmission lines into power sockets and into our vehicles. 

But just because you don’t see fuel, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You could be powering your  car with coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy (whatever the local power plant uses); on the contrary,  it could be solar, wind,  or geothermal energy.  Just as we don’t know the origins of our petroleum in any given tank (30%  Saudi Arabia, 20% Mexico..), we don’t know exactly where the electricity we draw is coming from at any given moment.

If you’re in California, you may be receiving excess electricity generated by Texan wind farms, or you might be receiving base load power from the natural gas plant 20 miles to the north. The operators pass along the cheapest electricity generated in that moment within the region. If there is high wind or strong sun one day and large plants within the region to capture it, your power may be renewable.  But only 13% of electricity generated in the U.S. is from renewables (9% if you exclude hydropower).

So if you’re not charging your vehicle using your rooftop solar, you’re probably using hydrocarbons. 

In DC, more than likely it’s electricity from coal, or natural gas. In NY, you car is likely running on natural gas or nuclear power.

So let’s clear about the following-

1.     Electric vehicles will increase the demand for electricity and demand more from the country’s infrastructure.

2.      Cars powered by electricity clear the tail pipe clouds, but  are likely still causing pollution and emissions from power plants around the country.

Electric vehicles present an amazing opportunity to make the leap and ultimately drive cars powered by the sun and act as mini storage devices that help to effectively manage the stress on the grid. 

Like all fuels and revolutionary technologies, it has caveats and challenges that arise with deployment. 

Electric vehicles are fundamentally an amazing development. But as it is, electric is not synonymous with sustainable. And only by acknowledging that electric elephant in the room will we get to a place where it is.

Latte with a Side of Juice- Powering Up and Staying Charged

You’re strolling down the street heading to the subway. A museum and a movie are on the day’s agenda. Spotify is playing your favorite playlist. Twitter is open in the background. Then you get the notification - Low Power, 10%. You have two options. You can make it through the rest of your day in low power mode and risk your phone dying, cutting off communication to your entire social network, your navigation and therefore your mobility, and access to important information- movie time, weather, subway app, NYTimes alerts.  Or you can stop and charge it.  You regret not packing a charged backup battery. So, you stop in to the nearest coffee shop, identify the open outlets, and steal a spot near one. Once you squeeze in between the row of laptops, and plug in, you order your latte and wait to charge up.  You’re late to the movie, but are able to send a quick text to your friend, and eventually get there. The 1kWh to charge your phone, which typically costs $.10 at home, costs you a $4 latte to access the retailer’s energy supply, and a 20 minute delay.

More often than we care to admit, on-demand access to electricity influences our day to day activities. It dictates what retailer we stop into (typically the nearest one), where we sit when we’re there, how we get to places, and even how we communicate along the way. Access to electricity impacts where and how we spend our money, and ill-preparedness results in higher costs and changes to scheduled activities.

Picture the same scenario, except this time you have a charged back up battery. You bring your own power supply, and you go back to your scheduled activities- you optimize your route based on the subway schedule, you check other rideshare options and weigh time versus cost savings, and make an informed decision to catch the L train. No stopping for charging and no extra cost. It’s a micro form of energy independence.  You manage your energy use, knowing that two full charges can and will get you through the day. You make it to the movie on time, springing for popcorn, your favorite treat. When you get home at the end of the night, you recharge your phone and your backup battery at the utility’s retail rate of $.10/kwH.

The storage mechanism, and your ability to provide your own on-demand power, is liberating, and keeps you from being in a vulnerable situation. The example above is simple, but being without a charged phone can make you vulnerable to real dangers, which I’m sure your mother has reminded you of on several occasions. Can you even imagine if not just one electronic device, but your entire home was out of power?

Draining the electricity on a rechargeable iPhone is certainly different than losing your source supply at home, but the consequences and solutions are the same.  The effect of losing power is that you’re vulnerable, and the solution is backup storage.  

If having a charged phone is key to continued activity, functionality, wellness and happiness, a charged home is integral to the health and wellness of a family. Cooking, heating, air conditioning, hot water,  and electronics are all critical and reliant on electricity supply. While few in the United States have experienced significant black or brownouts, they are a reality more and more during extreme weather events.  If there was a battery that could be used for backup as well adopted and useful as your portable phone battery, would you buy it? if you could plug in a battery and protect the loads served by electricity in your home, would you?

After Sandy, many people invested in back-up generators. Generation, coupled with backup storage, is the next investment for homeowners and building owners. Options for in-home batteries are expanding, and the prices will continue to decrease as competition increases. Even though batteries are still expensive, and capacity is limited, the consequences of losing power are significant, and waiting till you lose power is not the answer. The technology and economics will advance; the market is moving toward more storage for a lower price per kWh. There has been a lot of publicity and excitement over the Tesla Powerwall 2. Other batteries and manufacturers that have been in the race for years are innovating and advancing.  The battery age is here. They are the future of resiliency and staying powered. Will you power up and stay charged?

Site by Molly A. Seltzer

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