Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by Jack Craver

Federal grant offers Austin chance to be leader in solar energy storage

Staff at Austin’s city-run utility is using millions of dollars of federal funds to explore new energy storage methods that will allow utility customers to receive more of their energy from renewable sources, particularly solar power.

Austin Energy is one of six public and private entities to have received grants as part of the federal SHINES award program. SHINES stands for “Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar PV.”

AE received $4.3 million, more than any of the other grant winners, such as Carnegie Mellon University and the Hawaiian Electric Company. The utility will be putting an additional $4.37 million into the initiative as well as using a $1 million grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and $60,000 from Ideal Power, a local energy tech firm.

“I think the city and Austin Energy should be pretty proud,” said Dan Smith, AE vice president of electric service delivery, in a presentation Monday to City Council’s Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee.

The federal Department of Energy hopes that the grantees can develop a type of technology that will make solar energy a viable resource across the country. To that end, AE will seek to develop technology to store solar power that is captured by panels on buildings and elsewhere so that it can be used during the day or night.

“If you look at solar and wind energy, one of the issues that constantly comes up is the intermittency of that,” explained Cameron Freberg, a utility strategist for AE involved with the SHINES project, in an interview with the Austin Monitor. “What storage does, it takes that power when it’s produced, no matter when it is, and puts it into a battery that allows you to use that energy at other times.”

The project, said Freberg, is supposed to take a little over three years to complete and is broken into three stages: design, deploy and demonstrate. The first year, he said, is devoted to designing the technology.

One of the ways AE will eventually be testing the new technology is by partnering with Pecan Street Inc., a local nonprofit focused on research on emerging energy technologies. Through that partnership, residents of the Mueller neighborhood who already have solar panels on their homes will be able to add “smart” inverters and battery storage systems.

Pecan Street has already selected 24 homes that will be outfitted with the smart inverters, which are more sophisticated versions of conventional inverters, which convert the direct current power in the panels into the alternating current power necessary to generate electricity. Jackie Renner, senior manager of research programs for Pecan Street, told the Monitor that of that group of homes, six will also receive the energy storage system.

The prevalence of renewable energy in Austin explains why AE was a natural contender for the grant, he added. Mueller, for instance, is already generating 1.6 megawatts of solar power. “It makes it a great place to test out these technologies,” he said.

Indeed, the city had already been pushing the utility to go big on green energy, including by setting a target that it generate 55 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

“This is real encouraging,” said Mayor Steve Adler in response to Smith’s presentation about the grant. “This whole area and how it can change so much about how any utility operates is real exciting, and I like that our city is at the forefront of testing those options.”

Council Member Leslie Pool added that she was happy to see the city seek and receive a greater share of federal funds. In the past, she said, Texas has frequently paid more to the federal government than it receives in services.

“This is a change to that landscape,” she said.

As is often the case during discussions of renewable energy, Council Member Don Zimmerman was the lone voice of skepticism on the dais. The self-described “technology geek” referred to the storage systems as “cool stuff,” but he noted that the $4.3 million in federal funds was being “borrowed from our great-grandchildren” and worried aloud that policymakers might be putting their faith in a technology that they don’t fully understand.

“Our Council needs to appreciate the complexities of systems like these and what kind of chaos can happen when things break, because they do break,” he said.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3984770

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee: The Austin City Council committee on Austin Energy was created in May 2013 to provide oversight of the city's electric utility. It's creation was marked by political maneuvering that ultimately resulted in a committee comprised of every member of the Austin City Council.

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