MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The ability to store energy could revolutionize the way electricity is made and used. It could lead to solar and wind energy becoming more widespread. But for many utility companies, that storage is still way out of reach. It's expensive, sometimes more expensive than building out old-fashioned infrastructure like power lines and power plants. Wyoming Public Radio's Leigh Paterson reports on the point at which energy storage becomes worth it.
LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: For people like Jim and Lyn Schneider, their decision to invest in battery storage came four years ago when they moved to central Wyoming.
JIM SCHNEIDER: Well, like right now, you sit and listen, and it's so quiet.
PATERSON: We walked through sagebrush in the backyard. It's ringed by red rocks on one side and wide-open prairie on another. They love it. But when the Schneiders bought this land four years ago, it was missing one thing.
LYN SCHNEIDER: Electricity (laughter). It's like wow, we're going to have to be really primitive.
PATERSON: That's because the utility company was going to charge them around $80,000 to bring electricity to the property. Installing solar panels and batteries was also expensive but a little bit cheaper.
J. SCHNEIDER: This is our battery box.
PATERSON: It's filled with 12 red batteries, each about the size of a brown paper grocery bag. The system functions, but it's work.
J. SCHNEIDER: I didn't know there'd be as much maintenance to it, you know?
L. SCHNEIDER: He's got a clipboard with a bunch of sheets on it that I don't know anything about, so...
J. SCHNEIDER: (Laughter).
PATERSON: Batteries can also be toxic, and they die. The Schneiders have to replace three of theirs this summer.
L. SCHNEIDER: Which batteries are bad?
J. SCHNEIDER: I don't know. I'd have to look at the sheet.
PATERSON: Their experience illustrates the problems with energy storage, problems that are a big disincentive for large utility companies.
BRIAN WARSHAY: Typical grid infrastructure, what utilities tend to invest in, are equipment and projects that last decades - 10, 20, 30, 40 years.
PATERSON: That's Brian Warshay, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
WARSHAY: Energy storage has a big question mark on whether it can meet some of those rigorous lifetime operational requirements.
PATERSON: And then there's the price tag. The Department of Energy predicts that in order for battery storage to become economically viable, costs would need to be cut in more than half. And it's something that big companies all are working on. Tesla Motors, the electric car manufacturer, recently unveiled its Powerwall, a home battery that it's also marketing to utilities. Other companies are banking away electricity in compressed air, molten salt, in the spinning wheels of a train and in gigantic blocks of ice.
WARSHAY: Right now we're at 50.5 volts, 6 volts.
PATERSON: All day, Jim and Lyn Schneider keep an eye on a digital power gauge in their kitchen because for them, energy storage is not a developing technology or a useful add-on to the grid. The Schneiders rely on solar during the day and conserve battery power for nighttime use. Lyn was reminded of how unusual this is on a recent trip to visit her daughter in Iowa.
L. SCHNEIDER: I got up in the morning and go, oh, look, the sun's up; I can have toast. And she goes, Mom, you're in Iowa; you can have toast anytime you want (laughter).
PATERSON: Beyond home batteries and the timing of your toast, estimates on when large-scale battery storage will go online are all over the map. Some analysts say five years. Others say never. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson in Laramie.
BLOCK: This story comes to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.
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