PORTLAND, Ore. — A renewable power plant that went online in Oregon on Wednesday that combines solar power, wind power and massive batteries to store power generated there is the first utility-scale plant of its kind in North America.
The project, which will generate enough electricity to power a small city at peak output, addresses a key challenge facing the utility industry as the US moves away from fossil fuels and increasingly turns to solar parks. and wind to obtain energy. Wind and solar power are clean sources of energy, but utilities have been forced to fill in the gaps when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining with fossil fuels like coal or natural gas.
In Oregon’s plans, the massive lithium batteries will store up to 120 megawatt-hours of energy generated by the 300-megawatt wind farms and 50-megawatt solar farm so that it can be released into the power grid on demand. At peak output, the facility will produce more than half the power generated by Oregon’s last coal-fired power plant, which was demolished earlier this month.
On-site battery storage is not new, and interest in solar-plus-battery projects in particular has skyrocketed in the US in recent years due to strong credit and tax incentives and falling battery prices. the batteries. However, the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility in Oregon is the first in the US to combine integrated wind, solar and battery energy storage on such a large scale in one location, giving you even more flexibility to generate continuous production without relying on fossil fuels to fill in the gaps.
The project is “increasingly closer to having something with a very stable production profile that we traditionally think of as what a fuel-based power generation plant is capable of,” said Jason Burwen, vice president of energy storage at the American Clean Energy Association. , a clean energy industry advocacy group.
“If the solar power goes ahead and gets covered in clouds, the battery can kick in and make sure the output is uninterrupted. As the sun goes down and the wind comes online, the battery can make sure it’s very smooth so it doesn’t look unusual to the grid operator.”
The plant located in a remote sprawl three hours east of Portland is a partnership between NextEra Energy Resources and Portland General Electric, a utility required to reduce carbon emissions 100% by 2040 under an approved Oregon climate law last year, one of the most important. ambitious in the nation.
PGE customers also demand green energy (nearly a quarter of a million customers receive only renewable energy) and the Wheatridge project is “key to that decarbonization strategy,” said Kristen Sheeran, director of sustainability strategy and resource planning at PGE. .
Under the partnership, PGE owns a third of the wind output and purchases all of the facility’s power for its renewable energy portfolio. NextEra, which developed and operates the site, owns two-thirds of the wind production and all of the solar production and storage.
“The mere fact that so many other customers are looking for these types of facilities gives you an idea of what we think might be possible,” said David Lawlor, NextEra’s director of business development for the Pacific Northwest. “Customers definitely want a firmer generation, starting with battery storage in the rear.”
Large-scale energy storage is critical as the US shifts to more variable energy sources like wind and solar, and Americans can expect to see similar projects across the country as that trend accelerates. . Models from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that US storage capacity may increase fivefold by 2050, but experts say even this won’t be enough to stave off extremely damaging climate change.
Batteries aren’t the only solution the clean energy industry is trying. Pumped storage generates power by sending large volumes of water downhill through turbines, and others are experimenting with forcing water underground and holding it there before releasing it to drive turbines.
But interest in batteries for clean energy storage has grown dramatically in recent years at the same time the cost of batteries is falling and the technology itself is improving, raising interest in hybrid plants, experts say. experts.
Hybrid plant generation capacity increased 133% between 2020 and 2021, and by the end of last year, there were nearly 8,000 megawatts of storage-connected wind or solar generation, according to the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. ., which is administered by the University of California.
The vast majority of these projects are solar with battery storage, largely due to tax credits, but projects in the pipeline include offshore wind plus battery, hydroelectric plus battery, and at least nine facilities like the one in Oregon that will combine solar, wind and storage. Projects in the pipeline between 2023 and 2025 include projects in Washington, California, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois and Oregon, according to Berkeley Lab.
However, many researchers and pilots are working on alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, in large part because their intrinsic chemistry limits them to around four hours of storage, and a longer life would be more useful.
“There’s no silver bullet. There’s no model or prototype that meets all of that need…but wind and solar will certainly be in the mix,” PGE’s Sheeran said.
“This model can become a tool for decarbonization in the West as the entire country heads toward very ambitious climate reduction goals.”
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter: @gflaccus