The smoke of whistleblowing

Aided and abetted by the Everett Herald‘s thirst for sensation, a PUD employee alleged crimes and misdemeanors against current and former employees of the utility. The whistleblower cast a wide net, seeking to also entrap state government officials and private firms. Despite the headlines and smoke, investigators have detected no fires, exonerating the PUD and the Department of Commerce of wrongdoing, save for an extremely minor infraction of a utility directive (“appearance of conflict”).

Lost in the smoke and headlines is a very remarkable story, some really good news. I’m talking about energy storage technology, what I’ve called “the holy grail” of distribution utilities in search of a post-carbon future.

We at the PUD take climate change seriously. How could we not, given the overwhelming evidence of global warming and its effects? Fortunately, over 80 percent of the electricity PUD customers consume is in the form of hydroelectric power, a non-polluting, renewable resource.

Although the PUD had committed to acquiring all cost-effective conservation and securing only green energy to fill the utility’s supply portfolio before voters approved Initiative 937, which mandated such strategy for the state’s larger utilities, PUD staff and commission realized the challenge of relying on intermittent resources. After all, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind often blows when the utility needs it least.

What to do? How could the PUD more effectively use wind, solar, and hydro resources to meed the electricity needs of its customers? The answer, utility officials believe, lies in energy storage. The trick is to store the output of intermittent generation then release it into the grid when needed.

After investigating pumped-hydro storage possibilities and other options (e.g., compressed air), the PUD determined that a more promising and least costly alternative existed in the form of batteries. Batteries, of course, are plentiful, so the technology is mature and widespread. However, no one had seriously explored using batteries on a utility-sized scale.

As it happened, the PUD’s then-general manager, Steve Klein, an electrical engineer in his own right, shared a passion for new technology with David Kaplan, a computer scientist with degrees from Berkeley and Stanford. Kaplan had already researched potential uses of battery storage. Why not electric utilities?

But Kaplan lacked the working knowledge of electric grids. How would batteries fit into the day-to-day, even second-to-second, operations of electricity distribution?

Kaplan, Klein, and others recognized two challenges. The first was to develop the necessary software to automate the storage and discharge of electricity using batteries. The second was to establish industry-wide standards to augment plug-and-play components.

Klein, after numerous conversations with Kaplan, imagined a win-win proposition: hire Kaplan to consult with the utility on its needs-improvement technology architecture, for which Kaplan was extremely qualified. While at the PUD, Kaplan would also gain that working knowledge of electric grids and how batteries could be incorporated. Meanwhile, Kaplan developed algorithms, the necessary automation software.

The cooperative efforts yielded MESA, the Modular Energy Storage Architecture standards. As of this writing, over 20 entities, including the nation’s largest electric utility, Duke Energy, have joined (see chart below). The PUD has already installed large batteries at substations. Kaplan’s software provides the crucial control interface. Vendors of component products (e.g., Alstom and Parker) are working with other utilities in Puget Sound and across the country.

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Perhaps the most significant entrant to battery storage technology is Tesla. The company has developed both utility-sized and home-sized battery solutions, Powerpack and Powerwall, respectively. Tesla has driven the cost of batteries down, down, and down. Here’s a slide from a recent presentation to the PUD board of commissioners on battery costs:

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Those of us in the utility business (I’m a PUD board member) are understandably excited about battery storage. It should not surprise anyone that it has become the magnet attracting energy nerds from all over. Puget Sound, in particular the PUD, begins as ground zero. Governor Inslee is excited about the technology, and so are many members of the state legislature. It’s understandable that green-energy aficionados share a passion and commitment to pursuing “the holy grail.”

I think it terribly unfortunate that this good-news story has been overshadowed by spurious allegations that have been magnified by a scandal-mongering press. Reputations have been besmirched, without cause or justification.

Perhaps one day the local paper of record will find a way to expose the PUD’s battery-storage initiative—in a good way. The utility and its employees deserve as much.