Correction appended

Adding more energy storage in Minnesota could reduce the need for more fossil fuel power plants and significantly reduce greenhouse gases, according to a new University of Minnesota report.

Issued by the university’s Energy Transition Lab, “Modernizing Minnesota’s Grid: An Economic Analysis of Energy Storage Opportunities” looks at how the introduction of more storage could reshape the state’s energy grid.

Ellen Anderson, executive director of the Energy Transition Lab, said storage could help utilities avoid building peaking plants that run only at times of high-volume electric consumption.

“It looked like using storage alone for replacing a gas peaking plant would be cost effective in a few years,” she said.

However, if the storage was combined with solar energy, “it would be cost effective now and you would significantly reduce greenhouse gases compared to using a peaking plant to meet demand,” she added.

Moreover, storage could hasten the rollout of more renewable energy projects because power produced by wind or solar could be stored and delivered when needed, she said.

The same would be true for the larger Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO), which manages the grid in most Midwest states. Were Minnesota to take a leadership role it might become a center for storage in the Midwest, Anderson suggested.

Anderson and others involved in the project met with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday to discuss the potential for storage.

Competing with generation

She hopes the commission will consider an “all source procurement” process in the future that allows for energy storage to compete with generation projects at the commission, which could potentially lead to more storage projects. For now Minnesota only has one small storage project at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth.

However, the landscape is beginning to change. Connexus, the state’s largest electric cooperative, is embarking upon a solar-plus-storage project that, when completed, will be the largest in the Midwest, Anderson said. It will be as large as 40 megawatt hours and could pave the way for other utilities to follow.

Ed Burgess, senior manager for Strategen Consulting who also worked on the report, said Minnesota and the Midwest need more pilot projects — one place to start would be at a community solar garden site.

“That seems a simple step,” he said.

Secondly, MISO would have to allow storage a place in the wholesale market where it could compete with power generators.

Another consultant on the report, Vibrant Clean Energy founder Chris Clack, examined the impact of storage on MISO. He found Minnesota could add 40 gigawatts of storage, especially in the wind-energy-rich southwest section of the state.

That could slow the general momentum of natural gas plants’ replacing coal plants, and could even eliminate the need for combustion natural gas plants in Minnesota, Clack suggested.

Overall, storage could reduce the need transmission investments and make the grid more reliable and adaptable, he added.

The report is a result of two stakeholder meetings involving more than 60 people that captured input from utilities and other energy interests in the state, Anderson said.

Other suggested strategies include holding an energy storage conference, developing a cost recovery strategy for utilities, conduct outreach programs to legislators and study tours.

“The time to start (energy storage projects) is now,” Anderson said. “The economics have changed so much that it’s viable now.”

(Correction: The Hartley Nature Center was misidentified.)

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.