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The Duck Curve – Instability and Opportunity

Blackouts. Brownouts. Surges in renewable power leading to strains on the energy grid. Critics of renewable power are pushing this view of a semi-dystopan future in an attempt to prove the failings of solar, wind, and other renewable energy. While yes, the rise of renewable solar and wind have led to large power swings in many grids around the world, technological break-throughs in battery storage are key to solving this “duck curve.”

Energy markets today are currently in a state of transition. Historically, energy grids relied on a handful of large centralized base load plants to send energy to a distribution grid. The distribution grid would then process the energy in a stable manner throughout the day. Overgeneration was rare. The advent of solar and wind has changed this dynamic.

California Independent System Operator

The chart above shows the power production fluctuation of base load plants caused by solar power on the California grid. Adding solar and wind power has created a challenge for grid managers since intermittent production of solar and wind now represent a substantial portion of grid production but only at certain times. It also shows why this issue is called the duck curve since it looks somewhat like a profile of a duck. Grid managers are, at times, cutting off solar production from the grid and wasting the surplus electricity. This issue has led critics to attack solar and wind as a failing energy source; but that problem it is now creating an opportunity: energy storage.

Energy storage investment has always been limited, as there was no real need for large amounts of stored energy because of base load plants. The rise of cheaper energy from solar and wind production has now led to a need for this type of technology. Many places are seeing a large amount of renewable electricity being produced at certain times that regularly oversupply markets leading to periods of low or even negative energy prices. These periods of low and negative pricing have now led to a surge in demand for energy storage technology. Utility-sized battery farms are being installed to take advantage of these intraday swings in production, because companies can now buy low-cost energy during periods of peak renewable production and within a few hours sell that same energy back to the grid at a much higher price. The ability to store the energy will not only help store the intermittent solar and wind power but also allow grid managers to avoid having to quickly ramp up base load plants since they can use the energy stored in battery farms during peak hours. This process can then be repeated hundreds of times a year. That is why the US is expected to see a 10x increase in grid battery storage installations between 2019 and 2023. The demand for battery energy storage will continue to grow as the growth of renewables continue to gain momentum.

The narrative around renewables is often clouded by the issue of intermittency. But that intermittency is now creating an opportunity for energy storage. Some still try to attack renewables for this issue but with the investments energy storage is attracting and the stability that renewable and battery storage is creating that argument is losing influence. Low-cost renewables and battery storage is changing how we manage grids and creating more opportunities for low-cost energy. The renewable and energy storage future is being created now. Instead of a dystopian future we could likely see a lower cost and lower carbon future instead.

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