In 1883 Thomas Edison said,
The storage battery is one of those peculiar things which appeals to the imagination, and no more perfect thing could be desired by stock swindlers than that very selfsame thing. ... Just as soon as a man gets working on the secondary battery it brings out his latent capacity for lying.
The problem isn't so much the batteries, which haven't improved all that much over the last century. Instead, the problem lies in the fertile imaginations of scientists, engineers, politicians, ideologues, analysts and investors who focus on new energy storage applications, overestimate the potential, underestimate the challenges and make a quantum leap from the reasonable to the absurd. There is no issue in the energy storage sector that's more wildly over-estimated than the short- to medium-term potential for using manufactured energy storage devices in the electric grid.
This week, the Smart Grid Intelligence Team at Lux Research, aka the hype busters, presented a 46 minute webinar on the current state of the grid-based energy storage market and its likely development over the next few years. After listening to the live webinar I asked Lux if they're be willing to share their work with my readers and they graciously agreed. Readers who want to listen to the entire webinar can do so by clicking on this link to "Grid Storage: Connecting dots in a fragmented market." For readers who don't have the time for the webinar, I'll try to summarize some of the highlights.
While respected institutions like Sandia National Laboratories have estimated that grid based energy storage represents a $200 billion opportunity, the global installed base of manufactured energy storage devices cost about $1.1 billion, roughly half of that capacity was built in 2011, and a similar amount of new capacity will be added next year. The following table offers a more granular analysis that allocates the installed base and planned additions, expressed in millions of dollars, among the five storage technologies Lux evaluated.
By 2015, Lux forecasts an annual market for grid-based storage in the $1.5 billion range. Other firms like Pike research expect faster growth rates. While the prospect of rapid and sustained growth is enough to awaken the animal spirits in all of us, Lux took pains to emphasize several key points:
- There is no silver bullet solution for the grid and several technology classes will be important;
- There is no unified mass market for grid-based energy storage technologies;
- The market for grid-based energy storage is highly fragmented and extremely price sensitive;
- The two largest market segments for grid-based storage are behind the meter installations for commercial and industrial facilities and in front of the meter facilities for renewable power generators;
- Most buyers of grid-based energy storage will require several years of reliability data before making a major capital commitment to any energy storage technology; and
- End-users of energy storage systems will try to aggregate as many value streams as possible to maximize the total economic benefit of their energy storage investments.
For energy storage investors, the most important question is always "Cui Bono?," who will benefit. While there are a lot more questions than answers at this point and Lux did not focus on the principal players in the emerging grid-based storage sector during the webinar, there is a fairly short list of public companies that are actively involved in developing large scale energy storage systems for the grid connected market including:
- Japan's NGK Insulators (OTC:NGKIF), which has built and installed the overwhelming bulk of the high-temperature sodium-sulfur battery systems in the world and is currently trading at about 40% discount from recent highs because it has suspended battery sales pending investigation of a recent fire.
- General Electric (NYSE:GE), which has built a new manufacturing facility for a high-temperature molten salt device known as the Zebra battery and is preparing to launch a series of products for large commercial and industrial users.
- A123 Systems (AONE), which has a strong working relationship with AES Corporation (NYSE:AES) and is making rapid progress in the renewable power generation market with its high-power lithium-ion battery systems that are used for output smoothing and renewable to grid integration.
- Altair Nanotechnologies (NASDAQ:ALTI), which has demonstrated a high-power lithium-ion battery system for frequency regulation and negotiated a significant sale in El Salvador that's bogged down in regulatory approval issues.
- Enersys (NYSE:ENS), which manufactures advanced lead-acid batteries for commercial and industrial power quality, load leveling and uninterruptable power supply systems.
- Axion Power International (NASDAQ:AXPW), which has joined with Viridity Energy to demonstrate a behind the meter energy storage system for commercial and industrial facilities that integrates utility revenue and demand response savings with conventional power quality, load leveling and uninterruptable power benefits to users.
- Active Power (NASDAQ:ACPW), which is a world-leader in flywheel based power quality and reliability systems for data centers and other critical infrastructure facilities that require absolute reliability.
- ZBB Energy (ZBB), which recently completed a three-year validation test of its flow-battery system in cooperation with Australia's Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization, is awaiting UL approval for its power control systems and is rapidly expanding its sales and marketing team.
My clearest takeaway from the Lux webinar is that regulated utilities will probably be among the last to invest heavily in grid-based storage because of their risk aversion and their need to justify capital spending to regulatory agencies that are charged with protecting the ratepayers.
On the power producer's end of the grid there are significant opportunities for storage systems to smooth and stabilize power output from wind and solar while optimizing revenue streams to the owners of the facilities. At the power user's end of the grid, the most readily quantifiable values will be derived by commercial and industrial customers who can aggregate the internal benefits of power quality and reliability with external monetary benefits from demand response programs and providing ancillary services to the utility side of the meter. Over time, the most successful technologies will build a long enough track record of reliability to take a direct run at utilities and transmission system operators, but it's not reasonable to expect the utility and transmission markets to develop rapidly over the next five years.
It's far too early in the game for me to try handicapping likely winners and losers, but most of the companies in the list are currently trading at lottery-ticket prices that will not be available once their competitive positions in this rapidly expanding niche are better understood.
Disclosure. Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.