The worlds of solar and energy storage are coming together more closely all the time. We spoke with Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO at Energy Storage Association, the trade association for the energy storage industry and the leading voice for companies that develop and deploy the advanced energy storage systems that support the power grid we rely on every day. We got to know the woman behind the voice of energy storage and her views on the industry, as she celebrates one year in her new position.
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Education: B.S. mechanical engineering from Boston University
Previous positions: Including Wartsila, SunEdison, Maryland Public Service Commission, Alliance to Save Energy
How do you think your engineering background helps you in the work you do today?
It’s not that studying engineering teaches you facts, but it teaches you how to think. It teaches you a process of the scientific method and how to figure out problems, how to break them down into smaller chunks and then, step-by-step, be able to solve a bigger problem.
I call myself a reformed engineer, I don’t practice it in any way, shape or form anymore, but I do have a way of thinking of things in a matrix. A lot of lawyers go linearly and I think engineering is much more matrix driven, multiple inputs trying to get to the best answer you can get, given the number and accuracy of the inputs. It’s really more of a way of thinking than just learning the laws of thermodynamics.
What do you like about working in energy storage?
I especially love system efficiency, making the entirety of the electric grid more efficient. It’s not just energy efficiency behind the meter, it’s not just decarboniztion of the grid, it is all of the above. Energy storage in the last few years has really become commercially viable as being the central hub for all of that. It enables solar and wind and other non-dispatchable resources, but it also helps with demand response, system efficiency and with utilities being more efficient about generating and distributing electricity, as well coal and nuclear to make those more flexible. That’s really exciting.
What opportunities do you see with solar-plus-storage?
There’re opportunities for solar-plus-storage on both sides of the meter. But we’re especially hearing a lot about the behind-the-meter side. The idea that folks on the residential or commercial level want solar, but it doesn’t make them fully independent. They still have times when the sun isn’t shining, but if you can store that, decouple the element of time from when you generate and when you use it, it’s a whole new level of energy independence for end users. The prices have come down astronomically in the last few years, so it’s now a commercially viable option. It’s being adopted and understood more by regulators and lawmakers. In California, the idea of offering residential storage along with solar has been a really exciting move. Generally, you’re seeing much more residential storage come up and a lot of that being coupled with solar.
In our recent report for Q1 2018, the residential energy storage market set a record with 36 MWh of grid-connected systems. That’s equivalent to the amount of residential storage deployed in the last three quarters combined. It’s pretty awesome.
What can the industry do to further the growth of energy storage?
We talk about this in our 35×25: A Vision for Energy Storage whitepaper. We have calls to action for legislators, regulators and utilities. We encourage legislators to look at impact studies. There are some great companies out there that look at the impact of what putting more storage on the grid could be in terms of cost and benefits. Based on those studies, we think legislators should consider enacting procurement targets or mandates to set a long-term policy goal for storage to encourage the market to enter jurisdiction.
For regulators, establish clear rules for storage. Allow it to be considered in your long-term planning. Some regulatory rules in certain states have specific technologies called out and don’t specifically call out storage. It’s just an oversight that needs to be fixed so energy storage can move into the state and they have that updated data to consider when doing the modeling.
Finally, when utilities are doing their integrated resource planning to propose to regulators, expand that to include storage but also update their approach to how they classify assets. Because energy storage isn’t necessarily a generation asset, and not solely a transmission or distribution asset, it can be all three. When utilities are looking at plans for investments, they look at them in silos. We’re suggesting looking across all silos for a more holistic approach to find value in all of them from a single asset. That’s going to save consumers money.
What are the best and the most challenging parts of being CEO of ESA?
I’ve been in the energy industry for quite a long time and so the best part is to be able to get out and speak to my old colleagues and also make new friends. I get to talk to them about their area of the energy industry, and that’s not just electric utility stuff. I speak to solar and wind people and gas developers and all these cool companies coming into the storage business. It’s super fun hearing everyone’s different perspectives and seeing where storage fits in the center of that hub of the energy ecosystem. I love geeking out with people to see how we can change frameworks to make it all work better and improve the system itself.
The hardest, but also part of the most fun, part is that there’s a lot of attention being paid to energy storage as a potential resource. So one of the hardest things is making sure that people understand the facts, what it is and what it is not. Some people say, ‘It’s a miracle cure.’ It’s not, but it’s a really great tool. It’s not the Holy Grail because the Holy Grail was never found. There are a lot of details around it that need attention so that the messaging doesn’t get out beyond what the capabilities are.