The North American electrical grid is the largest machine ever built by human hands. The interconnecting web of power plants, end users and everything in between has an unknowable number of components that fuel the $20 trillion U.S. economy.

The 30 MW Escondido (Calif.) Storage facility, built by members of San Diego Local 569, is part of the more than 1 GW of grid storage needed to stop utility carbon emissions in the state by 2045.
Credit: SDG&E

It has one great flaw in its design though: every electron set in motion, whether by coal, gas, nuclear fission, a photon or a gust of wind, has to be used immediately or it is lost.

Everyone involved in building and maintaining the grid knew this was a problem. Billions have been spent researching efficient ways to store power. A handful of pilot programs were built each year, but grid-scale storage was stuck, waiting for policies and technology that hadn't arrived — until now.

Across the country, but primarily along the West Coast in the Ninth District, grid-scale storage projects — free-standing or attached to renewable power generation — are being built and going on-line: not planned; not promised; but built, and at record rates.

Last year, 311 megawatts were installed according to energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. That total is expected to double in 2019, triple in 2020 and triple again in 2023 — totaling more than seven gigawatts of storage.

"We are in a unique moment in time. Technology is changing at lightning speed," said Micah Mitrosky, environmental organizer at San Diego Local 569. "The IBEW has endured for 100 years because we stayed ahead of the industry. We are the best positioned union in the U.S. to do this work. This is our moment to define the future."

Most of the projects completed so far are in California, but substantial projects have been built in Hawaii, Texas, Illinois and West Virginia. State after state is passing storage requirements each year as public utility commissions prepare for a future with dramatically lower carbon emissions.

Two years ago, the largest storage projects in the country were twin 31.5 MW projects in Rupert, W. Va., built by members of Charleston Local 466, and Grand Ridge, Ill., built by members of Champaign-Urbana Local 601 and Elgin Local 117.

Next year, members of Castroville, Calif., Local 234 will break ground on a 300 MW super battery with enough power to replace several natural gas peaker plants.
The project is twice as large as all the grid-scale batteries installed in 2016.

California alone has contracts for nearly 1 GW of batteries as it moves to fulfill the promise of a new law. Senate Bill 100 requires the state — the fifth-largest economy in the world — to source 60% of its energy carbon-free by 2030 and 100% by 2045. Gov. Jerry Brown went even further before leaving office in January, issuing an executive order to decarbonize the entire state economy by 2050.

Many of those projects will be solar combined with onsite storage capacity. Over 2 GW of energy storage is expected to be paired with utility-scale solar photovoltaic systems by 2023, according to industry analyst IHS Markit.

One factor driving the acceleration of grid-scale storage is that renewables exacerbate the problems of a use-it-or-lose-it grid.

We use more energy when sun and wind produce less. Demand is highest when most people get home from work, crank the AC and turn on hundreds of millions of computers and TVs. This is known as "the ramp" — a nearly three-hour vertical rise in power usage just as the sun is going down.

In short, solar and wind tend to produce more power than needed during the day and not enough at night. Without enough storage, excess renewable energy goes to waste. Worse, the oversupply drives wholesale prices so low that it threatens the generators that meet the demand spike at the end of the day.

Emission-free baseload generation and energy storage are the solution. California required utilities to add storage in 2012, and states including Oregon, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey are following its lead. In each case, the IBEW pushed for the laws.

Even in states and territories without storage targets, utilities are forging ahead. Puerto Rico announced plans to build 500 to 900 MW of storage over the next four years. Hawaii Electric announced seven projects on three islands totaling nearly 1,050 MW. El Paso Electric awarded bids for 100 MW and NV Energy in Nevada said it plans to build 350 MW of solar with storage attached — and that is just since January.

The federal government changed the landscape more in February when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued Rule 841, directing operators of wholesale markets to propose rules for energy storage.

More than Just Renewables

While accommodating the variability of renewables is the primary driver of demand for grid-scale storage, there is more to the story than just batteries.

Until recently, behind-the-meter storage, including residences, businesses and even electric cars, was larger in total than grid-scale storage — nearly 50% bigger in the first quarter of 2018, according to the Energy Storage Association.

Nearly every solar photovoltaic project in California, Nevada and Hawaii is also being permitted for near equal amounts of storage, like above at Grand Ridge in Illinois.
Credit: Invenergy

And the vast majority of on-grid storage has nothing to do with batteries. Last year, 94% of existing grid-scale storage was pumped hydro — nearly 24 GW — where water is pumped from a low-lying reservoir into a higher reservoir and then released as needed through a hydroelectric turbine.

It's the gold standard for energy storage. Little energy is lost in the process, which is nearly infinitely repeatable and allows "power" to be stored almost indefinitely. Every other storage method is less efficient, less durable, less repeatable, or a combination of the three.

But opportunities to build stored hydro are rare. Most rivers that could be dammed already are, and most places that could support pumped hydro already do. For the future, only 7% of planned grid-scale storage projects are for pumped hydro.

The second largest source of future grid-scale storage takes light from the sun and concentrates it using acres of parabolic mirrors to melt potassium and sodium nitrate salts. The heat from the stored molten salts is harvested and turned into electricity after the sun sets. A major project of this style, the 250 MW Solana Generating Station in Arizona, was built by members of Phoenix Local 640 and opened in 2013.

