10th June 2021

Energy Storage: Opportunities for Software to improve efficiency and reliability

Energy Storage

“The challenge with clean energy – solar and wind – is that it’s by definition intermittent,” says Lisa Jackson, Apple’s VP of environment, policy, and social initiatives. While that may be, the times in the day when we consume the most electricity are intermittent, too. At night, for instance, electricity use tends to increase drastically- the time when solar energy supplies begin to falter. The solution?

Not reverting to coal and fossil fuels, but rather setting up energy storage facilities to store clean energy during low-load hours and distribute it when it is most needed. “Low-cost storage is the key to enabling renewable electricity to compete with fossil fuel-generated electricity on a cost basis,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials science and engineering professor at MIT.

Historically, countries have experienced hugely different progressions in the energy sector, and thus have hugely different dependencies and needs: some countries use a large share of nuclear power (France), some hydroelectric power (Norway), and some wind and solar power (Germany). Despite this variance, there are common trends that can be observed- for example, the International Energy Agency’s 2019 report on energy storage shows that wind and solar power capacities are growing rapidly, while non-renewable energies like lignite and coal are declining. However, the integration of these unpredictable energy sources requires large-scale energy storage to stabilize transmission and distribution networks.

Battery production and energy storage facilities have complex supply chains. Due to this, when the CoVID-19 crisis began, worldwide annual energy storage installations fell year-on-year in 2019, for the first time in almost ten years. Predictably, 2020 only made matters worse, as the pandemic continued to inhibit investments and threatened to slow the expansion of key clean energy technologies. New energy storage installations in Korea fell by 80% in 2019, after a record year in 2018- when Korea installed one-third of all capacity installed worldwide. The storage capacity installation rate across Europe slowed by 40% in 2019.

However, countries and organizations have since been on the recovery path, announcing and, in some cases, meeting record energy storage milestones. According to the Clean Energy Council (CEC), so far in 2021, 15 battery projects have been announced in Australia totalling 6.6GW of capacity and representing an investment of USD$3.3 billion. Private companies like Apple Inc. have set an admirable goal of eliminating emissions from all its supply chains by 2030 and recently announced that they will be building a battery-based solar-energy storage facility near the California Flats solar energy field that already powers all the company’s facilities in the state during the day. The new facility, which will utilize Tesla’s lithium-ion megapacks, will enable the collection of 240 megawatt-hours of solar energy- enough to power Apple’s California facilities during dark hours.

India, too, has begun favouring this solution, with the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission’s latest proposal allowing for energy storage and demand response resources to participate in providing ancillary services.

However, for energy storage facilities to fully replace our conventional energy grids, there are still challenges to overcome. These challenges are of three main types:

  • Technological: Improvements in safety, efficiency, design, and longevity.
  • Economic: Reduction of investment and running costs. The initial price of purchase for renewable tech, as well as battery upkeep and replacement, is still too high for it to be feasible as a replacement to our existing power grids.
  • Regulatory: Overcoming regulatory hurdles, making investment in these markets safer.

While regulatory challenges vary from country to country, some of the consistent technological and economic hurdles facing clean energy storage are being overcome by focusing on an unexpectedly powerful aspect of the energy supply chain: software.

“If energy storage is the great enabler of the clean energy transition, then software is the great enabler of energy storage,” writes Andy Colthorpe for Energy Storage News. A lot of the coverage on energy storage rightfully focuses on the hardware – battery type, size, capacity; these aspects are extremely important when detailing a new storage project. Yet, the software is equally important and is slowly starting to become recognized as such. Software is crucial in improving both the technological and economic aspects of clean energy storage.

Almost all energy storage facilities have thousands of sensors constantly capturing operational data from their batteries- how often a cell is being charged and discharged, how quickly this is happening, the maximum amount of charge it is holding, how hot it is running, etc. However, these terabytes of sensor data are worthless on their own. It is only when analysed that they can provide valuable insights into the functioning of the facility.

Software can be used to fulfil this analytical role by building digital twins of these assets in the cloud. Digital twins are virtual simulations of physical assets – digital versions of the products and their environments created using the actual product’s real-time sensor data. Basically, software can help create a virtual replica/models of the battery/energy storage facility. These models can then be used to inform decisions regarding the future use of the batteries, as well as control some aspects of the batteries remotely. This results in a storage provider getting the most out of their batteries by helping them predict the life and performance of their assets, and, when needed, either personally or remotely carry out predictive maintenance measures that can also minimize the upkeep and replacement costs of these assets in the long run.

Cell balancing is another software technique to improve battery health and longevity. Intelligent software can make sure that all the cells in a combined battery pack are holding the same amount of charge. This is necessary because attempting to charge different cells with varying States of Charge (SoC) in series can permanently damage the cells. Also, we know that faulty batteries can be dangerous. But with monitoring software in place, any potential risks would be discovered and highlighted well before there was any real threat, notifying the asset owner in case of any anomalies like overheating cells and voltage surges. In this way, software deployment can also make energy storage technology safer.

In addition to optimizing the technological aspects of energy storage, the software can help improve operational efficiency. Smart software can be used to ensure the most profitable use of a storage provider’s facilities by recommending dispatch strategies based on the analysis of market demand and the energy providers’ capacities. Whether the provider is looking to maximise profits without paying heed to the health of their assets or minimize degradation of their assets at the cost of some profit, energy providers can take advantage of artificial intelligence to improve their decision making.

While it’s going to be some time before energy storage is reliable and inexpensive enough for utilities to switch to 100% renewables, new hardware advancements are being made every day – new battery technologies that consistently improve longevity, compactness, cost, and design. Hopefully, given the increasing attention towards energy storage, software will see the same explosion that hardware has; because it will take huge innovation in both of these fields to make energy storage as accessible, affordable, and competitive as it needs to be for us to make the transition to an #AllElectricFuture.

Ishaan Ghose
-Special Projects Intern, ION Energy

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