A new report released Monday by researchers at MIT finds that it’s technologically and financially feasible to use energy storage systems, such as massive batteries or hydroelectricity, to almost completely eliminate the need for fossil fuels to operate regional power grids.
Such systems are becoming in greater demand in New England, and beyond, as more renewable energy powers homes and businesses and they require ways to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
“Our study finds that energy storage can help [renewable energy]-dominated electricity systems balance electricity supply and demand while maintaining reliability in a cost-effective manner,” said Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, which commissioned the three-year study.
The authors of the report estimated that the costs of transforming power grids in the Northeast, Southeast, and Texas will range between 21 percent and 36 percent higher than if nothing was done to promote storage-backed renewable energy. The costs will be higher in the Northeast, where there are greater energy demands in the winter.
But they described those costs as “relatively modest” and noted there would be many hours when the costs of electricity would be near zero. That means future power grids are more likely to enable the low-cost charging of increased numbers of electrical vehicles and homes with electrical heating systems. They will be able to be charged when prices dip.
“These cost increases are relatively modest compared to the costs of not doing anything, and especially compared to the costs of climate change, which is an existential threat,” said Dharik Mallapragada, one of the authors of the report.
As of 2019, New England had 62 megawatts of battery storage capacity, according to a report last year by the US Energy Information Administration. There are numerous projects that have proposed adding some 6,500 megawatts of energy storage to the regional grid, with more than 630 megawatts of new storage capacity slated to become operational by 2025, according to ISO New England, the regional grid operator.
Joe Curtatone, president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, said the report underscored that storage can be used in many locations. The report noted that many existing fossil fuel plants could be converted into storage facilities.
“That means energy jobs all over our region, and the best part is it’s ready to be deployed now,” he said. “We don’t need to be wasting time or money on archaic projects, like the proposed Peabody peaker plant. We should be building energy storage to cover our peak power needs.”
The Baker administration has authorized the construction of a 55 megawatt fossil fuel plant in Peabody designed to operate on the coldest and hottest days of the year to add power to the grid when needed.
Some who follow the renewable energy industry said there was little new in the report.
“All of their conclusions seem like concepts that are widely agreed upon in the energy wonk realm,” said Kyle Murray, a senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston. “We in the energy realm have been stressing for a long time that cost-effective storage is absolutely essential for our renewable energy future.