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The market for storing electricity is drawing not only startups building new technology but also new comers that want to build and install new projects. Meet Solar Grid Storage, a two-year-old, angel-funded startup which just completed a project that mixes batteries with solar panels and electric car charging stations in Maryland.
The Philadelphia-based company is one of a growing crop of storage project developers that has materialized in recent years to stake a claim in a young market that’s being shaped by public policies to promote clean energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Solar Grid’s CEO, Tom Leyden, compares his company to SunEdison (s SUNE) and PowerLight, the two early players in designing and building solar power generation projects.
SunPower (s SPWR), the Silicon Valley-based solar panel maker, bought PowerLight in 2007. Leyden was actually an executive at PowerLight and later in SolarCity (s SCTY), before joining Solar Grid. SolarCity has been marketing solar panels with lithium-ion battery systems from Tesla Motors (s TSLA).
Solar Grid develops projects that pair an array of solar panels with energy storage equipment that could not only provide backup power but also sell energy delivery services to local utilities and grid operators. It buys all of the necessary components and hires others to create lithium-ion battery packs using cells from Panasonic or LG, the inverters and the rest of the gear. It then puts the equipment inside a steel container and ships it to a customer. The company’s intellectual property lies in the designs of its inverters and algorithms for managing the charging and discharging of batteries, Leyden said.
Solar Grid also works on lining up financing for its projects, a particularly difficult challenge given that the energy storage market is so young and many banks aren’t willing to put money into what they consider unproven technologies. In fact, two of the big obstacles for growing the energy storage market are being able to show that energy storage technologies will work as promised over time and that there is good money to be made. Wells Fargo is going as far as installing a battery system at one of its corporate buildings in Southern California to collect this type of data.
Leyden declined to divulge the sources of his project funding but called them “boutique investors.” Solar Grid’s energy storage projects for now promise to deliver returns in the range of 12 percent to 15 percent, almost twice as much as what solar projects deliver these days, he said. The premium returns are necessary to attract investors. The company focuses on projects between 250 KW to 10 MW.
Leyden is working on raising a $50 million fund to finance 50 MW of energy storage projects. The money would cover the equipment, installation, operation and maintenance of the storage equipment over 10 years, he said. The solar portion of a project would be financed separately.
Solar Grid could either develop and build energy storage projects for its customers who then own the equipment, or it could own the projects and provide the energy delivery services. Owning the projects and making sure they don’t cause too much financial burden over time requires more capital and is seen as risky in a market that is in its infancy. That’s especially true for large projects serving the utility market.
In the recently completed project in Maryland, Solar Grid provided financing along with PNC Bank and Konterra, a real estate developer. The project, which includes solar, batteries and electric car charging stations, are located at Konterra’s headquarters.
Many energy storage project developers are targeting the East Coast, including in Maryland, which is served by PJM, a grid operator that has acted quicker than its peers to set up a payment system for energy storage services. PJM and other grid operators in the country are complying with a 2011 mandate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to promote the use of energy storage to help run the electric grid smoothly, especially when an increasing amount of solar and wind electricity is flowing into the grid.
One of the ways energy storage operators make money is to send bursts of power into the grid to help the grid run at its needed frequency. Beacon Power and AES Energy are some of the energy storage companies that are selling those grid-stabilizing services within PJM, which covers parts or all of 13 states and the Washington, D.C.
California also is gearing up to be an important energy storage market. The state is working on rules that will require its utilities to use energy storage services to stabilize a grid that will get a lot more solar and wind power in order to hit its goal to have 33 percent of the electricity supplies coming from renewable sources. California already is the largest solar energy market in the country thanks to that renewable energy mandate and incentives that encourage solar panel installations at homes and businesses.