With integration of storage and renewables having received high-profile press recently, the need for a new balancing authority comes to the forefront, a balancing authority that has nothing to do with regional transmission system interchanges. We need a media-related balancing authority to temper excessive optimism.
Consider the recent New Scientist article: “How Tesla’s Batteries Can Change the Solar Power Game.” While providing valuable information about Tesla’s announced plans to acquire Solar City, the article makes simplifying statements which are likely to leave some naïve readers with an overly optimistic view of the situation. Here are a few examples:
1. Opening paragraph: Solar “…could now get the efficiency boost it needs…”
2. Closing paragraph: A 2MW solar/storage pilot in Massachusetts is described as the “kind of integration…Tesla and Solar City promises…but on a much grander scale. There might soon be a power plant on every roof.”
For some non-utility readers, the scale of optimistic expectations set by these statements will tend to go out of bounds with engineering and economic realities, size-wise and time-wise.
First, size-wise, the article’s phrase “a much grander scale” implies scalability, but we are way, way off here. In fact, we are off by a factor of more than 5 million. For example, even if we implemented five thousand projects, each the same size as the 2 MW Massachusetts solar storage project, the resulting 10,000 MW in new storage would amount to less than one percent of the total U.S. summer peak electric generating capacity, per EIA’s report of 1,068,000 MW installed as of the summer of 2014—instead, we’d need 5,034,000 such 2 MW projects to equal the 10,068,000 MW of generating capacity currently installed in the U.S.
Time-wise, the general reader will typically think of technology trends in terms of one- to two-year electronic gadget or software product life cycles, rather than the multi-decade infrastructure time scales involved in any realistic view of how “soon” there “might be a power plant on every roof.”
The New Scientist article also referenced Aminul Huque of the Electric Power Research Institute, who remarked: “Simply plugging solar panels into a battery isn’t enough.” Subsequent reporting provided in EPRI’s Communications Spotlight newsletter includes interesting statistics about the article’s readers:
Even though EPRI’s September Newsletter shows that Huque’s remark was their most popular post on LinkedIn, across a total of 97,018 impressions, in late September a live visit to the site shows Huque’s remark only received 29 “Likes.”
According to the Content Marketing Institute, on LinkedIn, “a typical Influencer post receives more than 31,000 views, and an average of 250 Likes.” This equates to a “Like” rate of 8 per 1,000. In contrast, the Huque link appears to have received roughly one tenth this “Like” rate.
The number of “renewables/storage optimists” that there were among the New Scientist article’s readers (and what they were thinking when they clicked through to EPRI’s LinkedIn posts) will remain a mystery, even though it is natural for us to expect numerous optimists may have been disappointed when clicked through to receive EPRI’s dose of engineering reality. But this mystery leads to a tangible and pointed question: As an industry, how can we keep our messages about the best path to future growth simple enough to garner more “Click-throughs” if not “Likes,” yet nuanced enough to convey the complexities of the issues we face?