But the majority of planned projects are for electro-chemical batteries, mostly the lithium ion-based ones used in electric cars and laptop computers, only bigger. While not as efficient as pumped hydro or as clean as concentrated solar, they are widely available and relatively cheap.

A raft of other, possible next generation technologies includes exotic battery chemistries, supercapacitors and compressed air systems that fill natural caves, then release pressure to spin turbines.

The growth of renewables on the grid isn't without cost. The closure of fossil and nuclear plants has been devastating for affected IBEW members and their communities.

But the storage facilities could bring some of that work back, if the right relationships are in place with utilities and the right policies are in place from PUCs and political leaders, said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson

"The grid is changing but some things won't. The IBEW's members will be there to build and maintain the systems that power our economy, wherever they are and whatever they do," he said. "That's been true for 125 years, and there is every reason to expect that the same will be true for the future."

Where the Action Is

As it often is in the arena of clean energy, California is the lead dog pulling the sled forward on renewables storage, and that started with SB 100.

"I have a picture of the governor signing it on the wall in my office. It is our bill," said Ninth District International Vice President John O'Rourke. "One hundred percent renewable is inevitable, and while the transition won't be easy, there is a tremendous opportunity there for IBEW members. We have to be a part of the process, we can't sit back. I am proud of what our locals are doing to secure the work for our members."

The California Public Utility Commission adopted a directive for utilities to buy 1.325 GW of storage by 2020 to integrate renewables but also to optimize grid functioning and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Battery bank construction, like this Imperial Valley project built by members of Riverside, Calif., Local 440, involves heavy lifting and high voltages and will put many IBEW members to work.
Credit: Imperial Irrigation District

"We will catch most of that work," O'Rourke said. "And it's all good work, work we do every day."

It can't come soon enough for Riverside Local 440 Business Manager Roger Roper. Solar projects across his jurisdiction in southeastern California slowed to a near stop in recent years. Now he expects five major projects to launch almost all at once. The smallest, Desert Harvest, is 150 MW and was permitted for storage as well; the largest, Maverick, is permitted for 500 MW solar with an equal amount of storage. Both are expected to start in September; the other three will begin in the new year.

"We have been dormant, and now they're all coming in a wave," Roper said. His jurisdiction is one of the poorest in the state, he said. "You have no idea how much hope this will bring."

Roper expects up to 1,000 members will be needed "out in the desert," a challenge for his 900-member local. But he said the $12 per hour per diem on the Maverick project would prove persuasive.

Farther north, near Monterey Bay, a former natural gas plant at Moss Landing is being transformed into one of the nation's largest stand-alone storage projects. Racks will hold hundreds of 150-pound lithium-ion batteries, stacked like servers in a data center from floor to ceiling. Phase 1 will take 200 wireman half a year to install 300 MW of batteries, said Castroville Local 234 Business Manager Andy Hartman, but the expectation is that capacity will continue to grow until the facility is full.

"These are heavy, dangerous 1,500-volt batteries," he said. "It's good we have electricians doing this; safety has to be a top priority."

Other California locals, including San Diego Local 569, Los Angeles Local 11 and Dublin Local 595, all have storage projects done, underway or on the books.

"California is way out in front. But the same thing is happening in Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii," O'Rourke said. "This won't stop at the Rockies; we just have a head start."

One of the most aggressive storage construction drives is in Hawaii, where energy prices are often the country's most expensive due to high fuel import costs.

"Hawaii Electric wants 100% renewables, and we're there to help," O'Rourke said, noting they also want all vehicles in the state to be electric by 2045. "All those charging stations, we will install and maintain them. This is doable."

With its vast open desert, Nevada is still at the center of the solar building boom. But storage is lagging behind.

NV Energy has contracted for a 350 MW solar-plus-storage project on the Moapa Indian reservation. Las Vegas Local 357 has an agreement with the company guaranteeing that IBEW members will do the work.

Meanwhile, Reno Local 401 has several upcoming solar-plus-storage projects, including a 200 MW plant in Washoe County with 200 MW of batteries and two 170 MW plants with attached storage.

On the East Coast, the existing stock of grid-connected storage is mostly a hodgepodge of pilot programs, university-based microgrids and small home systems. In New York and New Jersey, the largest projects top out at around 20 MW.

However, both states recently passed storage requirements as part of an effort to accelerate their renewable portfolio standards. New Jersey will procure 600 MW of storage by 2021, rising to 2 GW by 2030, said Third District International Representative Wyatt Earp. In New York, any hope of meeting Gov. Andrew Cuomo's goal of zero emissions by 2040 is expected to require 1.8 GWh of storage by 2025 and 3 GWh by 2030.

Now that the storage is actually being built at scale, industry watchers expect explosive growth as prices fall. Battery-plus-solar is already price competitive in Hawaii. On the mainland, analysts at HIS Markit expect prices to fall so dramatically that batteries will be price competitive with natural gas in less than four years.

"You want to see the future, you don't need a time machine anymore," said Ninth District International Representative Johnny Simpson. "This will sweep across the country. We have to be ready for it."