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Austin Energy seeks to integrate energy resources into grid

Jordan Smith
By Jordan Smith June 12th, 2020
4 min read
For business

(June 12, 2020)

Austin Energy is expanding the state's energy resources.

A pilot project from Austin Energy aims to test how to integrate distributed energy resources most effectively into the grid. The Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar Photovoltaics program, known as Austin SHINES, is investigating the options for connecting rooftop solar and battery storage to the utility’s network.

The project includes $11.5 million of investments in a combination of utility scale energy storage systems, commercial solar panels, and residential rooftop solar. Additionally, Austin SHINES is making use of a management system for integrating DERs into the grid, and real-time data to assist with the assessment of future energy demand.

The utility-scale part of the project involves a 2.5 megawatt community solar farm and two 1.5 megawatt battery storage facilities. Three storage sites make up the commercial DER part, comprising one with a capacity of 18 kilowatt/36 kilowatt hours lithium battery storage, and two with 72 kilowatt/144 kilowatt hours. Residential storage at six properties, each with a capacity of 10 kilowatt hours, are also being studied.

Another critical part of the project looks at how to link electric vehicles (EVs) with the grid. Last December, research published by Navigant estimated that grid services related to EVs could generate $1.4 billion in revenue across the United States by 2030. The researchers pointed out that advanced plans exist to carry out managed charging, or automatically charging EVs at times during the day when energy demand is at its lowest.

However, one major challenge is to examine how energy stored in EVs could be returned to the grid if needed without causing long-term damage to EV batteries and problems for local grid capacity.

An example to be followed

Austin Energy, which is the third largest publicly-owned utility, believes that DERs will have to play an increasingly prominent role in its energy offering over the coming years.

The utility currently relies on renewables for 43 percent of its energy provision, but it plans for this level to rise significantly. By 2027, Austin Energy’s target is to operate renewable resources equivalent to 65 percent of its overall energy use. Over the longer term, the utility is aiming for a net zero grid by 2050.

The participants in Austin SHINES hope it can serve as an example for other utilities seeking to make use of DERs more effectively in their grids.

One indication that the project’s results will have implications far beyond Austin is the support it’s receiving from the federal Department of Energy. The DoE provided $4.5 million in funding from its SHINES program, which backs five other similar projects across the country.

In 2018, GreenTech Media projected that DER capacity across the U.S. grid would more than double by 2023. In 2017, all types of DERs contributed about 46.4 gigawatts to the U.S. grid, but capacity will climb to 104 gigawatts by 2023, driven mainly by solar panels.

“These are not all resources that can be dispatched in a moment’s notice,” explained GTM Research’s grid edge director Ben Kellison. For example, solar panels need to be paired with battery storage if the power they can generate is to be exploited at peak times.

In addition, small scale combined heat and power systems, referred to as CHPs, will only be able to offer power when it suits their owners, which does not necessarily coincide with the needs of utilities.

Solar plus storage not yet economically viable

One outcome of the Austin SHINES project so far is the finding that combining solar panels with battery storage is not yet economically viable in Austin Energy’s service area.

“This is not unexpected, as energy prices are relatively low and energy storage and local solar prices still relatively high,” stated Austin Energy in a report based on a preliminary analysis of the project.

The analysis suggests that more solar panel would need to be added to the grid in order to justify more investments in solar reliability technology. For now, the report recommends examining the value of reliability for the utility, as well as taking steps to streamline control systems and integrate different DER types with the grid.

The utility has also identified a number of tipping points that could shift the balance in favor of solar, including economic, policy, and technological factors.

“Regardless of which tipping point(s) eventually sway the equation into the favor of DER deployment, it is up to Austin Energy staff to continue to research and understand the developments impacting their viability, and to position the utility for success in whatever scenario ultimately unfolds,” added the report.


Jordan Smith is a freelance journalist and translator covering issues related to energy, the environment, and politics. His work has appeared on the independent news site Opposing Views, and at the Canadian Labour Institute.