01/25/2013 11:47 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Planets Align to Nurture Grid Storage

America's grid is the largest and oldest grid in the world, requiring the most attention, improvement -- and money. Mark Johnson of the Department of Energy's ARPA-E agency program commented at a conference that the grid is the "world's largest supply chain without a warehouse" -- a simple statement with resounding implications.

And now grid storage as part of the solution is no longer a pipe dream or the machinations of a few insightful inventors. The planets are beginning to align to build a complete energy storage solution to support not only renewable energy, but also the much larger demand of our aging grid.

Two phrases that have become common place are "smart grid" and "microgrid" -- and the key to both is storage. Smart grid is all about improving the efficiency of the generation, distribution and use of energy, while microgrid is the creation of off-grid generation and distribution of energy using renewable sources such as wind and solar. Neither is efficient unless you have the ability to store the excess electricity being generated so that it can be used later, when it is needed.

"A combination of wind and solar power and sophisticated energy storage systems could keep a power grid fully supplied between 90 and 99.9 percent of the time, at costs comparable with today's fossil fuel and nuclear mix," according to a new study by researchers from the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College. In a March 2013 report to be published in the Journal of Power Sources; these researchers tested an astounding 28 billion combinations of renewable energy systems and storage to come to that conclusion.

And now, American political leaders are declaring a clean energy call to arms. With Superstorm Sandy being the final straw, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) just proposed a $1 billion Green Bank to develop the state's clean energy economy which will help lower capital costs and bring cleaner energy solutions to scale.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who oversees the second largest market in the U.S. for solar energy, recently signed into law the legislation colloquially referred to as the "resurrection bill" for solar energy in New Jersey. Governor Christie recognizes that a smart grid will integrate renewable energy with distributed resources into utility grids and improve grid energy utilization to help his state address energy and environmental priorities.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) supports all efforts to make Nevada the renewable energy capital of the country and has been actively recruiting green companies to come to his state. "We know there are long-term training and job opportunities in the energy retrofit industry, manufacturing jobs in the solar panel industry, science and research jobs in lithium extraction and technology development, academic and drilling opportunities for the geothermal industries, and many other opportunities that Nevada will explore," said Governor Sandoval in a gubernatorial press release.

Every story about a wind and solar company that has gone bankrupt is countered two-fold with companies that are successfully putting in 50 megawatts of wind or solar power. Smart grid technology is needed to effectively store and harness the variable nature of wind and solar energy.

A study by the DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory looked at the potential impact of high penetrations of plug-in hybrid vehicles on the U.S. Power Grid and found that "the idle capacity of today's U.S. grid could supply 73% of the energy needs of today's cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, and vans without adding generation or transmission if vehicles are managed to charge off peak." America seeks to reduce its dependency on foreign oil, and by simply managing the idle capacity of our grids we could dramatically reduce imports from geopolitically unfriendly regions.

The solar energy sector is getting hotter by the day. The U.S. Solar Market Insight: Third Quarter 2012 report from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association said that the "U.S. solar photovoltaics market installed 684 megawatts in the third quarter of 2012, representing 44 percent growth over the same period last year. This quarter marked the third largest on record for the U.S. PV industry and raised the total installed capacity through the first three-quarters of the year to 1,992 MW -- already surpassing 2011's annual total of 1,885 MW."

Last year, the American Wind Energy Association announced a milestone 50 GW of capacity and installations which surpassed all previous records. Effectively harnessing wind energy, which features wind farms far from urban centers, requires the use of a smart grid that can help power companies crack the location problem by pushing more electrons through existing lines and increasing transmission capacity.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar continue to emerge and are meeting an increasing percentage of today's electricity demands. But yesterday's grid was never designed to handle the intermittent power supplies these clean energies represent; simply put, we can't expect the wind to blow or the sun to shine based on when or how much electricity we need. The easiest and most cost-effective solution is to store whatever renewable energy is created, and then release it to the grid at the optimum time to avoid both shortfalls and overloads.

Brian Warshay of Lux Research reported that he expects the market size of a variety of grid storage solutions will reach $113.5 billion by 2017. While lithium batteries currently represent 80 percent of mass storage revenue, their participation is expected to decrease to 13 percent by 2017. In that same timeframe, vanadium flow batteries, which are just establishing their beachhead in the market, are expected to become the leading battery technology with a 30 percent share.

Let's promote America's ability to develop new energy sources in an environmentally responsible way with an educated and resourceful talent pool combined with a committed government policy that ensures ongoing development. Focusing on building an energy storage sector in America will assure there are career opportunities and a stable future for thousands of hard-working Americans.