By Margaret Bliss
Solar panels, EV charging stations and behind-the-meter systems are all innovative responses to global challenges plaguing the modern world. They were the topics addressed and explored at the annual Energy Innovation Conference: Our Distributed Energy Future, which kicked off UCLA Anderson’s fourth annual Impact Week. Anderson’s Energy Management Group hosted the in-depth conference, where industry experts and influential alumni provided insight into the world’s energy future.
The conference left attendees hopeful about the future of energy and eager to take personal steps to solve the challenge of harnessing and efficiently using renewable energy. The conference focused on the exploration and innovation of behind-the-meter (BTM) systems and the benefits that those systems could have on businesses and consumers.
Before the conference, I wanted to make sure I was current on the energy sector jargon and found I was unfamiliar with the term BTM. It refers to a renewable energy facility that produces power on site, commonly using solar panels for supplying electricity to commercial and residential properties. These systems are the future of renewable energy, as they will help meet the California energy mandate of acquiring 1.3 Gigawatts of energy storage statewide by 2020. The mandate calls for 50 percent of electricity to come from renewable energy sources, such as BTM systems. If large institutions such as UCLA, as well as individuals’ homes, implement BTM systems, hitting the mandate goals should be attainable and should also help reduce customers’ monthly utility bills.
But how does anyone store the energy from BTM systems? According to Joseph Householder (CERT ’94), corporate group president of infrastructure businesses at Sempra Energy, solar panels currently produce too much energy in the middle of the day with little ability to harness excess energy for later use. Householder graphed the problem on a duck curve, which represents solar farms’ power production throughout the day. At present, the curve shows an imbalance between the time customers are using the most energy and when the most renewable energy is being produced by the solar panels.
But I was surprised to learn that we, as a population, are not using our renewable energy efficiently. Matt Gregori (’12), technology development manager for Southern California Gas Company, added that many of the solar farms in Southern California are being turned off during peak hours because they produce more energy than consumers are using during those hours. Energy from solar panels should be better harnessed, he said.
Is there a solution? Discussions ensued on curbing waste by using battery storage, which would give utility and energy companies the ability to harness solar energy produced during the middle of the day. Those batteries would disperse the stored energy into the evening when people are returning home from work, turning on their lights, plugging in their electric cars and increasing their overall electricity consumption. When battery storage technology meets the demands of the customer’s electricity usage, it will mean solar farms can and will be used efficiently.
Beyond storing and transferring energy to our current electric grid, batteries could help create new, more efficient smart grids adaptable to both wind and solar energy. They would enable EV charging and provide two-way communication from utility company to consumer using digital technology. Dr. Rajit Gadh, professor and director of WINMEC and Smart Grid Energy Research Center at UCLA, is conducting research on how to use vehicle batteries to take excess energy from cars that are plugged into EV charging stations and pour that energy back into the grid. He is trying to tackle the problem reflected in the duck curve through electric vehicles.
My takeaway from this conference? The demand for and production of solar energy are not yet aligned, despite advances in technology that could better sync them. I plan to keep my eyes and ears open for news of battery storage technology and its impact on BTM systems and the smart grid.