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The most widely misunderstood subject in the field of energy storage is the potential for grid-based applications. They fire the imagination because the grid is so pervasive and the need is so great. They also present immense challenges to storage technology developers because the fundamental economic value per unit of grid-based energy storage is very low.

While the subject of grid-based storage provides rich fodder for media reports and political posturing, the reality bears little relation to the perception. On March 9th, Lux Research published a sorely needed reality check in a new report titled "Grid Storage – Islands of Opportunity in a Sea of Failure," which concluded that "Amongst the sea of possible scenarios, there are few combinations that offer an acceptable payback, while endless potential pitfalls exist."

Lux analyzed the business scenario for 14 emerging energy storage technologies across 23 applications to identify the best investments for utilities, transmission operators, independent power producers and building operators in California, Germany, and China. The report was based in large part on data from a December 2010 study published by the Electric Power Research Institute, "Electricity Energy Storage Technology Options – A White Paper Primer on Applications, Costs and Benefits." While the Lux report and the EPRI study both offer detailed insight for institutional investors that are contemplating investments in energy storage, they're too detailed for individual investors who are mainly concerned with managing their personal portfolios.

The first thing individual investors need to understand is that while global electric power generating capacity is roughly 4,000 GW, total installed energy storage capacity is less than 128 GW, or 3.2% of generating capacity. The second thing they need to understand is that substantially all of the existing storage facilities are pumped hydro. The following graph from the EPRI report provides additional color on how much installed capacity really exists for the exciting new energy storage technologies the press is gushing over.

click to enlarge images

3.22.11 Global Storage.png

While EPRI's installed capacity graph should be enough to make cautious investors pause to check their assumptions, another graph from the EPRI report is far more useful. It shows the estimated size of the potential market for 15 key energy storage applications on the horizontal axis and then shows the maximum price per kWh of storage capacity an end-user would be willing to pay on the vertical axis. The red annotations are mine.

3.22.11 Grid Markets.png

Wholesale frequency regulation, the application that's getting the bulk of the media attention, is shown on the left-hand side of the graph. It's the primary target for cool storage technologies like flywheel-based systems from Beacon Power (BCOND) and lithium-ion battery based systems from Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI), A123 Systems (AONE), Ener1 (HEV) and others. Despite the media's excitement, the reality is wholesale frequency regulation represents less than 1% of potential demand for grid-based storage. The other 99% can only be served by cheap energy storage technologies. Less than a half of the potential market will ever be addressable by manufactured energy storage devices. The rest will remain out of reach without widespread deployment of pumped hydro, compressed air and other large-scale electro-mechanical systems.

There's little question that the potential markets for manufactured energy storage devices in grid-based applications are big enough to support several successful companies. They're just not as easy as the media reports would have us believe. Wholesale frequency regulation in the US is probably limited to something on the order of 400 MW, which works out to about $1.6 billion in domestic revenue potential. The bigger prize is the $16 billion of potential demand for manufactured systems that can be installed at a price point of $500 to $1,700 per kWh. Globally, those target markets are closer to $5 billion and $50 billion, respectively.

Of the electro-chemical energy storage technologies discussed in the EPRI report, conventional and advanced lead-acid batteries and flow batteries usually offered the best cost profiles for the work of transmission and distribution upgrade deferral in both fixed and transportable formats. The economics remain challenging when you include the costs of containerization, interconnect equipment and control electronics, but they are within the realm of reason. Once you get beyond short-duration frequency regulation, however, cool technologies don't stand a chance of being competitive.

The universe of publicly traded US companies that can respond to the need for cheap grid-based energy storage is small. It includes Enersys (ENS), Exide Technologies (XIDE), and C&D Technologies (CHHPD.PK) in the established manufacturer ranks with Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and ZBB Energy (ZBB) in the emerging company ranks. Cool technologies will probably continue to claim the lion's share of the headlines, but cheap technologies will almost certainly claim the lion's share of the revenues and profits. From an investor's perspective, those are the only metrics that really matter.

Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.