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Chamber Forum: Wave energy, batteries are the next energy frontier

Not long ago, solar and wind energy production was considered cost prohibitive by industry insiders.

In recent years, however, Pacific Power and its parent company Berkshire Hathaway Energy have funneled megabucks into those renewable resources.

Are wave energy and advanced battery storage far off?

“The pace of change in our industry is really unprecedented,” Pacific Power President and CEO Stefan Bird told a Chamber Forum audience Monday at Rogue Valley Country Club. “One of those opportunities could be wave energy production, as well as offshore wind production out in the ocean. Today, that technology is still cost-prohibitive, so I can tell you at least in the short term we have no plans to deploy that technology for use today. The low-cost nature of on-land wind and solar energy is by far the lowest cost solution that we can bring.”

Still, wind is unpredictable, while clouds, fog and snow tend to disrupt solar power.

“Wave energy is highly predictable, so there is an attraction from that standpoint,” Bird said. “But it has a ways to go to move down the curve in terms of cost-effectiveness. I wouldn’t stand here today and predict how that might change. If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago are wind and solar likely to be cost effective? I would have confidently said no, and here we are, investing billions in very-low cost clean renewable energy.”

Energy storage has long been considered the holy grail for energy companies, and very little of today’s electricity grid is stored, Bird said. It’s stored in form of compressed natural gas upstream of a natural gas plant; a coal pile in front of coal plant, or in a hydro system, large dams.”

“Batteries are the newest entrant,” he said. “They can provide four-hour storage capability where you can shift power from when the sun goes down to a few hours later when all the AC units are on in Southern California, where there is a value proposition.”

In Oregon, Bird said, it’s not so cost-effective because rates are a fraction of what Southern Californians, New Yorkers and consumers in other parts of the country pay.

“It makes it a bit more difficult for technology like batteries to be viable in large scale across our system,” he said.

While Pacific Power has partnered with Oregon State University to install a pilot project, he doesn’t anticipate large-scale battery deployment until costs drop dramatically,

“There are scientists working hard on that all over the world,” Bird said. “And I wouldn’t put that past them.”

Power prices are driven by the market, Bird said. Managing fluctuations in solar power can be challenging but can keep costs in line.

“Solar follows the sun, predictably through the day,” Bird said. “What we find in the springtime, there is more solar power available on the grid in California than can be used. So the options are either to curtail the solar or to export it. Since our lines are connected in California, that’s a tremendous opportunity for us to import that power that’s priced at most near a zero fuel cost, and in some cases below zero, because of the various incentives in place in California.

Bird said the grid has never been more secure than it is now.

“Being owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy does give us somewhat of an advantage because of scale,” but it is a paramount concern to us,” he said.

He reminded his audience to be vigilant about cybersecurity.

“All of the events that have been in the headlines over the last few years, every one of those began with phishing email or some sort of social engineering attack into every one of those companies.”

Every Pacific Power employee is routinely tested with false emails in order to better understand the threat.

“You’re never 100 percent secure, so what you also want to be able to do is to respond and restore as rapidly as possible.”

During his presentation, Bird lauded the efficiency of smart meters, Pacific Power’s commitment to electric vehicle charging capacity, and expanded wind energy resources. He said the company’s work with independent operators in eight western states and British Columbia will soon expand to Baja California.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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