John Fialka, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
By 2021, electricity use in the west Los Angeles area may be in for a climate change-fighting evolution.
For many years, the tradition has been that on midsummer afternoons, engineers will turn on what they call a “peaker,” a natural gas-burning power plant In Long Beach. It is needed to help the area’s other power plants meet the day’s peak electricity consumption. Thus, as air conditioners max out and people arriving home from work turn on their televisions and other appliances, the juice will be there.
Five years from now, if current plans work out, the “peaker” will be gone, replaced by the world’s largest storage battery, capable of holding and delivering over 100 megawatts of power an hour for four hours. The customary afternoon peak will still be there, but the battery will be able to handle it without the need for more fossil fuels. It will have spent the morning charging up with cheap solar power that might have otherwise been wasted.
Early the next morning, the battery will be ready for a second peak that happens when people want hot water and, again, turn on their appliances. It has spent the night sucking up cheap power, most of it from wind turbines.
The politics for this to happen are now in place because California’s Public Utilities Commission set a target requiring utilities to build their capacity to store energy, to use more renewable energy and to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. The economics are there, too, because the local utility, Southern California Edison Co., picked the designer of the battery, AES Corp., an Arlington, Va., company, against 1,800 other offers to replace the peaker.
It was the first time an energy storage device had won a competition against a conventional power plant.