The US Department of Energy recently floated the idea of carving out a place for small coal power plants in the distributed energy landscape of the future, but it looks like the agency’s latest attempt to save coal is a day late and a dollar short. In the latest development, GE has just begun pitching a new energy storage project with the evocative name The Reservoir, and it puts the prospect of a coal powered future where it belongs: on the shelf.
Last week CleanTechnica grabbed a few minutes on the phone with Eric Gebhardt, GE’s Vice President and Strategic Technology Officer, to get some insights into the Reservoir, and he had something to say that will bring little comfort to coal fans.
So, What Is The Reservoir?
When GE announced The Reservoir, it made the implications for renewable energy abundantly clear. GE described the new energy storage project as a “comprehensive” platform that “delivers a suite of customized storage solutions to help customers address new challenges and seek new opportunities in a rapidly transforming power grid that is becoming more highly diversified and distributed.”
That’s kind of a mouthful. What it means in practice is a lesson that grid planners have already absorbed: the old model of large scale, centralized energy generation is, well, old. The rise of digital technology, renewable energy, and distributed energy have resulted in a “paradigm shift” in energy generation and distribution.
Gebhardt’s statement in a press release for The Reservoir is definitive on that score:
GE’s Reservoir platform enables cost-effective distribution, storage, and utilization of cleaner, more reliable power where and when it is needed most. It can fit into most any setting, from centralized grid systems to the most remote villages and communities. The Reservoir also allows energy providers new degrees of flexibility for more intelligently managing and getting the most out of all their power assets.
That sounds pretty fancy, right? The innards consist of a fairly standard lithium-ion energy storage arrangement of 1.2 megawatts and 4 megawatt-hours, but all the system control and operation overlays are exclusive to GE. The “reservoir” name evokes energy storage but it could just as easily refer to the storehouse of knowledge GE brings to the design. Here’s another snippet from the press release:
…It is a modular solution that integrates GE’s Battery Blade design (module stack design) with key technologies from across the company’s portfolio to achieve an industry-leading energy density, footprint and lifetime performance. GE’s proprietary Blade Protection Unit (BPU) actively balances the safety, life, and production of each battery Blade, extending battery life by up to 15 % and reducing fault currents by up to 5X.
GE’s Reservoir platform leverages Predix and Edge controls technologies to provide data-driven insights that help energy operators enhance their systems. These digital technologies leverage GE’s unique and unparalleled technical and industry domain knowledge across the entire energy ecosystem from generation to consumption.
A Deeper Dive Into The Reservoir
In our phone conversation, Gebhardt emphasized the modular, factory-built, turnkey aspect of The Reservoir:
Reservoir is 1.2 MW modular building block, which we’ll build out for customers. The battery is lithium-ion, but everything beyond that is engineered by GE: stacking, interfacing, power electronics, etc.
We build it in a controlled environment in factory, then ship it. Roll out cable and plug it in, and it’s ready to go.
That doesn’t leave much room for small modular coal power plants, does it?
The Reservoir also leverages silicon carbide technology to boost the efficiency of solar farms, cut down on installation time and reduce lifcycle costs:
…the way we interface the DC-couple, we can have up to 5% more efficiency. We can also manage the cell to have 15% longer lifecycle, and significantly reduce installation time.
To gain 5% increase in efficiency for solar farms, with DC power the typical way to connect is to AC, then connect from AC back to DC and charge the battery. The new Reservoir connects DC directly to DC, so when you add silicon carbide that means 5%.
It means a lot for 100 megawatt solar farm. 5% is a lot, plus you’re charging and discharging every day so it does build up over time.
Gebhardt also foresees grid planners using The Reservoir to smooth out load bottlenecks without the need for expensive new substations:
…so for example if you have a substation reaching capacity, you could put this system downstream. Peak times only happen a few times a year, so you don’t need a new substation or substation upgrade.
Overall, the goal when we look at energy ecosystem is how do we develop technology that makes the overall grid more productive and lowers cost, lowers carbon emissions, and provides for higher resiliency.
If you look at being able to being able to put [energy storage] into wind turbines, making sure to stabilize grid, allowing more renewables to come in, and you can use it with solar to absorb power in middle of the day.
So for peak congestion or constraining, it can help where you’re running out of the ability to run power through certain substations.
States are starting to look at non-wire solutions for substation and transmission line projects, and some states require these alternative to be part of the review process.
At the close of our conversation, Gebhardt made it clear that GE is responding to the demands of the marketplace:
The higher efficiency, longer lifecycle, lower installation time, modular solution, stack like LEGO blocks: customers are asking for this.
Again, not much room for coal power plants in that equation, small or not.
GE already has a customer lined up for its new energy storage product, but the company is not ready to name names just yet, so stay tuned for more on that.
Energy Storage Vs. Coal
Speaking of that idea about building fleets of small coal power plants, as of this writing the Department of Energy has not yet issued a formal request for proposals, so who knows if this idea will ever get off the ground.
Steve Winberg, the agency’s assistant secretary for fossil energy, floated the idea at a conference last week with this insightful statement reported by Axios:
“If we’re successful with these small modular coal plants … that could be a paradigm shift.”
Well, good luck with that. Winberg’s responsibilities at the Energy Department include natural gas R&D, and gas stakeholders have been talking up the role of natural gas in facilitating more renewable energy in the grid. Gas already has a head start pushing coal off the grid and it’s unlikely that a new R&D program will make any meaningful difference.
For that matter, the window for natural gas is already beginning to close. In some markets where coal power plants are closing, renewable energy is scooting in to fill the gap. That includes repurposing coal power plants for solar farms.
In another ominous sign for coal, a new GTM Research report is looking at a tripling of energy storage capacity in the US, as costs fall and state-level support grows