It was one of those summer weekends that almost everyone dreads, especially if they work in the electric utility industry.
Temperatures were climbing into triple digits in Pullman, sending families inside to escape the heat.
But the respite that the homes provided with air conditioning and distractions like games and movies pushed the power grid to its limit.
This time, Avista was ready, drawing on a new asset to meet peak demand.
Avista was able to pull electricity generated by wind, solar or hydro systems that had been stored in a vanadium battery power storage system in Pullman instead of firing up natural gas combustion or purchasing power at high prices on the open market, said Curtis Kirkeby, an engineer at Avista. “It worked as we anticipated.”
The success Avista experienced during that June weekend in 2015 is now being shared through data analysis generated since the battery storage system was connected to the power grid.
And the technology has shown enough promise that improved versions of the battery storage system are being introduced in other parts of the country, Kirkeby said.
An inability to store energy from solar, wind and hydropower is one of the chief obstacles that needs to be overcome for them to play a meaningful role in the power industry’s drive to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydropower production often peaks in the spring, when temperatures are mild and hardly anyone is using the appliances that require some of the highest amounts of electricity in homes – furnaces and air conditioners. Wind and solar power aren’t available if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Overcoming such limitations is important for those who want to reduce global warming. Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat are two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
Avista’s demonstration with the battery marks progress on that issue. The battery storage system in Pullman was one of the first of its kind in the world.
“They just didn’t make batteries for us to use in the power industry at a cost point where it would be effective,” Kirkeby said.
And unlike traditional batteries, the solution in the batteries isn’t toxic and they have an infinite life instead of wearing out after handling a certain number of charges.
“It allows us to store and reserve (electricity) for later use,” Kirkeby said. “As an industry, we’ve never had that luxury.”
The initial research for the batteries happened at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Regional Laboratories in Richland and was refined by UniEnergy in Mukilteo, which sells the batteries.
Avista received $3.2 million from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund, to defray the cost of the $7 million battery project.
In exchange for the money, Avista is providing data to Pacific Northwest Regional Laboratories. That entity is comparing the performance of the Pullman battery system with three others in Washington state.
Those findings will be released later this year in a national report intended to help utilities adapt the innovation in other parts of the nation.
Even though the research is continuing, the information Avista gained in Pullman is benefiting power utilities in other parts of the country.
“(UniEnergy) has learned from our installation,” Kirkeby said. “They have modified the product and made it better. The cost has dropped.”