Construction of the Salt Tanks which provide efficient thermal energy storage so that output can be provided after the sun goes down, and output can be scheduled to meet demand requirements. The 280 MW Solana Generating Station is designed to provide six hours of energy storage. This allows the plant to generate about 38 percent of its rated capacity over the course of a year.
Thermal energy storage. The Andasol CSP plant uses tanks of molten salt to store solar energy.
Pumped-storage hydroelectricity (PSH). This facility in Geesthacht, Germany, also includes a solar array.
The overwhelming majority of electricity produced worldwide is used immediately, since storage is usually more expensive and because traditional generators can adapt to demand. However both solar power and wind power are variable renewable energy, meaning that all available output must be taken whenever it is available by moving through transmission lines to where it can be used now. Since solar energy is not available at night, storing its energy is potentially an important issue particularly in off-grid and for future 100% renewable energy scenarios to have continuous electricity availability.
Solar electricity is inherently variable and predictable by time of day, location, and seasons. In addition solar is intermittent due to day/night cycles and unpredictable weather. How much of a special challenge solar power is in any given electric utility varies significantly. In a summer peak utility, solar is well matched to daytime cooling demands. In winter peak utilities, solar displaces other forms of generation, reducing their capacity factors.
In an electricity system without grid energy storage, generation from stored fuels (coal, biomass, natural gas, nuclear) must be go up and down in reaction to the rise and fall of solar electricity (see load following power plant). While hydroelectric and natural gas plants can quickly follow solar being intermittent due to the weather, coal, biomass and nuclear plants usually take considerable time to respond to load and can only be scheduled to follow the predictable variation. Depending on local circumstances, beyond about 20–40% of total generation, grid-connected intermittent sources like solar tend to require investment in some combination of grid interconnections, energy storage or demand side management. Integrating large amounts of solar power with existing generation equipment has caused issues in some cases. For example, in Germany, California and Hawaii, electricity prices have been known to go negative when solar is generating a lot of power, displacing existing baseload generation contracts.
Conventional hydroelectricity works very well in conjunction with solar power, water can be held back or released from a reservoir behind a dam as required. Where a suitable river is not available, pumped-storage hydroelectricity uses solar power to pump water to a high reservoir on sunny days then the energy is recovered at night and in bad weather by releasing water via a hydroelectric plant to a low reservoir where the cycle can begin again. However, this cycle can lose 20% of the energy to round trip inefficiencies, this plus the construction costs add to the expense of implementing high levels of solar power.
Concentrated solar power plants may use thermal storage to store solar energy, such as in high-temperature molten salts. These salts are an effective storage medium because they are low-cost, have a high specific heat capacity, and can deliver heat at temperatures compatible with conventional power systems. This method of energy storage is used, for example, by the Solar Two power station, allowing it to store 1.44 TJ in its 68 m³ storage tank, enough to provide full output for close to 39 hours, with an efficiency of about 99%.
In stand alone PV systems batteries are traditionally used to store excess electricity. With grid-connected photovoltaic power system, excess electricity can be sent to the electrical grid. Net metering and feed-in tariff programs give these systems a credit for the electricity they produce. This credit offsets electricity provided from the grid when the system cannot meet demand, effectively trading with the grid instead of storing excess electricity. Credits are normally rolled over from month to month and any remaining surplus settled annually. When wind and solar are a small fraction of the grid power, other generation techniques can adjust their output appropriately, but as these forms of variable power grow, additional balance on the grid is needed. As prices are rapidly declining, PV systems increasingly use rechargeable batteries to store a surplus to be later used at night. Batteries used for grid-storage stabilize the electrical grid by leveling out peak loads usually for several minutes, and in rare cases for hours. In the future, less expensive batteries could play an important role on the electrical grid, as they can charge during periods when generation exceeds demand and feed their stored energy into the grid when demand is higher than generation.
Although not permitted under the US National Electric Code, it is technically possible to have a “plug and play” PV microinverter. A recent review article found that careful system design would enable such systems to meet all technical, though not all safety requirements. There are several companies selling plug and play solar systems available on the web, but there is a concern that if people install their own it will reduce the enormous employment advantage solar has over fossil fuels.
Common battery technologies used in today’s home PV systems include, the valve regulated lead-acid battery– a modified version of the conventional lead–acid battery, nickel–cadmium and lithium-ion batteries. Lead-acid batteries are currently the predominant technology used in small-scale, residential PV systems, due to their high reliability, low self discharge and investment and maintenance costs, despite shorter lifetime and lower energy density. However, lithium-ion batteries have the potential to replace lead-acid batteries in the near future, as they are being intensively developed and lower prices are expected due to economies of scale provided by large production facilities such as the Gigafactory 1. In addition, the Li-ion batteries of plug-in electric cars may serve as a future storage devices in a vehicle-to-grid system. Since most vehicles are parked an average of 95 percent of the time, their batteries could be used to let electricity flow from the car to the power lines and back. Other rechargeable batteries used for distributed PV systems include, sodium–sulfur and vanadium redox batteries, two prominent types of a molten salt and a flow battery, respectively.
The combination of wind and solar PV has the advantage that the two sources complement each other because the peak operating times for each system occur at different times of the day and year. The power generation of such solar hybrid power systems is therefore more constant and fluctuates less than each of the two component subsystems. Solar power is seasonal, particularly in northern/southern climates, away from the equator, suggesting a need for long term seasonal storage in a medium such as hydrogen or pumped hydroelectric. The Institute for Solar Energy Supply Technology of the University of Kassel pilot-tested a combined power plant linking solar, wind, biogas and hydrostorage to provide load-following power from renewable sources.
Research is also undertaken in this field of artificial photosynthesis. It involves the use of nanotechnology to store solar electromagnetic energy in chemical bonds, by splitting water to produce hydrogen fuel or then combining with carbon dioxide to make biopolymers such as methanol. Many large national and regional research projects on artificial photosynthesis are now trying to develop techniques integrating improved light capture, quantum coherence methods of electron transfer and cheap catalytic materials that operate under a variety of atmospheric conditions. Senior researchers in the field have made the public policy case for a Global Project on Artificial Photosynthesis to address critical energy security and environmental sustainability issues.