Batteries That Make Use of Solar Power, Even in the Dark

Source: By STANLEY REED. New York Times • Posted: Friday, November 4, 2016

Rows of solar panels are spread over 25 acres of Nicholas Beatty’s farm near Hartwell, England. Andrew Testa for The New York Times 

HARTWELL, ENGLAND — A new cash crop has sprung up on Nicholas Beatty’s enchanting farm near here. Rows of gray solar panels range over about 25 acres, turning sunlight into electricity, as dog-size muntjac deer hop by.

The panels themselves, trouble-free money earners that feed into the electric grid, are no longer unusual on farms in Britain or other countries. What’s new in Mr. Beatty’s field is a hulking 40-foot-long shipping container.

Stacked inside, in what look like drawers, are about 200 lithium-ion cells that make up a battery large enough to store a substantial portion of the electricity the solar farm puts out.

The battery and its software give Mr. Beatty an advantage over other solar panel farmers. Power prices in Britain and elsewhere rise and fall, sometimes strikingly, during the day and over the year, depending on the supply and demand. By storing power in the battery, Mr. Beatty can feed it into the grid when prices are high. “The battery effectively takes power off the line when there is too much and puts it on when there is too little,” he said.

The battery inside a storage container on Nicholas Beatty’s property can store a substantial portion of the electricity from his solar farm. Andrew Testa for The New York Times 

Mr. Beatty said the battery, which costs about 825,000 pounds, or $1 million, could increase revenue for his solar farm by as much as £200,000 a year. In addition to making more by timing his delivery to the grid, he said he planned to enter an auction to become a standby source of power to compensate for unexpected drops in the grid.

Mr. Beatty is one of many entrepreneurs and businesses trying to play the fast-shifting electric power landscape. The global effort to combat climate change is forcing what had been an old-line business to evolve. Polluting, coal-fired power stations are closing, while clean energy sources like wind and solar are growing fast.

While renewable energy sources have the huge advantage of not emitting the gases blamed for climate change, they can be tricky for a grid operator to rely on, not least because their output is dependent on wind and sunlight. In addition, the power they produce is essentially free, which puts downward pressure on prices. “The growing use of renewables is creating an unstable energy system,” said David Hill, managing director of Open Energi, a British company that helps industrial companies save money by timing and otherwise managing their energy use. “What everyone is trading on now is that there is a value in flexibility.”

Batteries are one way of achieving that flexibility.

Amid all this disruption, Britain and other countries have created a smorgasbord of incentives to power providers to keep the lights from going off. Neil Hutchings, director of power systems and storage at Anesco, the small British company that supplied Mr. Beatty’s battery, said there were no fewer than 14 ways that it could make money. “The real secret is how to pick out the best combination,” he said.

While he said the batteries, which are imported from China, were improving, the real key was in the electronic controls that allowed them to react almost instantaneously to the needs of the grid.

Nicholas Beatty, in his 17th-century home, is a former banker who built a solar farm on his 350-acre property in 2014. Andrew Testa for The New York Times 

Storing electricity for a time when it is needed has always been one of the biggest challenges for renewable power, but Steve Holliday, former chief executive of National Grid, the British network operator, said at a recent event that batteries could play an expanding commercial role.

“Real big industrial-size battery storage is going to be available in the U.K. pretty quickly,” Mr. Holliday said at a seminar organized by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a nonprofit.

Mr. Beatty, 55, is a former banker who made his first foray into renewable energy in part to head off a plan to put up wind turbines, which he said he considered an eyesore, near his 350-acre property, about 65 miles north of London. With about a dozen friends and family members, including James Basden, an energy consultant, he spent £6.5 million to build the solar farm in 2014. The solar panels, which generate about £650,000 in revenue a year, are theoretically capable of powering as many as 2,000 homes, Mr. Beatty said.

Largely out of view, the panels do not detract from the gentility of the farm, where a herd of brown and white English longhorn cattle grazes in fields that are studded with pollarded oaks, possibly up to 1,200 years old.

The 17th-century stone house was once a royal hunting lodge and is full of mementos of Mr. Beatty’s trans-Atlantic pedigree. His paternal grandparents were a British battle-cruiser commander in World War I and the daughter of Marshall Field, the Chicago department store entrepreneur.

Mr. Beatty said that his experiments with batteries — the one on his farm was his second — might open his eyes to future entrepreneurial opportunities. For instance, more electric cars will require grid-management measures to accommodate surges associated with charging those vehicles. “There is going to be a need for a lot more of these to be installed,” he said of the batteries. “We think this is just the start of that process.”