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Calif. ISO confident in reliability this summer despite battery storage stumbles

SNL Image

Vistra is conducting an investigation into the second outage of its energy storage station in Moss Landing, Calif.
Source: Vistra Corp.

Intended as forerunners in California's move toward a carbon-free grid, two massive energy storage projects situated next to an aging natural gas-fired power plant on Monterey Bay have stumbled out of the gate.

The two projects, Vistra Corp.'s Moss Landing Energy Storage Facility, one of the world's largest lithium-ion battery stations, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s Elkhorn project, another major electrochemical asset, are emblematic of the Golden State's energy transition — both its opportunities and its challenges. Vistra's project, with 400 MW/1,600 MWh of installed capacity and up to 1,100 MW/4,400 MWh more planned, remains out of service following separate plant troubles in February and in September 2021.

Meanwhile, the 182.5-MW/730-MWh Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, facility is more than a year delayed.

"As with any new technology integration or construction project, there is the potential for conditions that can create delays," Paul Doherty, a spokesperson for the PG&E Corp. subsidiary, said in an email.

Originally scheduled to come online in December 2020, PG&E's Elkhorn project, including Megapack batteries from Tesla Inc., "is undergoing final testing and certification and is anticipated to be operational before summer 2022, pending final tests," Doherty added. The spokesperson declined to share the specific reason for the project's delay, citing confidentiality.

In a January call with investment analysts, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said the company shortchanged its energy business in 2021 to focus on electric vehicles and flagged ongoing supply chain issues in 2022.

PG&E pitched the utility-owned Elkhorn project and a 20-year contract with Vistra for the initial 300-MW phase at Moss Landing in 2018 as part of a 567.5-MW/2,270-MWh package of energy storage. The four deals, which included the 75-MW Hummingbird Battery Energy Storage System and 10 MW of behind-the-meter batteries, were proposed to address local reliability concerns in an area stretching from Silicon Valley to Monterey Bay and to eliminate the need for pricey agreements with three natural gas projects.

None of those contracted batteries, all scheduled to start up in 2019 and 2020, are delivering energy as developers race to fix operational shortcomings or complete their projects before this year's peak summer demand season.

Vistra's Moss Landing facility helped California through a capacity crunch during regionwide heatwaves last summer as the state avoided a repeat of the rolling blackouts endured in August 2020. But it remains unclear whether the plant will be back in operation for this summer. In mid-February, Vistra paused the planned restart of the first 300-MW phase when it discovered smoke coming from its second 100-MW phase.

An investigation is ongoing, a company spokesperson said in a March 16 email. Early evidence indicates that water hoses leaked and shorted some batteries, similar to the incident in September 2021, according to the company.

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PG&E's Elkhorn storage station in Moss Landing, Calif., is next to Vistra's battery and gas plant.
Source: EKM Metering Inc.

No 'serious threats'

Despite these and numerous other delays and plant problems at energy storage facilities, California's power grid should remain stable this summer, according to California ISO spokesperson Vonette Fontaine.

"We study unplanned outages close to the real-time time frame to ensure that we can operate the grid reliably. We have not identified serious threats to reliability from these outages at this time," Fontaine said.

Over the past year, the grid operator has been tracking delays due to supply chain disruptions. But it is "not expecting deficiencies that would prevent reliable grid operations for this summer," Fontaine added.

With more than 2,600 MW of battery power capacity on its system at the beginning of February and another roughly 2,000 MW anticipated by summer, CAISO is looking to battery storage to help keep the lights on.

"Overall performance from the storage fleet last summer helped the [independent system operator] operate the grid reliably, and performance to date gives confidence about storage performance on the grid in the future," Fontaine said.

'Challenges are real'

Based on information from suppliers, the grid operator believes that supply chain disruptions will be short term.

But for now, "batteries are really tough," Justin Johnson, COO of project developer Arevon Energy Inc., said in a recent interview, citing soaring material and shipping costs and supply shortages.

Arevon Energy has a growing portfolio of stand-alone storage and battery-backed solar projects in California and the U.S. Southwest. That includes the recently completed Townsite Solar Project in Boulder City, Nev., which services customers in Nevada and California with 180 MW of solar and 90 MW of four-hour energy storage.

Arevon Energy also has an agreement with PG&E, announced in January, for the 300-MW/1,200-MWh Nighthawk Energy Storage Project in Poway, Calif., scheduled for completion by June 2024.

Johnson hopes that by then, the current extraordinary supply chain headwinds, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine, will have returned to more manageable concerns.

"In terms of projects that are slated for construction in 2022 and 2023, those challenges are real," Johnson said. "I think a really common approach is trying to delay the [completion] date for projects, just to hope the turbulence we're in eventually starts to resolve itself and the situation improves with logistics and costs."

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