The following commentary was written by Shelley Hudson Robbins. Robbins is a project director at Clean Energy Group. Her work focuses on the Phase Out Peakers Project and the Resilient Power Project. She has also worked for Upstate Forever in South Carolina, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, the Florida Governor’s Office (defending the state from offshore drilling), and the Florida Public Service Commission. See our commentary guidelines for more information.
The clean energy transition calls us to electrify everything, and to do so equitably. At the same time, we need resilient power to keep refrigerators, lights, and critical medical equipment running during ever-more-frequent power outages. This, too, is an equity issue, since outages are more common in underserved communities.
Traditional battery storage is one way to keep the power on when the grid goes down. Another is developing right under our noses, in the form of battery-equipped appliances. I call it “stealth storage.”
Last November, a California startup called Channing Street Copper Company introduced an induction cooktop equipped with a 4-kilowatt-hour lithium iron phosphate battery. The battery boost means the stove can be installed in a home with a 110-volt outlet (as opposed to the 220 or 240 volts usually required for an induction cooktop). And it cleverly includes an extra outlet so that other appliances can tap into the battery.
The battery-equipped stove may seem like yet another high-tech toy for wealthier consumers. But, in an interview with Dave Roberts of Volts, Channing Street’s chief scientist Steve Calisch described the battery in the cooktop as a “Trojan horse” – a way to introduce battery storage into households via ordinary items such as stoves and refrigerators. Indeed, built-in batteries could someday be as common as the microchips now embedded in so many products.
Media coverage of battery-equipped appliances has mostly focused on their load-shifting powers: For example, a grid-tied stove can store energy during the day when solar is powering the grid and release it after dark or when demand spikes. But stealth storage can do so much more. Importantly, it can build resilience in the communities that need it most.
Imagine this scenario: A low-income family includes an elder with COPD who depends on a portable oxygen machine. When a massive storm hits the community, the power goes out. Fortunately, a community program replaced the family’s old range with a battery-equipped induction stove. The stove’s battery can be tapped to run the oxygen machine, keeping the family member home and out of the emergency room. A 4-kilowatt-hour battery can run the refrigerator for a few days. It can charge cell phones, run a fan if the weather is hot, or a small efficient heater if it’s cold. And of course, the battery can power the stove. By keeping these critical items running, a vulnerable family avoids a major disruption – saving resources and lives.
Now imagine that the stove, the refrigerator, and the water heater all have small batteries, which would all be available to lend their charged power to other needs during a blackout. The result: a super-distributed, resilient network of backup power.
If this seems far-fetched, consider the now-ubiquitous microchip. Who remembers when telephones did not contain computer chips? Televisions? Cars? The chip, formerly known as an integrated circuit, was invented in 1958 by Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments (and also independently invented six months later by Robert Noyce, who went on to co-found Intel).
At first, computer chips made complex things smaller, faster, and cooler; eventually they allowed connection to the internet, which was “born” in 1983. Fast forward a few years, and computer chips have now enabled the “internet of things,” such as smart thermostats, heat pump water heaters, and HVAC systems. These innovations play an important role in the transition from fossil fuels by allowing appliances to shift energy demand away from peak times that require the firing of the dirtiest power plants on the grid, called “peakers.” Chip and internet technology are now advancing at blinding speed to allow some traditional consumer items to play a role in the clean energy transition.
With some help from the federal government, battery-equipped appliances could do the same. In fact, development of the Channing Street stove was funded, in part, by a Department of Energy effort. More federal support could help bring costs down for battery-equipped appliances.
As importantly, the federal government can prioritize deployment of battery-equipped appliances in the low-income communities and communities of color where resilience is needed most. The upfront cost of adding traditional battery storage has historically been a significant hurdle for low-income households. These include both soft costs associated with installation (electrical wiring, permitting, etc.) as well as the cost of navigating local building and fire codes.
In the Volts interview, Calisch points out that battery-equipped appliances tackle these cost issues: Battery storage is installed in a factory setting, which decreases cost while increasing quality control, and specialized installation is not required at the residence. Affordable battery storage can also reach renters more easily, helping to solve the landlord-tenant disincentive problem that results in under-investment in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies for rental properties.
If the cost of battery-equipped appliances is brought down quickly and dramatically, stealth storage can soon become as ubiquitous as computer chips. That could be good news for vulnerable communities in an increasingly disaster-prone world.