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When the Sun Goes Down: Is Hybrid Power the Answer to Renewable Energy’s Variable Output?

It’s nearly summertime in the U.S., and that means pool time, BBQs and ... rolling blackouts? A May 8 Wall Street Journal article warned of rolling blackouts throughout the summer because electric-grid operators across the country are struggling to keep up with demand. And the trend is hardly a new one. Large, sustained outages have occurred with greater frequency over the past two decades.

With more and more traditional coal and natural gas power plants being retired, the challenge remains to tap into renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. It’s a delicate balance between encouraging the use of these new technologies while keeping traditional power plants from shutting down too quickly. And while renewables offer a more inexpensive form of power generation, supply chain issues and inflation are further compounding their launch. The other challenge: renewables, by nature of source, don’t offer a 24x7 power-producing operation.

Hybrid power plants – combining electricity generation with battery storage at the same location – might be the answer to more steady, renewable and congestion-reducing power. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 1,400 gigawatts of proposed generation and storage projects have applied to connect to the grid, which is more than all existing U.S. power plants combined. The report found the majority of these to be solar projects, and more than 1/3 of them are hybrid solar plus storage.

At the end of 2020, there were 73 solar and 16 wind hybrid projects operating in the U.S., amounting to 2.5 gigawatts of generation and 0.45 gigawatts of storage. By the end of 2021, more than 675 gigawatts of proposed solar plants had applied for grid connection approval, with over a third of them paired with storage. Another 247 gigawatts of wind farms were in line, with 19 gigawatts, or about 8% of those, as hybrids. (source: Electricity Markets and Policy Group at Berkeley Lab)

Increased production from the electric vehicle market has helped prices of lithium-ion batteries fall in recent months, making hybrid power plants more cost effective. Further, adding batteries to a solar plant increases the price and also increases the value of the power offered, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found. Facilities that capture energy and have the means to store it on site can benefit from construction cost savings and operational flexibility. Additionally, facilities which offer energy storage charged at least 75% of the time by a co-located solar project are currently eligible for a 26% investment tax credit (ITC). All combined, these factors create a net positive for development.

Hybrid Power Development Means Diverse Job Opportunities

While interest remains high for hybrid plant development, it’s a long road to get up and running. Projects that do get built are taking longer on average to complete required studies and become operational, making it ever more important to have a team of professionals well-versed in the process to guide development. Developers need land and community agreements, a sales contract, financing and permits before beginning the construction process. Seasoned program management firms familiar with the building type can make the process more seamless. Whether you’re on the development side and need support from land acquisition through community engagement and design and construction, or you’re on the project management side needing the staff to design and build hybrid plants, we’ve got candidates in all categories. Contact us today to help with your staffing needs.

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