Filling in a Resiliency Gap with Batteries

Keeping the Water On

The relentless rain battered the mountainous landscape around Boulder, dumping upward of 20 inches of rain in just a matter of days. Infrastructure was swamped, and the susceptible electric feeder to the city’s water treatment facility was taken out. If the water plant went fully offline, a community-wide evacuation was possible. Over the next five days, crews ran ATVs through the washed-out canyon to ensure the backup generators stayed online to keep clean water pumping through the pipes. They succeeded in keeping the facility operational, but it was a dangerously close call.

Boulder did not anticipate the 2013 floods, despite ongoing flood mitigation efforts dating back to the 1960s as one of the most susceptible communities in the state. The historic models officials were using when the disaster hit did not predict the weather pattern changes from climate change. This blindspot missed the vulnerabilities around the cascading impact the various secondary and tertiary channels could have. It was those channels which led to the greatest loss of life and property, islanding communities and leading to the dramatic evacuation of hundreds in the area-- many by helicopter.

Since 2013, the country has seen similar scenes of extreme scenarios playing out, most notably in the form of devastating hurricanes. The appreciation of infrastructure resilience in the face of uncertainty from a changing climate has been gaining traction during this time. Stories have gone viral of backup battery systems and electric vehicles able to keep cell phones and homes powered, to medical facilities remaining operational due to the rapid deployment of solar arrays in parking lots. The increasing availability and affordability of batteries are playing a key role for not just staying online during a crisis, but also running electric systems more efficiently long after recovery is complete.

The Success Stories of the Battery Market

New battery success stories seem to rocket across the news cycles every month. These stories have ranged from highlighting industry innovations, plummeting costs resulting in explosive growth, and record-breaking installations sizes. A prime example of the nexus of these stories is the 100 MW / 129 MWh Hornsdale Power Reserve in southern Australia, currently the largest utility-scale battery in the world. The Tesla-supported facility demonstrated profitability by making around $1 million (AUD) within days of being operational. Within months, the system grabbed a 55% share of the frequency and ancillary services market, reducing prices by 90% and directly preventing blackouts.

Tesla Energy batteries,

Tesla Energy batteries,

Colorado has proven itself as an emerging leader in the growing worldwide battery market. This month United Power’s 4 MW / 16 MWh grid-support battery, also a Tesla facility, will be coming online east of Longmont with an anticipated annual savings of $1 million. As part of the Colorado Energy Plan, Xcel Energy has been approved by the Public Utilities Commission to pursue three batteries totaling 275 MW. With grid efficiencies and growing capacity to store variable renewable energy sources from batteries, Colorado is locking-in consumer cost savings while being set to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s worth acknowledging the central role Tesla and Panasonic have taken in the deployment of energy storage solutions from the utility to consumer scale. The expanding operations of their Gigafactories promises to continue to provide market saturation both in the electric grid and transportation sector. The Model 3’s rapid ascent into the top vehicles sold this quarter and the anticipated release of the Tesla Semi and pickup truck will continue to dramatically shape the energy-transportation nexus into the foreseeable future.

Boulder’s Distributed, Mobile Solution

From the aftermath of the 2013 floods, Boulder has taken an aggressive approach in exploring not only what a resilient community looks like, but also how to deploy it. Critical facilities like the water treatment plant and community centers such as schools and shelters (already strategically-located) can host on-site renewable energy production and storage infrastructure serving as resiliency hubs. One of the more innovative strategies Boulder is exploring for these hubs involves incorporating mobile energy sources.

Colorado National Guard Flood Response, Boulder 2013, Flickr

Colorado National Guard Flood Response, Boulder 2013, Flickr

Boulder’s first Resiliency Hub launched in 2016 on 63rd Street with Via Mobility Services, an access-focused transportation nonprofit. The facility is designed to eventually operate as an independent renewable energy microgrid able to charge and manage a fleet of electric buses. The first electric bus of the fleet was just completed and is expected to start servicing Boulder’s HOP line in the coming weeks.

These electric buses can not only move people during emergency situations without being dependent on susceptible fossil fuel supplies, but also can serve as a deployable microgrid for mission-critical infrastructure. A series of buses can be flexibly stacked to power an emergency operations center, mobile communications tower, or augment an overloaded resilience hub. If needed, the electric buses could even keep the water flowing at the water treatment plant.

There is little doubt battery storage will be playing a vital role in the deployment of resiliency strategies from the growing applications of mobility and commerce, enhancing electric grid operations, and keeping homes, businesses, and vital infrastructure powered in emergencies. Communities like Boulder who understand the implications of preparedness (or lack of it) are leading the way to innovate and explore solutions, becoming all the more resilient in the process and demonstrating pathways for other communities to follow.