The big news this week in energy storage is what is likely to happen next week. Hurricane Sandy, the 18th named storm this year in the Atlantic Basin, is working its way up the East Coast. Current projections show it coming ashore on Tuesday as a Category 1 storm and, more ominously, combining with an intense cold wave moving in from the west. The media is already drawing parallels to the “Perfect Storm” of 1991. A more current analogy, for those interested in energy storage, might be the late October snowstorm of 2011. That storm deprived millions of East Coast electricity consumers of power, some for more than a week, and cost the jobs of several utility executives.
If history is a guide, about a week from now millions of electricity consumers on the East coast will be out of power. They will be cold and frustrated and looking for solutions. They will be angry and demanding that their electric utilities do something–do anything–to prevent or diminish future power outages.
Hurricane Sandy will present the electricity storage industry with a near perfect opportunity to talk to the public about electricity storage and its benefits (“Got Juice?”). We need to explain that distributed energy storage, while by no means a solution to multi-day electricity outages, can provide consumers with the opportunity to plan for and mitigate the effects of major disruptions and to eliminate the impact of many shorter ones entirely. Back-up power should not be the privilege of consumers with the money, land and foresight to have a back-up diesel generator. It should be part of basic electricity service and the right of every retail electricity customer.
Unfortunately, many of the leading firms in the electricity storage industry paid scant attention to electricity consumers over the past few years. Those firms spent that time counting their federal grant dollars and just sort of hoping that a market for advanced batteries would suddenly appear. They elected to tout largely meaningless differences in proprietary technologies, rather than to work with the rest of the industry to create a real market for all of their products. That strategy may have attracted DOE funding and private investment. But it poorly served the industry and the country. Its fruits can be counted in the bankruptcy court filings and rolling layoffs that fill our trade press today.
Steve Jobs would never have made that mistake. He knew that the success of a product turns on making it relevant and interesting to the ultimate consumer. This is the challenge that we in the electricity storage industry face today. Fortunately, we have a story to tell and more than ample opportunity to tell it. But the story cannot be told by a single company. It is not about any single, proprietary technology. It is the story of electricity storage and the great help it can be to millions of electricity customers who will next week likely be in great need of that help. As an industry, we have to band together and tell that story. It is well past time for some of the leading companies to get on board and help us tell it.