| SAN FRANCISCO
SAN FRANCISCO Dec 23 From Daffy to Donald, the
animation studios of Southern California have long portrayed
ducks as just for laughs, but a graphical incarnation of the
bird making the rounds in the state's power sector is being
taken very seriously indeed.
California plans to generate a third of its energy from
renewable sources by 2020, and regulators use what has become
known as a "duck chart" to demonstrate the challenge presented
by saddling their grid with increasing amounts of constantly
fluctuating solar power.
The chart derives its nickname from its resemblance to the
profile of a duck floating on its belly in the water.
Volatility is a dirty word to those charged with ensuring
the lights, televisions and air conditioners remain on - no
matter what. So the power industry beyond California will
observe closely how the state pulls off its goal of achieving
one of the world's most ambitious renewable energy targets.
The duck chart tracks power requirements throughout a
typical day, with a flat "tail" in the morning giving way to an
ever-fattening belly by midday as solar generation peaks and
therefore less power from other variable sources is required.
The "neck" then represents the steepening rise in power
demand when people get home from work around sunset and solar
output drops - presenting grid managers with huge challenges.
Developers of energy storage systems say they have the
answer. By setting aside power for later, the duck belly can be
flattened and the neck lowered; several startups are trying to
cash in on the demand for storage this has created.
"We're seeing a number of companies that are starting to go
commercial," said Jon Wellinghoff, a former chairman of the
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "They're beyond the R&D
stages. They're beyond the product development stages."
Wellinghoff, now at law firm Stoel Rives, said in an
interview that companies to watch include Eos Energy Storage,
liquid-metal battery maker Ambri, and saltwater electrolyte
battery developer Aquion.
Others stepping up their game include Stem Inc - a Silicon
Valley storage company that this month closed a second funding
round for $15 million, with General Electric Co and
Iberdrola SA as backers.
Stem says that it has its eyes in particular on California's
groundbreaking mandate for 1.3 gigawatts' worth of storage among
its utilities, established this summer, which may prove a
template for other places if it works.
"In any state, utilities are not known for their dynamism,"
said Audrey Fogarty of power management and storage firm Xtreme
Power. "Setting a target sends a very clear signal."
But the state has little time - California's Independent
System Operator (Cal ISO) expects the duck belly will start
growing fatter by 2015 as more renewable power comes online -
implying that the afternoon draw on variable power will be even
larger than it already is.
Such dramatic warnings prompted Neil Millar, an executive
director at Cal ISO, to insist at the California Energy Summit
this month that the chart is not "meant to scare people."
The ominously growing curves of the chart worry regulators
and utilities, even if nobody really knows how to tackle it yet.
"I'm not going to talk about it," John Chillemi, head of the
West region at power producer NRG Energy, said of the
duck chart in a speech last month. "I just needed to tick the
box that I included it in my presentation."
Two speakers following him at the Platts California Power
and Gas Conference in San Francisco - one from rival AES Corp
and the other from First Solar Inc - both
acknowledged the chart's underlying importance by explaining
that they had not, in fact, included it among their slides.
A division of AES says it is already making money off energy
storage systems, which are commonly hailed as at least one
solution to the duck-chart problem.
While Lucas Oehlerking of engineering firm Black & Veatch
noted that storage costs are coming down, he said one barrier
was extracting enough value from them to make them worth it.
"Just because a system can perform it, doesn't mean the
controllers are there to capture it or the markets are there."
American Vanadium Corp CEO Bill Radvak, whose
company mines a metal highly touted for storage systems, said
that development of the market would take time, even if all the
enthusiasm for storage was driving good sales momentum now.
"Because everybody ignored it until a year ago, the pendulum
is swinging - and may overswing."