World's largest solar battery? Tesla may get beat

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In El Centro, Imperial Irrigation Districts unveils large battery storage system.
Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — An energy company wants to build another huge solar farm in the California desert — and it may come with the world’s biggest battery.

That battery would be triple the size of the one that Tesla drew worldwide attention for building in Australia last year.

The Crimson solar project would span 2,500 acres of public lands south of Interstate 10 east of Palm Springs at the base of the Mule Mountains.

The San Francisco-based developer, Recurrent Energy, has asked the federal government for permission to build 350 megawatts of solar power at the site, and up to 350 megawatts of battery storage. The biggest battery currently in existence is a 100-megawatt system that Elon Musk’s Tesla, the electric-car maker and solar energy provider, installed in Australia.

It’s unclear whether Recurrent will actually build a 350-megawatt battery. It doesn’t have a buyer for the electricity yet, and the federal permitting process will take several years.

An encouraging sign

Still, experts say it’s an encouraging sign for the clean energy industry to see Recurrent planning for that big a battery.

There’s a growing need for energy storage in California, where the rapid growth of solar power has led to excess electricity in the middle of the day and a reliance on polluting natural-gas plants when the sun goes down. Energy storage could help solve that problem by making solar electricity available in the evenings.

Fortunately for California, the costs of battery storage have fallen dramatically the last few years. The result is a growing market for more and bigger batteries.

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“This is something that we’re going to see a lot more of — solar companies baking in the potential, if not the outright installation, of storage into their systems,” said Daniel Finn-Foley, an energy storage analyst with GTM Research, a clean-tech consulting firm. “If you’re looking ahead three, four, five years out, it’s going to be increasingly a story about storage’s ability to enhance large, utility-scale solar.”

“If they actually installed 350 megawatts, that would be a bombshell,” he said.

It’s hard to say how much electricity a 350-megawatt battery would actually store. That varies based on a battery’s duration, or how many hours it can operate at full capacity. 

And ultimately, how much storage Recurrent builds will depends on market demand. Possible customers for Crimson include big utilities like Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas Electric, as well as city- and county-led energy programs known as community choice aggregators, or CCAs, that are increasingly replacing traditional utilities. 

‘We’ll build it’

“If someone wants it, we’ll build it,” said Scott Dawson, Recurrent’s director of permitting.

Riverside County, where Recurrent would build, is already home to four big solar farms, which cover thousands of acres of open desert between the Coachella Valley and the Arizona border. Recurrent’s Crimson project, about 100 miles east of Palm Springs on I-10, would be the fifth.

Conservationists have opposed many of the big solar farms that have been built or proposed in the California desert, seeing them as sprawling industrial facilities that could harm iconic but threatened species like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. The California desert is one of the largest intact ecosystems in the lower 48 states, and it’s already been degraded by urban sprawl, highways and other human activities.

But it’s possible Crimson will avoid the fierce environmental battles that have slowed or halted other solar farms.

Dawson, Recurrent’s direct of permitting, said the company has reconfigured the project to avoid the most sensitive habitat. Crimson would disrupt 30 acres of sand dune habitat used by the Mojave fringe-toed lizard — down from 580 acres under a previous plan of development — and just 1.2 acres of biodiversity-rich microphyll woodlands, down from 95 acres under the previous plan. It wouldn’t infringe on any critical habitat for the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Avoiding sensitive resources

Jeff Aardahl, a biologist with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, said he’s encouraged by Recurrent modifying the project to avoid sensitive resources. Laura Cunningham, co-founder of the group Basin and Range Watch, had a similar reaction. Her group generally opposes all solar development on public lands. But if projects are built, she said, developers should do everything they can to protect ecosystems.

“I think it’s good that they were responsive enough to try to get out of the Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat, and the microphyll woodlands, the desert ironwood,” she said.

The Crimson project also would be built in one of the energy development zones designated by the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a massive land-use plan that is now being reconsidered by the Trump administration. The plan blocks energy development on millions of acres of federal land in California but sets aside a few hundred thousand acres for solar and wind farms. The goal is to protect desert ecosystems while giving clean energy developers certainty about where they can build.

It shouldn’t matter to Crimson whether the Trump administration upends those land-use designations, since the solar project predates the desert plan and is grandfathered under previous regulations. But the fact that Crimson would be built in an energy zone could undermine any later attempts to block the project for environmental reasons.

A solar farm was first proposed at the Crimson site in 2009. That project, known as Sonoran West, would have used the “solar tower” technology that can been seen at the Ivanpah project off of Interstate 15, on the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. But the original developer, BrightSource Energy, ran into financial obstacles. Recurrent Energy acquired the project in 2015 and converted it to traditional solar-panel technology.

While other big solar farms have been built here, a battery could set this one apart.

With 350 megawatts of storage, Crimson would be several times larger than any other battery project built or proposed anywhere in the world. It would also accelerate a trend of solar and storage being built together, said Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the Energy Storage Association, a trade group. As cheap but intermittent solar and wind continue to displace fossil fuels like coal and gas, batteries are expected to play a bigger role in making sure the lights stay on when the sun goes down or the wind tapers off.

“We’re pretty excited to see this be installed,” Speakes-Backman said.

Why California leads

So far, the solar industry has grown fastest in California, driven in part by state policies to speed the transition to climate-friendly energy sources. The state got 17 percent of its electricity from solar and wind in 2016, the most recent year for which the California Energy Commission has data. The state also added 95 megawatts of storage last year, according to GTM Research — nearly half of the total storage added nationwide That includes big storage projects like the one proposed by Recurrent, which sell to electric utilities, and smaller home batteries that are typically paired with rooftop solar panels.

But energy storage is also taking off in places like Arizona, Hawaii and Texas, and other markets are likely to follow as costs continue to fall. Finn-Foley, from GTM Research, said lithium-ion batteries saw “spectacular price declines” of up to 30% in 2015 and 2016, and should continue to get up to 8% cheaper every year for the next few years.

Already, California officials have started rejecting proposed gas plants and asking utilities for more batteries instead. Finn-Foley thinks that before too long, economics will make the choice between a new gas plant and a solar-plus-storage facility an easy one.

“Within five years, batteries could potentially compete head to head,” he said. “Within 10 years, I think storage wins.”

The developer, Recurrent Energy, was founded in 2006 and acquired in 2015 by Canadian Solar, an Ontario-based solar panel manufacturer that has operations in two dozen countries. Recurrent has developed 2 gigawatts, or 2,000 megawatts, of operating solar projects, including several large facilities in Kern County, Calif.
 

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