Many of the innovations happening in the energy sector involve solving intermittency issues brought to the table by renewable energy darlings like photovoltaic solar and wind generation.

With photovoltaic solar providing the bulk of its energy during off peak hours and wind turbines unable to generate anything on a windless day, the energy sector has its work cut out for it to improve the reliability of a new generation of energy producers.

Energy storage — which has been called the secret sauce to solar — could be the answer to those problems. But energy storage needs to be coupled with smart and micro-grid implementations and, of course, a diverse energy portfolio.

“I think now is the time to be investing in alternative technologies that have the ability to deliver what is actually required, as opposed to just deliver based on a mandate or a feel-good exercise,” says Chris Davey, president at EnviroMission, a solar tower developer, and co-executive director of the Arizona Energy Consortium.

Unique places, unique deals

It’s not as sexy as new ways to power your home, but new types of deal structures and ways of financing projects make energy projects unique and challenging prospects.

Not only that, but these new ways to generate power can tie in with the idea of a smart city, where energy generation is implemented into various parts of the community.

Lynne L’Esperance, associate vice president of power and utilities at Arcadis North America, works with clients on how to convert a distressed or under-utilized property into an income (energy) producing asset.

Recently, Arcadis worked with a town, developers and a utility to turn a 15-acre landfill into a 2.36-megawatt solar plant, L’Esperance says.

The strategic alliance turned the closed landfill into something from which everyone could benefit, as the city leased the land to the solar developers while the utility purchased the power to serve the town.

These types of partnerships can turn sites of blight into community assets. At the same time, developers can create assets with dual uses. A simple parking lot can be turned into a solar generator with the implementation of solar shade sites (look no further than ASU’s Tempe campus to see these in action).

“Arcadis has been working with clients across the world in this smart city phase where we look at how you can make the most out of assets or potential liabilities that you have,” L’Esperance says.

What’s in this secret sauce?

Arizona’s two largest utilities — Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project — are both very much aware of energy storage innovations and grid improvements.

Some of the biggest innovations involve improvement in solar panel efficiency and cost, says Jim Pratt, SRP’s senior director of grid modernization services.

The same goes for battery technology, Pratt says. Investments in energy storage, namely battery storage, has been a fast-moving area, as many firms push towards further improvements with storage.

A lot of research and development into energy storage has been going on nationally and globally, says Scott Bordenkircher, director of technology innovation and integration at APS.

APS is looking into a mix of storage uses both in the home and on a utility scale, Bordenkircher says.

The utility has a couple energy storage developments in the works, coming in the form of a four-megawatt battery-based energy storage agreement with AES Energy Storage. Two facilities will be built through the agreement — one in Surprise and another in Buckeye.

The battery facilities will deliver solar-generated energy when it’s needed most by customers, which happens to be the time when solar facilities aren’t producing power to meet demand.

As a result, reliability issues stemming from solar could be solved by battery, or storage facilities like this.

Although the economics for energy storage are starting to make sense, it’s still expensive to deploy, Bordenkircher says. The technology hasn’t been fully proven yet, either.

There are still many different types of energy storage — something Davey says could be good. “It’s never a bad idea to have diversity,” he says.

There are also other variables to prove — like best time of use and best dispatch practices for the stored energy, Bordenkircher says. He believes that once we do get to that happy spot with solar storage, it will have a huge impact.

“(Energy storage) offers both customers and utilities a variety of different value stacks, in terms of not just meeting energy needs, but also that quality aspect of being able to smooth some of the intermittency being caused by renewables,” Bordenkircher says.

Make it smart, smaller and better

Advancements in energy infrastructure have already made considerable gains. The idea of a smart grid is simple automation to the current system. In basic terms, this means instead of having someone flip a switch at a remote location, the switch is now on a control panel.

SRP has been testing and reviewing advanced inverters to improve the management of power quality issues, such as voltage that is caused by solar energy, according to Pratt.

He says industry results have been positive for this type of technology.

Then there’s the micro-grid, which folks tend to use interchangeably with the idea of a smart grid, says Craig Edgar, head of global renewable energy business at Atkins Global.

The micro-grid is a smaller grid that works autonomously from the main grid and is something that some in the industry are deploying right now.

One of the more interesting uses of it, Edgar points to, is the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

After the hurricane hit New York in late 2012, areas of New York that utilized a micro-grid were able to get online much quicker than the rest of the city, which relied on the backbone of the grid to get energy.

Edgar says deploying micro-grids has been a real trend when it comes to the security of energy supply. And ultimately a micro-grid can help balance the grid, and be used as a form of energy storage, he adds.

APS currently has two micro-grids. One is at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma and another is part of a data center in North Phoenix.

Albert says when those micro-grids aren’t needed as backup power, the generators that power those pint-sized grids can be used for the benefit of all customers in the area when it comes to energy power and quality.

Innovations like these unique solutions make the fights of yesteryear on whether or not to deploy renewable energy seem trivial.

It’s a given that all energy forms must be reliable and ready to meet demand. Researchers both at utilities and private companies have been developing innovations to fix issues of unreliability that can be found in popular renewable energy forms.

Bordenkircher says utilities are pursuing innovation to allow customers to choose which innovations they want to participate in, such as solar rooftop panels and other renewables.

“The rooftop panel came before the other side of it, so lots of utilities are jumping in to now try and catch up and make sure they still have the same levels of reliability their systems are known for and need to have, while still enabling customer choice,” he says.