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Understanding Manufacturing Economics for Grid-scale Energy Storage

I have a new favorite word — aggregation. At the risk of sounding like a reporter, I'm going to summarize a pre-holiday news story you might have missed but need to know about.

In late November the PJM Interconnect, the largest of nine regional grid system operators in the U.S., announced that it had begun buying frequency regulation services from small-scale, behind the meter, demand response assets in Pennsylvania. 

The first resources brought on-line by PJM were variable speed pumps at a water treatment plant and a 500 kW industrial battery array at a factory. Each of these resources has been configured to respond to PJM’s signals within four seconds and provide 100 kW of frequency regulation capacity.

In the water treatment plant, the operator will change pump speeds as necessary while keeping average throughput at 80% of nameplate capacity. For the industrial battery array, the operator will shift loads to the battery when the grid needs power and charge the battery when the grid has excess power.  

The contract operators for both installations envision portfolios of flexible industrial loads that can be aggregated and operated as a distributed virtual utility that responds instantaneously to supply and demand conditions on the grid side of the meter. They’re literally turning grid loads into grid assets.

How cool is that?

I learned about the development because my old team at Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) built the battery array and is using its New Castle plant in Pennsylvania as the test-facility. But this was more than just an Axion event because it opens a world of opportunity for all manufacturers of industrial power quality and reliability systems. 

Traditionally, the battery industry’s pitch on industrial energy storage systems focused on ensuring the highest possible level of power quality and reliability for industrial customers. More recently manufacturers have refined their pitch to include other behind the meter benefits like time of use and demand charge management.

This latest twist creates a whole new set of opportunities to reduce the net cost of a customer’s power quality assets by aggregating incremental revenue from grid-side ancillary services. The battery industry is at a tipping point because energy prices have finally reached a level where waste isn’t always cheaper than storage. 

It’s still a tough cost-benefit equation because customers hate anything that eats into margins, but as energy storage system (ESS) developers find new ways to aggregate benefits and use their facilities more efficiently, the potential market grows exponentially. 

Now it’s time to shuck the reporter’s fedora and give my horns a little room to breathe. Let’s drill deeper into the inherently confusing metrics ESS developers use to describe grid-scale storage systems. 

In a recent report on grid-scale ESS costs, the DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories took a bifurcated approach to pricing that separated the costs of the power control subsystem from the costs of the energy storage subsystem. Their summary table of generic ESS costs using the principal battery chemistries breaks down like this.

The problem arises when battery manufacturers focus on a power metric in their public statements, instead of an energy metric, and fail to give readers any clues about who contributes what share of system value. 

To highlight the problem I’ll use Sandia’s numbers to estimate the prices of Axion’s PowerCube and A123 Systems’ (AONE) Laurel Mountain wind farm project.

ESS buyers aren’t stupid. They won’t let battery manufacturers earn the same margin on the power control subsystem that they earn on the energy storage subsystem.

That leads to the inescapable conclusion that a $2 million ESS sale that’s 70% power control systems and 30% batteries is not the same as a $2 million battery sale. At some point the failure to clearly distinguish between purchased components and proprietary components will give rise to stakeholder confusion that could have been avoided. If market participants can’t find a way to effectively communicate the difference between power control subsystem sales and energy storage subsystem sales, they run an enormous risk that investors, analysts, bankers and other stakeholders will over-estimate the relative impact of ESS sales on the bottom line and then be disappointed when their inflated expectations aren’t met. Losing credibility with stakeholders is a luxury that no company can afford. 

Life was simpler when UPS systems integrators built their products and bought batteries as necessary components. It gets far more difficult when battery manufacturers sell ESS products where the bulk of the added value comes from upstream component suppliers. 

While my cup usually overflows with sage advice for anybody who’ll listen, I don’t see any easy answers to this conundrum. I suppose the industry could take the easy way out and claim that the batteries just keep the turbines turning when the wind dies down, but that’s really not an acceptable answer either.

NOTE: This article was first published in the Winter 2012 issue of Batteries International Magazine and I want to thank editor Michael Halls and cartoonist Jan Darasz for their contributions.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.

This article was originally published on AltEnergyStocks.com and was republished with permission.

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