The ability to store energy could revolutionize the way we make and use electricity. But for many utility companies and regular folks, energy storage is still way out of reach. It’s expensive — sometimes more expensive than building out old-fashioned infrastructure like power lines and power plants.
For people like Jim and Lyn Schneider, their decision to invest in battery storage came four years ago when they moved to central Wyoming.
Their backyard is filled with sagebrush and ringed by red rocks on one side and wide-open prairie on another. They love it. But when the Schneiders bought this land, it was missing one thing — electricity.
The utility company was going to charge them around $80,000 to bring electricity to the property. Installing solar panels and batteries was also expensive, but about $30,000 less.
Jim Schneider unlocks a box filled with 12 red batteries, each about the size of a brown paper grocery bag. The system functions, but it’s a lot of work.
“I didn’t know there would be as much maintenance to it,” he says.
Batteries can also be toxic, and they die — the Schneiders have to replace three of theirs this summer. They think they’ll have to pay about $1,500 per battery.
Their experience illustrates the problems with energy storage — problems that are a big disincentive for large utility companies.
“Typical grid infrastructure, what utilities tend to invest in, are equipment and projects that last decades,” explains Brian Warshay, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“Energy storage has a big question mark on whether it can meet some of those rigorous lifetime operational requirements,” he says.
And then there’s the price tag. The Department of Energy predicts that in order for battery storage to become economically viable, costs would need to be cut by more than half.
It’s something that big companies are working on. Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer, recently unveiled its Powerwall, a home battery that it’s also marketing to utilities. Other companies are banking away electricity in compressed air, molten salt, in the spinning wheels of a train and in gigantic blocks of ice.
All day, Jim and Lyn Schneider keep an eye on a digital power gauge in their kitchen. For them, energy storage is not a developing technology or a useful add-on to the grid. They rely on solar during the day and conserve battery power for nighttime use. Lyn Schneider was reminded how unusual this is on a recent trip to visit her daughter in Iowa.
“I got up in the morning and go, ‘Oh look, the sun’s up! I can have toast!’ and she goes, ‘Mom you’re in Iowa, you can have toast anytime you want,’ ” Lyn Schneider says with a laugh.
Beyond home batteries and the timing of your toast, estimates on when large-scale battery storage will go on line are all over the map. Some analysts say five years; others say never.
This story was reported with Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America’s energy issues.