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Could a test in Glacier show the world how to store power in batteries?

Puget Sound Energy to test battery project in Glacier

Puget Sound Energy has built a small power facility near the existing substation in Glacier that could help balance its energy needs and possibly serve as a short-term power backup in the small community. Four shipping containers filled with thous
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Puget Sound Energy has built a small power facility near the existing substation in Glacier that could help balance its energy needs and possibly serve as a short-term power backup in the small community. Four shipping containers filled with thous

By late summer, the same technology that powers your cellphone could be used to help balance Puget Sound Energy’s grid and serve as a short-term power backup in Glacier.

The small community at the edge of PSE’s power grid is now home to four shipping containers filled with thousands of interconnected lithium-ion batteries that are part of a pilot project to test the application of battery storage on a large scale.

The world could be watching for the results of the project, one of several across the state to receive a Clean Energy Fund grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce. Avista is testing a battery system in Pullman and Snohomish County Public Utility District is testing two systems.

Each utility company’s project is collecting data, which will be analyzed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to see how storage could apply to bigger projects.

“We’re really the only ones in the country doing that,” said Penny Thomas, a Commerce spokeswoman. “We’re learning not only how the technology works, but the business case for putting this technology into the grid.”

The data is expected to show whether battery storage can save utility companies money, lower costs for their customers, and provide other grid benefits, which has people around the country and the world keeping a close eye on the results, Thomas said.

“Here we have very inexpensive power already because it is primarily hydro, but other areas of the country use coal and natural gas or nuclear,” Thomas said. “If there’s a business case for doing this modernization here in the Pacific Northwest, in a system that is already relatively cheap, that really proves the business case.”

Project benefits

PSE plans to test a variety of uses for the batteries that could include taking energy from or giving it back to the grid to balance the amount of energy being used or produced at any given time.

For example, if PSE’s Wild Horse wind and solar facility in Eastern Washington puts out less energy at one point, the Glacier battery system might be able to balance that decrease in output by picking up a small portion of the load in Glacier.

If we figure out how to do it here, we can do it anywhere.

Paul Jusak, PSE commissioning engineer for the Glacier project

The 2 megawatt (4.4 megawatt-hour) system can provide enough energy for backup power to most of the Glacier area for about two hours, but that could be stretched to maybe eight hours if the system is used to power only nearby stores in the core of the town, said Shane Richards, project manager.

In addition to serving as backup power during an outage, the batteries also may be used to curb problems when the grid is near “peak,” when the most energy is being used.

Rather than burning more fuels at a plant to meet those peaks, maybe batteries could give some of their charge back to the system, Richards said.

Glacier presents some unique challenges for the utility company, as it is located along the scenic Mount Baker Highway, meaning transmission lines are often affected by trees and branches, which can make it hard for repair crews to find and fix electrical problems during storms, according to PSE.

It is fairly remote, and weather and humidity have already been challenges for the project crew.

“We had a hard time eliminating moisture when the batteries first got here,” said Paul Jusak, commissioning engineer for the project. “It showed us how critical heating and cooling is in these uninsulated containers.”

But the challenges are part of why Glacier was selected for the project.

“If we figure out how to do it here, we can do it anywhere,” Jusak said.

Final set-up steps

Since late February, PSE has been able to charge and test the battery system, and get the detailed communications set up that will allow the modules to be operated remotely, Richards said.

“Getting all the communications going is monumental,” Richards said.

To get the system fully operating, the utility company still needs to make some upgrades at the existing substation near the new batteries, and install some infrastructure to allow for the area to be isolated in an “island” that could be powered directly by the batteries, Richards said.

The utility brought out a load bank — “sort of a glorified toaster,” Richards said — and proved that the island concept for Glacier could work, by running the amount of electricity out of the batteries that would be sent to the town once the system is properly hooked up.

PSE received a $3.8 million smart grid grant from Commerce for the project, and the utility has invested $6.3 million.

“It’s not only good for the utilities, but it’s intended to help support the clean technology sector,” Thomas said. “It’s a great opportunity for these companies to grow and build jobs here.”

Renewable Energy Systems Americas crews who helped install the battery systems were expected to be done with their work on the site by the end of April. The batteries were made by Chinese manufacturer BYD, and the software needed to control the system remotely was provided by Seattle-based company 1Energy Systems.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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