For many years, the tradition has been that on midsummer afternoons, engineers will turn on what they call a “peaker,” a natural gas-burning power plant In Long Beach. It is needed to help the area’s other power plants meet the day’s peak electricity consumption. Thus, as air conditioners max out and people arriving home from work turn on their televisions and other appliances, the juice will be there.
Five years from now, if current plans work out, the “peaker” will be gone, replaced by the world’s largest storage battery, capable of holding and delivering over 100 megawatts of power an hour for four hours. The customary afternoon peak will still be there, but the battery will be able to handle it without the need for more fossil fuels. It will have spent the morning charging up with cheap solar power that might have otherwise been wasted.
The mega-battery won’t be up and running for five years, and Southern California needs more energy storage capacity yesterday. Officials warn that this summer, the region could face as many as 14 days of scheduled blackouts because of a huge leak earlier this year at the Porter Ranch natural gas storage facility. While the leak has stopped, the facility—which feeds fuel to 17 Los Angeles-area power plants—may not be fully recovered and tested for months.
Meanwhile, other utilities are suddenly feeling the need to store substantial quantities of electricity. As John Zahurancik, president of AES’s energy storage company, put it, “It’s a bit of a Wild West open market right now.”