Newsletter: Postcards of the energy future from South America

Today’s newsletter is all about growth and change.

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Hey Canaries!

Today’s newsletter is all about growth and change, here and abroad. We’ve got:

  • New folks joining the Canary Media team that I want to tell you about.
  • Major clean energy advocates joining forces in Washington, D.C.
  • Chile turning its geographically complex grid into a proving ground for cutting-edge storage technology.

First, the personal news. Or personnel news. Or both?

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Canary takes flight

Yesterday we celebrated the arrival of Maria Virginia Olano, our newest editorial team member. 

Maria Virginia joins us as an editorial and research associate from Climate XChange, a Boston-based nonprofit working on state-level climate policies. She’s studied how climate change stresses existing racial and economic inequities in Boston. She also created a podcast called Cooler Earth, which interviews the people leading the charge for a just transition to clean energy. We’re thrilled to have her on the team!

Also, look out for the artistic stylings of Binh Nguyen, who recently joined us as senior digital designer. My bold promise to you is that, with Binh on the job, Canary Media will find a way to make pictures of energy storage look visually appealing. Trust me.

We created Canary Media from scratch in April, so it’s really gratifying to be in a position to grow the team and expand what we can do here. Thank you for reading and subscribing to this newsletter. And thanks to our sponsors and donors who choose to support independent nonprofit journalism on the clean energy transition.

Clean energy industry growing up too

The energy industry we cover is maturing too, and Canary Media learned of a sign of that growth. The short version is: Clean energy advocates in Washington, D.C. are consolidating in an effort to better effect policy change.

The U.S. Energy Storage Association (ESA) industry group just decided to merge with the recently launched American Clean Power Association (ACP) to coordinate advocacy around clean energy policy.

Back in 2016, when I stepped into the energy storage beat at Greentech Media, my first official visit was to ESA headquarters in D.C. There, then-policy lead Jason Burwen and then-executive director Matt Roberts filled me in on the goals of the budding industry. Most of it revolved around updating market rules written before modern storage technology was on anyone’s minds so that batteries could get compensated for the value they provide to the grid.

Five years later, Jason is running ESA, the storage industry is a billion-dollar industry, and the value it provides is increasingly clear and monetizable across much of the country. Its fate is also increasingly linked with other forms of clean energy, such that a standalone advocacy group might not make sense anymore.

Energy storage is going to continue to accelerate, both as a standalone resource and as an integral part of renewable resources,” ACP President Heather Zichal explained to Canary Media’s Jeff St. John. We see these organizations together providing instant value to one another, through a combination of adding storage expertise to ACP’s work, and bringing numerous resources to bear in terms of storage advocacy and research for ACP members.”

Pending approval from ESA members, the merger is set to close in January 2022. But talks have been underway for nearly a year, Burwen told Canary Media.

The prospects of the renewables and storage industries are going to be more and more intertwined, and more so than for other power industries,” he said.

The two groups are pushing for a federal tax credit for stand-alone energy storage systems, to match the credits now enjoyed by solar and wind projects. That could end up in forthcoming infrastructure legislation, but the final form of that bill remains uncertain.

Chile turns a challenge into clean energy testbed

Energy storage has also taken off in Chile, which leads South America in installed battery capacity. It’s a response to geographical constraints that accelerate the impacts of renewables. Much like Hawaii’s island grid, this dynamic makes Chile a postcard from the future” of clean energy.

Here’s how reporter Jason Deign framed the challenge:

Chile has a long, narrow geographical footprint — the country extends 2,653 miles from north to south, but is only 217 miles wide at its broadest point. As a result, most of its renewable resources are located far from areas of high electricity demand. This heightens the need for the buffer of energy storage to support weak interconnections across the country’s southern, central and northern grids.

Power companies are already exploring unconventional tools to deal with those chokepoints, including:

  • Swapping in thermal storage to power steam turbines at Chile’s relatively young coal plants. That piggybacks on the money already invested in those plants, but gets rid of carbon emissions. 
  • Massive compressed air storage projects developed by Hydrostor. That’s the Canadian company that digs mineshafts and pumps air into them. It’s looking at projects on the order of 250- and 500-megawatts with 8 hours of storage duration.
  • Iron flow batteries from Oregon startup ESS (which is going public via a SPAC).
  • Liquid air storage from HighView Power. The first of these will be a $150 million 50-megawatt, 500-megawatt-hour CryoBattery project at Diego de Almagro in Chile’s Atacama Region. Construction is slated to start in 2023.

You’d be hard-pressed to find another country actively developing such a diverse range of storage technologies, alongside a bustling market for lithium-ion. But when you get a combination of decarbonization policies and market fundamentals pushing for lots of renewables and lots of storage, things can move fast.

(Lead photo: Richard Baker/​Getty Images)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.