Could Battery Farms Solve A Major US Wind Energy Problem?

Wyoming utility companies are adding battery storage to the electricity grid to address the intermittency of wind and solar. But even the most advanced battery farms have limited capacity and are hugely expensive.

November 23, 20225 min read

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Within the next 18 years, PacifiCorp plans to add 700 megawatts of battery storage, according to its 20-year planning document. 

The company, which supplies electricity to customers throughout the West, including Wyoming, aims to be carbon neutral by 2050. Wind and solar farms produce power part of the time but homes, industry and businesses need energy all of the time. 

The goal of establishing more battery storage is to have a supply of power when there’s no wind or sun.

There are a lot of challenges to this approach on a grid-wide scale, however. 

A Battery Of Testing

A European battery facility that went online this week — the largest in Europe — helps illustrate the challenges with battery storage. The facility is located about 190 miles north of London and will be tied into the largest offshore wind farm in the world, which will be operational sometime around 2030. 

The battery facility is using Tesla technology, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted a BBC article announcing the facility going online. 

“Tesla Megapacks are highly effective in addressing electricity demand spikes that cause power outages,” Musk stated in the tweet. 

Wind Drought

Mark Mills, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, said the battery farm and associated offshore wind farm is pretty impressive. 

The BBC reported that it will store up to 196 megawatt hours of electricity, which is enough to power 300,000 homes in the United Kingdom for about two hours. A closer look at the numbers, however, illustrates the challenge. 

The total amount of energy the battery facility could store will be equivalent to what the wind farm will produce in a few minutes. 

“So if it had a wind drought for five minutes, that would be a problem,” Mills said. 

The North Sea goes through much more prolonged wind droughts, as they’re called, than Wyoming. In 2021, there were 10 days in which there was no wind to turn the turbines. 

When wind farms are developed, the wind resource where the farm is located is studied at length before planning begins. So, the operators know the frequency of normal wind lulls the farm will encounter. With that, they can plan to have enough battery storage to address those standard lulls. 

Batteries are “a very good solution to that kind of intermittency When. you want the whole grid to operate that way, it obviously doesn’t solve the problem,” Mills said. 

More Than Homes

The BBC figure of 300,000 homes having power for two hours looks impressive, but there are about 25 million homes in the United Kingdom. On top of that, residential electricity use is just a small part of the total energy consumed. 

There are many businesses that will need power. To make plastic, steel and concrete, industries need huge amounts of heat. That primarily comes from coking coal, but if the plan is to eliminate fossil fuels, that energy will have to come from electricity. 

Lastly, the net zero plans of the future aim to replace all gas-powered vehicles with electric ones. 

That two-hour supply of electricity becomes a few seconds’ worth of the country’s energy needs. 

Battery storage is useful, Mills said, and it makes wind energy more useful. 

“But it’s not like you’ve changed the game,” he said. 

Rising Costs

Then there is the cost. Battery storage costs have fallen dramatically in the past 10 years, but that’s based on an even supply of all the minerals, such as lithium, that are needed for the facilities. To build out enough battery facilities will place more demand on the supply. 

Utility Dive reported that New York saw the cost of installing battery storage rise from $464 per kilowatt hour in 2020-2021 to $567 per kilowatt hour this past April. 

That means a battery farm like the one in the UK at 196 megawatt hours would cost more than $111 million to build – for a facility that can supply two hours of electricity for 1.2% of the overall pool of residential customers. To build a facility capable of supply a single day’s worth of power to the same number of people would cost more than $1.3 billion.

There are other costs as well, such as having to build out even more wind and solar farms. There’s a need enough resources to supply power to homes and businesses, and then more so there’s a surplus to charge battery facilities. 

Artificial Prices

Although wind turbines and solar panels produce the cheapest energy while there is ideal weather for them to do so, addressing the problems of intermittency drive up the costs of energy. That’s why places like California and Germany, which have aggressively pursued renewable energy mandates, pay the highest electricity rates in the world. 

Mills said the only way wind and solar energy end up cheaper than fossil fuels when the supply of fossil fuels is restricted so much the price goes up. 

“Then you claim that the wind is cheaper — by artificially creating environments in which gas is more expensive,” Mills said.

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