As brutal heat tests Texas’ power grid, batteries play a small but growing role in keeping the lights on

This summer large batteries have played an important role in increasing the energy supply during crucial evening hours. Battery storage currently makes up only a small portion of Texas’ energy mix but it is anticipated to significantly increase in the upcoming years.

An engineer walks past battery banks and inverters at GlidePath's Byrd Ranch energy storage facility in Sweeny, on May 23, 2023.
An engineer walks past battery banks and inverters at GlidePath’s Byrd Ranch energy storage facility in Sweeney. 

On Wednesday night, just moments before the state’s grid operator activated emergency measures to ensure sufficient power supply during another scorching day with temperatures in the triple-digits, batteries stepped up and delivered an unprecedented amount of electricity to homes and businesses across Texas.

On that crucial evening, a modest yet expanding fleet of batteries supplied the grid with 2,172 megawatts of power, accounting for nearly 3% of the total supply. To put this into perspective, each megawatt has the capacity to energize approximately 200 homes during peak demand. Hence, these batteries successfully provided electricity to approximately 434,000 households at that exact moment.

“Energy storage is becoming essential in meeting supply demands,” stated Andy Bowman CEO of Jupiter Power, a company managing over 400 megawatts of batteries in West Texas.

Certain batteries can be charged directly from wind or solar farms, while others are designed to charge from any power source on the grid. These stand-alone storage units come in different sizes, ranging from the size of schoolhouse lockers to as large as shipping containers. Most batteries tend to charge up during the cheapest electricity hours, usually in the early morning. They then discharge for one to two hours in the evening before needing to recharge again.

Three years ago, the state grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, had very few battery power resources. However, the number has significantly increased over time. In 2020, there were only 275 megawatts of battery power available, but today there are more than 3,500 operating on the grid. By the end of 2024 it is expected that the number will reach over 10,000 megawatts. Developers credit the decreasing cost of producing batteries and the tax incentives provided by the federal Inflation Reduction Act for making them more economically viable to build and operate.

Texas is also quite appealing to battery developers due to its significant variations, in electricity prices on a daily basis. This allows battery operators to purchase electricity at low rates and sell it at higher prices on the ERCOT market.

“Batteries have this amazing ability to soak up excess energy from the grid when prices are low, just like a sponge. And when demand is high and prices rise, they release that energy back into the system. It’s like they’re storing it for later, and then sharing it when it’s needed most,” explained Polly Shaw, the friendly Chief External Relations Officer at Plus Power, a battery developer.

Battery advocates praise the technology for its ability to provide crucial power during peak periods when every megawatt is essential to meet the energy needs of Texas’ expanding population. Throughout this summer, batteries have primarily supplied electricity to meet the high demand that occurs around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. This is when solar production decreases as the sun sets, but temperatures remain elevated.

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According to energy consultant and battery advocate Doug Lewin, this is the “white knuckle part of the evening” for ERCOT. Even though batteries make a relatively small contribution to the grid, they can still play a crucial role in meeting the record-high demand during Texas’ second-hottest summer ever.

On Wednesday, emergency conditions arose due to a malfunctioning transmission line in South Texas, causing a dangerous drop in power available to the grid. Despite the grid operator’s repeated requests for Texans to conserve power this summer, it was only on Wednesday that ERCOT entered emergency operations. This involved paying large industrial customers to reduce energy usage and importing electricity from neighboring states through limited connections to avoid the need for rolling blackouts.

Battery storage advocates say that batteries will become even more crucial as the grid shifts towards renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. These sources sometimes experience gaps in electricity production, and batteries can help bridge those gaps when extra power is needed.

Did you know that Texas is the leader in wind power among all states? It even ranks second when it comes to solar power! However, the amount of electricity generated by these technologies relies on the weather conditions, like the strength of the wind and the presence of sunshine. That’s why it’s important to have reliable power sources like batteries or power plants that use natural gas or coal, which can provide electricity regardless of the weather. Pretty fascinating, right?

Batteries have the ability to activate swiftly. As an illustration, on June 16, during an incident where a nuclear power plant unexpectedly went offline, Plus Power quickly dispatched energy stored in Angleton to the grid. This action helped bridge the gap and maintain a balance between supply and demand.

The state Legislature recently passed a law to encourage the construction of new gas-fueled power plants as part of their efforts to enhance the grid. Unlike batteries that have a limited amount of power before running out, gas-fueled plants can generate electricity as long as they have fuel. However it’s important to note that these plants take longer to start up and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.

According to Joshua Rhodes a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, if we want to make significant progress in transitioning away from fossil fuels, we need reliable batteries to ensure power supply during times when wind and solar energy are not available.

The Legislature recently made changes to the Texas Jobs, Energy, Technology and Innovation Act, excluding solar, wind, and battery storage from property tax benefits. This means that new business developments in the oil and natural gas industry will receive 10-year reductions on school taxes, but battery development is not included in this program. However, it’s worth noting that battery development is still progressing rapidly, despite not being part of the new law.

Over 7,500 megawatts of battery storage projects are all set to start operating in 2024. These projects have already secured funding and overcome initial legal challenges with ERCOT”. In fact, there are more than 100,000 megawatts of battery projects planned until 2028 which is a 60% increase” since July 2022. This includes projects that are still working on meeting the necessary financial and legal requirements. It’s great news for the energy industry and it’s exciting to see such significant progress in the realm of battery storage.

The majority of these developments may not come to fruition, but this provides valuable insights into the direction we’re headed shared ERCOT CEO and President Pablo Vegas during a recent board meeting. “Consider this as a compass guiding our momentum and future path.

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