Newsletter: DOE goes long on long-duration storage

Plus, California’s gas fixation threatens its ambitious climate goals.
By Julian Spector

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If you’ve been following Canary Media, you know we love to talk about long-duration storage. So does the Department of Energy, it turns out.

The DOE just launched an effort to push down the cost of long-duration storage by 90 percent by 2030. DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm framed this as pivotal to the administration’s clean energy strategy:

We’re going to bring hundreds of gigawatts of clean energy onto the grid over the next few years, and we need to be able to use that energy wherever and whenever it’s needed,” Granholm said in a statement. That’s why DOE is working aggressively toward cheaper, longer-duration energy storage to reach President Biden’s goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035.

This may be the most high-profile endorsement of long-duration storage to date. The topic has long fascinated grid wonks, venture capitalists and the occasional billionaire, but has rarely broken into the public consciousness.

  • Actual technologies have had trouble reaching an appreciable scale of production or market penetration. 
  • Markets don’t typically value this newfangled type of power plant. But some utilities, and the state of California, have started to specifically seek it out.
  • Many grid watchers believe long-duration storage will become more valuable as wind and solar expand. The bigger the surpluses of wind and solar power, the greater the incentive to cheaply shift it to more valuable production periods.

The DOE has funded numerous advanced energy storage technologies through its ARPA-E program. Some of those grant winners are still kicking, including the company ESS, which is going public soon.

But the new effort has a concentrated strategic focus. And it has a good model in the SunShot program, which beat its own targets for solar power cost reductions by 2020.

As a matter of nomenclature, SunShot made sense as a solar-themed riff on NASA’s legendary Moonshot, which put people on the Moon within a decade. DOE calls its new programs Earthshots” — like a SunShot, but, well, for Earth. Under the Earthshot umbrella, so far, we have:

At this point, the branding may have overshot the mark. Then again, you miss 100 percent of the Earthshots you don’t take.

If you want to brush up on this hotshot topic, here’s some previous Canary Media coverage:

California seeks decarbonization, funds new gas infrastructure build-out

Uneasy lies the head that wears the climate policy crown.

California has led the U.S. on solar and grid battery adoption. But as the electricity grid gets cleaner, climate advocates are scrutinizing the use of natural gas in buildings. Some local governments have halted the installation of gas connections for new homes. But, journalist Elizabeth McCarthy reports, California doesn’t have a statewide strategy for building decarbonization.

The [California Public Utilities Commission] has no sense of urgency,” said Matt Vespa, an attorney with Earthjustice, referring to the utility regulator.

As McCarthy explains, gas utilities socialize the cost of home hookups, expecting to make back the money over future decades of gas consumption. New home gas connections in California run between $1,660 and $1,800. Replacing existing gas pipelines to the hookups costs 10 times as much.

California utilities also offer rebates for customers who upgrade to more efficient gas appliances. This may improve on the status quo, but it helps lock in gas infrastructure for decades while electric alternatives are still coming down in price.

Making it easy to burn more gas is inconsistent with the state’s climate goals. But finding an acceptable new policy will be a delicate political process. 

Heating and cooking touch voters where they live, making this a more personal conversation for more people than, say, what kind of power plants should get built in the Central Valley.

If California doesn’t get out in front of the issue, though, it could jeopardize efforts for a just and equitable energy transition, McCarthy notes:

A key issue going forward is developing strategies to ensure that reduced gas consumption does not create inequities by foisting higher costs mainly on low-income households that are left behind as their wealthier counterparts make the shift to electric appliances.

(Lead photo: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.