A Big Test for Big Batteries

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — In Southern California in the fall of 2015, a giant natural gas leak not only caused one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history, it also knocked out a critical fuel source for regional power plants.
 
Energy regulators needed a quick fix.
 
But rather than sticking with gas, they turned to a technology more closely associated with flashlights: batteries. They freed up the utilities to start installing batteries — and lots of them.
 
It is a solution that’s audacious and risky. The idea is that the batteries can store electricity during daylight hours (when the state’s many solar panels are flooding the grid with power), then release it as demand peaks (early evening, when people get home). In effect, the rechargeable batteries are like an on-demand power plant, and, in theory, able to replace an actual plant.
 
Utilities have been studying batteries nationwide. But none have moved ahead with the gusto of those in Southern California.
 
This idea has far-reaching potential. But the challenge of storing electricity has vexed engineers, researchers, policy makers and entrepreneurs for centuries. Even as countless technologies have raced ahead, batteries haven’t yet fulfilled their promise.
 
And the most powerful new designs come with their own risks, such as fire or explosion if poorly made or maintained. It’s the same problem that forced Samsung to recall 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in September because of fire risk.
 
After racing for months, engineers here in California have brought three energy-storage sites close to completion to begin serving the Southern California electric grid within the next month. They are made up of thousands of oversize versions of the lithium-ion batteries now widely used in smartphones, laptop computers and other digital devices.
 
One of the installations, at a San Diego Gas & Electric operations center surrounded by industrial parks in Escondido, Calif., 30 miles north of San Diego, will be the largest of its kind in the world, developers say. It represents the most crucial test yet of an energy-storage technology that many experts see as fundamental to a clean-energy future.
 
Here, about 130 miles southeast of Aliso Canyon, the site of the immense gas leak in 2015 — the global-warming equivalent of operating about 1.7 million cars over the course of a year — 19,000 battery modules the size of a kitchen drawer are being wired together in racks. They will operate out of two dozen beige, 640-square-foot trailers.
 
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