If you walk inside this new one-bedroom apartment outside Salt Lake City, you might not recognize the large object around the corner from the fridge. Roughly the size of a refrigerator itself, it’s a battery. The apartment complex, which will include 22 buildings and 600 units when complete, is the first to put batteries inside every apartment, connected to solar power on the roof—so the local utility can use it as a virtual power plant.
“This is the kind of community that’s truly a community of the future, where solar and solar batteries are literally built into your life,” says Blake Richetta, chairman and CEO of Sonnen, Inc., the company that makes the batteries used in the project, called Soleil Lofts, built by the developer Wasatch Group. Sonnen has previously installed batteries to store solar power in groups of single-family homes in the U.S., but this will be the first time that those batteries will be controlled by a utility. That means that the utility can manage the system to avoid using a fossil fuel-powered “peaker plant” when energy demand is highest.
“When there’s excess solar-generated energy produced, instead of just pushing it into the grid right away, it’s going to be shifted and harnessed in the batteries,” Richetta says. “Rocky Mountain Power will look at that in real-time, and every day will constantly be able to say, okay, when can we use this solar?” Right now, in areas with a lot of solar power, there’s often so much energy produced when the sun is out that it can’t be used; without battery storage, when power is needed at night, utilities have to turn to more polluting sources.
The developer, the Wasatch Group, saw investing in solar power and batteries as the right thing to do for the region, which is already experiencing climate impacts including worsening wildfires and droughts. “We looked at how are we going to be responsible stewards,” says Jarom Johnson, the chief operating officer for Wasatch Premier Communities. “This was probably the best option that we could identify that allowed us to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to push the envelope.’ It’s going to challenge our standard mantra for development. But we have specific outcomes we’re trying to pursue, which are we want to limit our footprint, and we want to allow a large portion of individuals to be housed without throwing a bunch of carbon in the air.” The company took advantage of federal and state tax credits to offset the cost of the project and will be paid by the utility for access to the virtual power plant.