In a recent, little reported speech at IHS CERAWeek in Houston, Texas (home of the fossil energy fan club), Norman Bay, Chairman of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), made an announcement quite unwelcome to many in the industry audience. "Developments in storage have the potential to bring economic and reliability benefits to consumers [and] perhaps even to be game changers," Bay said. He pointed to recent analyses stating that energy storage costs should be halved in 5 years, "to the point where in some markets energy storage systems could be cost competitive with conventional [fossil fuel peaking plants]".
It's an increasingly common view. Julie Fox Gorte, Senior Vice President for Sustainable Investing at Pax World Management LLC said last month that "storage changes everything!. Dr. Gorte's has more than a decade of experience as a Senior Associate and Project Director at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Her position is supported by some new utility industry views that there may be not be any new natural gas-fired power plants built in North America after the end of this decade - mass energy storage will be doing the job instead, instantaneously and without any carbon emissions and air pollution.
The potential for energy storage to be disruptive to the fossil energy industry is connected to the rapidly accelerating installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. In the US, for example, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has recently released data suggesting that in 2016 new PV systems will add more new generating capacity than any other energy resource, including fossil fuels. The Washington Post noted that the EIA reports "planned installations for 2016 include 9.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar -- (versus) 8 gigawatts ... of natural gas and 6.8 gigawatts of wind. This suggests solar PV could truly blow out the competition, because the EIA numbers are only for large or utility-scale solar arrays or farms and do not include the hyper fast-growing rooftop solar market, which will also surely add several additional gigawatts of capacity in 2016." (http://wpo.st/tQIJ1)
Former FERC chair Jon Wellinghoff agrees: "Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything...it could double every two years". Of course, the principal challenge to broader use of solar power has always been the inevitable intermittency of solar; sometimes it is cloudy and half the time it is night. Cost-competitive, reliable energy storage is now beginning to address this limitation and may completely mitigate it in many markets within a decade, and in others within a few years.
Elon Musk's Tesla is building their battery storage Gigafactory in Nevada to produce cheap energy storage for consumers for exactly this reason. You can now hook up your solar panel to your Tesla battery pack, charge your Tesla car at night and skip the gas station (and the electric utility company) forevermore.
As Bloomberg New Energy Finance has pointed out, "When deployed together in distributed community and rooftop applications, solar and storage can also result in a reduced strain on the distribution grid and a deferred or reduced need for infrastructure investment. On a macro level, storage and solar could help reduce emissions by enabling a higher penetration of solar without variability challenges. The combination could also be transformative in emerging markets as a fast-track to electrification."
In fact, one Bloomberg View commentator has argued that we should now think of the rise of solar and the emergence of power storage as a virtuous circle: "...instead of thinking of solar and batteries as two independent things, we should think of them as one single unified technology package. Solar-plus-batteries is set to begin a dramatic transformation (which) has already begun...". (http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-04-08/clean-energy-revolution-is-way-ahead-of-schedule).
As this transformation progresses, we will finally be able to bask in the full sun of the Solar Age.
Follow David W. Richardson, CFA on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ImpaxAM