Can some solar systems improve the reliability of the power grid, even if extreme storms buffet the state?
A long-time solar developer in New Jersey says they can, if new storage systems for solar arrays are adopted that not only will keep the lights on, but also reduce electric costs in the long run.
Ever since Hurricane Sandy, the state has been taking a hard look at how to reinforce the power grid to prevent widespread outages when the next round of extreme weather hits, a prospect most officials concede is probable, if not inevitable.
A host of strategies is under review by state legislators. Should utility substations be upgraded so they’re less prone to flooding? What about requiring more aggressive tree trimming, or building smaller and more efficient power plants to provide electricity to critical facilities, such as hospitals and other institutions, when power is lost?
But a less publicized option also is being examined by the state: a technology that stores electricity from solar-powered systems in batteries and allows the electricity to be tapped if an outage occurs or pumped back into the grid, if needed during times of peak demand.
“What’s happening now is a transformation of the utility sector,’’ argued Tom Leyden, chief executive officer of Solar Grid Storage, a company based in Silver Springs, MD, but with an office in Princeton. Before joining his current company Leyden worked in the solar sector in New Jersey for many years, experiencing its ups and downs.
“The whole utility industry needs to get smarter on how they do things and use all the assets that are out there,’’ he said, citing the growth of new distributed generation resources, such as solar. “Large power plants will be a thing of the past.’’
Leyden said solar storage is the key for the next boom in the sector, a cycle he is familiar with having been involved in the industry when policies adopted by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities helped propel the state behind only California in the number of solar installations in the nation.
“This is just like déjà vu in New Jersey when we were trying to figure out how to do what’s next with solar,’’ Leyden said, at the time an executive with PowerLight, and other companies involved in the state’s solar sector.
His latest company’s efforts mirror what the state is trying to do to promote technologies to encourage increased energy-storage technologies.
This past spring the BPU initiated a stakeholders workforce group to determine how to hand out money to energy-storage projects. Based on the agency’s budget, more than $10 million will be allocated over the next four years, including $2.5 million in 2014.
When Sandy struck, however, most of the solar systems installed in New Jersey crashed, unable to run when much of the power grid suffered widespread outages. The energy storage systems include inverters that would avert that problem.
Leyden’s company primarily focuses on commercial buildings. Its business box ranges up to 10 megawatts per facility, according to Leyden. It makes its money by earning a tax credit from the federal government; charging customers for emergency power during outages (at less cost than using a diesel generator); and providing power at times of peak demand to PJM Interconnection, the operator of the regional power grid.
Solar Grid Storage has installed its systems in four facilities, including two in New Jersey, one in Hackettstown and the other in Denville. The company also is building a storage system for Franklin Township schools, which were left without power for 14 days after Sandy struck, according to Leyden.