On any given day, go for a drive in southwest Alberta and expect to hear the wind whistling through your windows as it blows across the prairie.
Lethbridge is one of the windiest cities in the country so it’s no wonder this region is a hotbed for the growing wind energy industry.
Wayne Oliver looks after more than 400 wind turbines in the area. He’s also responsible for a new battery project that could fuel the sector’s growth even further.
“It’s performed very well, it’s exceeding our expectations,” said Oliver. Also, the facility “is profitable right now.”
TransAlta’s $16-million WindCharger project consists of three Tesla lithium-ion battery storage groupings, capable of holding 20 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity. That’s enough power to fully supply the nearby town of Pincher Creek, with a population of 3,600, for about 90 minutes.
The project was the first of its kind in Alberta, but less than a year later, two other storage facilities are already operating in other parts of the province, with another nine in development.
“Having a way to store energy that’s generated by the wind, and then having the ability to put that back into the grid … makes renewable energy, wind energy more attractive,” said Oliver.
Some are already hailing the nascent technology as game-changing for the renewable energy sector, offering intermittent wind and solar power a consistent low-carbon backup. However, at this point, the impact of storage projects to encourage more renewables, and provide other benefits, may be limited by just how much power they can hold.
The knock against solar and wind farms is the unpredictability of the electricity they generate, as the wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining. Batteries can help provide the power when it’s needed most.
That could mean charging up during the day and distributing the power on the grid to customers in the evening when the sun is down and wind isn’t as strong.
Batteries can also provide instant electricity to the power grid if, for instance, a power plant elsewhere in the province has to shut down unexpectedly. That’s referred to by some in the industry as providing a “fast frequency response.”
“That power is going to be available in that instantaneous moment when you may need it,” said Mike Deising, spokesperson for the Alberta Electric System Operator, which manages the grid.
Storage facilities can be “a little bit” of a game changer, he said, because of these benefits.
Batteries can also improve reliability for communities.
Fortis is building a battery project near Waterton National Park in southern Alberta. The community only has one transmission line providing electricity, so if it’s damaged, the battery can provide power to the town while crews fix the problem. The batteries will be charged using solar panels, and are expected to be able to power the community for four hours. Construction is expected to begin in September.
For all the perks of storage projects, they typically face the same constraint in their size and strength — able to store energy, but not as much as we need.
In early-February, Alberta was stuck in a bitter cold snap and wind wasn’t strong enough to move the turbines and produce much electricity for five days. The battery projects in Alberta only provide a few hours of electricity.
“Five days is asking more than what they can really provide,” said Blake Shaffer, an assistant professor in the department of economics and school of public policy at the University of Calgary. “So we’re going to need other solutions to deal with the storage challenges that we face.”
That doesn’t mean batteries couldn’t deliver more power in the future. Some projects elsewhere in the world are much larger, like the 182 MW Moss Landing system in California, and experts anticipate prices will decrease as more of the facilities are built and more innovation takes place.
In the meantime, pumped hydro storage projects can provide much more electricity, but would likely still fall short under certain weather conditions like those experienced in February.
TC Energy is one of the companies involved in developing a pumped hydro project in northern Alberta with the capacity to store 75 MW for 37 hours of full-capacity generation.
Still, Shaffer isn’t concerned because renewables aren’t heavily relied upon in the province; wind makes up about 11 per cent of electricity generation, while solar and biomass contribute about 4.5 per cent.
Alberta has a goal of relying on renewables for 30 per cent of its electricity by 2030.
It’s only when wind and solar together generate 30 to 40 per cent of the province’s power that storage will have to play a much bigger role, said Shaffer.
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There are other ways of storing electricity and ensuring more reliable power.
Some experts say there should be more transmission lines built between provinces to provide low-emission sources of electricity. For instance, Alberta could share more wind power with British Columbia in the future, while B.C. could also provide hydroelectricity for when renewables in Alberta aren’t generating much power.
As for storage, there are other methods such as underground pumped storage and gravity storage. Still, experts say more research is important to improve the performance and scale of the projects.
“There’s some great stuff in storage, but the need for storage like for Tokyo during a typhoon or for the U.S. when the Midwest is shut down, this is very daunting,” said Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft and an investor in long-duration storage projects, during the CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference earlier this year.
Those in the industry expect more of these storage projects in the province, including Craig Barnes of Teric Power, which developed one of the battery facilities that’s operating and is involved in five other proposed projects.
“They just provide alternatives to the incumbent fossil fuel fired infrastructure systems,” he said.
“We do need the incumbent assets, but what happens is that storage provides that springboard or that leverage to move from the more carbon intensive grid to a more renewable grid.”
As more wind and solar projects are built, he expects additional storage projects to be constructed too. In addition, large industrial companies could also invest in batteries so they have electricity available to help reduce costs when power prices spike.
For Oliver, with TransAlta, he said the company is already considering new battery storage projects for its proposed and existing wind farms.
“I’ve been in the wind industry for 15 years and I marvel at the change I’ve seen just in my short career,” he said. “So I’m excited to see what comes in the next 10 years for sure.”
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