The Energy Storage Issue: Not just a problem with Renewables

Recent years have identified that the limitation to renewable power sources is not its capacity, not its costs, not any negative externalities: the limitation on renewable energy sources is storage in the current energy grid.  When energy demand increases, our current system responds by increasing production at coal or gas plants.  Nature’s background on the issue explains that: “Obligated to provide a steady supply of electricity to meet constantly varying demand, they have conventionally resorted to the costly and inefficient method of adjusting the output of a coal-fired plant, say, or by turning on a gas-powered ‘peaker’ plant during periods of high demand.”  Renewable energy which is produced largely through natural cycles (solar or wind) cannot be ramped up like coal or gas power.

In order to have a large renewable sector then will necessitate building a storage system to retain electricity generated in windy and sunny times in order to use when demand outpaces wind or sun.  Fortunately, this problem is decreasing and technological solutions are greatly responding to this problem.  Opponents often mention the incompatibility between renewable sources and the current energy grid as a key reason to stay committed to fossil fuels.

But is this a problem unique to renewable energy?

Storage of energy for use based upon demand is, it turns out, not just something unique to renewable energy, but a problem in traditional energy sources as well.  The AP reported today that:

The U.S. natural gas market is bursting at the seams.

So much natural gas is being produced that soon there may be nowhere left to put the country’s swelling surplus. After years of explosive growth, natural gas producers are retrenching….

“They’ve gotten way ahead of themselves, and winter got way ahead of them too,” says Jen Snyder, head of North American gas for the research firm Wood Mackenzie. “There hasn’t been enough demand to use up all the supply being pushed into the market.”

So far, efforts to limit production have barely made a dent. Unless the pace of production declines sharply or demand picks up significantly this summer, analysts say the nation’s storage facilities could reach their limits by fall.

The issue is one where increased production has met demand and filled various storage facilities for excess amounts.  Now, natural gas stored in the storage provisions have nearly doubled their average over the past 5 years and neared capacity. This can present both financial and supply problems as the market may be unable to meet demand or maintain current production.

In addition, natural gas supply is a problem which can be exacerbated by climate change.  The crucial component is that cold winters usually deplete stocks quite substantially.  The AP story continues:

But this past winter was the fourth warmest in the last 117 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It was the warmest March since 1950…  At the end of winter, there is usually about 1.5 trillion cubic feet of gas in storage. Today there is 2.5 trillion cubic feet because utilities withdrew far less than usual this past winter.

The lesson is clear:storage and supply problems are not unique to renewable energy.  Traditional sources have as serious and significant problems as do renewable energy sources. The choice we have to make is what supply and storage problems we want: the old ones or the new ones?

The AP article though highlights one problem that we may consider as crucially important when answering this question:

But with natural gas prices at a 10-year low — and falling — companies that produce the fuel are becoming victims of their drilling successes. Their stock prices are falling in anticipation of declining profits and scaled-back growth plans.

Renewable energy storage problems revolve around simply production and demand; storage problems in other sources has the negative side effect of rippling through the financial sector.  The green economy will take a lot of issues into consideration: the environment, poverty, vulnerability.  This is a big plate, but when considering the green economy, the ability of energy storage problems to negatively impact the financial sectors may be something worth considering.

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