A housing project in Utah is just the beginning of the American solar ambitions of Sonnen

The German energy storage company Sonnen wants to ensure that future residents of an apartment complex in Herriman, Utah, never experience a blackout.


That's not obvious in Utah, where 1.8 million people were affected by 346 power outages between 2010 and 2017, according to the Blackout Tracker 2018 from Eaton, an energy management company. It is part of what makes the Herriman complex, Soleil Lofts, so attractive to Sonnen.

In Herriman, Sonnen sees an opportunity to prove that a virtual power plant (VPP) could solve major energy problems in the US. A VPP consists of connected solar roofs and batteries, so that renewable energy can supply the entire complex with electricity if the grid loses power.

The first residents of the Soleil Lofts will move in September and the Wasatch Group, the company that builds the lofts, says the last building will be completed in 2020. Units in each of the 600 new rental apartments are equipped with Sonnen products to feed the VPP.

When completed, the community will be the largest operational VPP formed by residential batteries in the US, according to Rocky Mountain Power, regional utilities, the Wasatch Group and Sonnen. The completed project will have a planned storage of 12.6 MWh of solar energy.

Founded in rural Germany almost 10 years ago, Sonnen is one of & # 39; the world's largest manufacturers of energy storage systems for homes. Sonnen says it has installed more than 40,000 batteries worldwide, especially in Europe. The company, which was taken over by oil and gas giant Shell in March, pioneered VPPs in Germany and the UK. Now Sonnen wants to conquer the US. It even has a production site in Atlanta to help with that task.

The US is "a relatively young market for our products that is still in its infancy," says Christoph Ostermann, CEO of Sonnen The edge. "But it is also a very large market." It is in any case a market with energy problems.


It's not just Utah where millions of people have recently experienced blackouts. In most other states, the situation is no better – or even worse. The energy infrastructure is aging throughout the country. In California, energy company PG&E has been responsible for this more than 1500 fires since 2014, so it has announced and implemented rolling blackouts to prevent more fires from firing.

The National Infrastructure Advisory Board (NIAC) warns of unprecedented mega blackouts, caused by severe earthquakes and physical or cyber attacks on the energy grid, which could disconnect entire regions from electricity for months. Moreover, energy generation is responsible one third of all US CO2 emissions.

Sonnen wants to help solve these problems, but their success depends on utilities, regulators and consumers who play a role, experts say. This is not a fact in the US, true President Donald Trump withdraws from the Paris climate agreements, an international agreement that seeks to combat climate change.

"As one of & # 39; the world's largest producers of carbon dioxide, the US needs solutions to promote renewable energy sources," says Ostermann. "Politically this can be controversial, but more and more consumers are recognizing it." Ostermann is convinced that his company's technology can help relieve pressure on the outdated power grid in many states while protecting consumers from power outages.

It is not difficult to explain why solar systems with batteries can benefit the consumer. "The hurricane or cyber attack is coming, the schedule has disappeared, but you can continue to light and operate your house because you have a storage system and a solar system," says Ostermann.

The big white thing on the left? That is the battery.
Image: Wasatch Group

But the benefit for the entire network is not so clear. When utilities have planned how efficient the power stations and lines they are building should be, they plan around the peak of the system, says Ryan Hledik, a director of research agency Brattle Group who focuses on distributed energy technologies. The American electricity grid is built around the hours in the year that people use the most electricity. In most places, those are hot summer afternoons when everyone turns on the air conditioning. But that infrastructure is aging and energy consumption reaches record highs.

Perhaps surprisingly, renewable energy can add more stress to the already cracking network. Without a battery to store the energy, solar energy goes directly to the grid, whether this is necessary or not. The sun also shines naturally when the grid does not need much energy. That means some solar parks are instructed to stop to prevent clean electricity from clogging the grid. This too can lead to a power outage.


That is why batteries and VPPs are part of the Sonnen plan. Tesla also has a VPP program with Green Mountain Power in Vermont. (Tesla & # 39; s solar energy projects stem from the acquisition of SolarCity in 2016.) The installation of solar batteries is also increasing in California, where nearly 10,000 home batteries were in use last year, which according to BloombergNEF is 25 times more than in 2016. BloombergNEF has predicted that battery installations worldwide & # 39; exponentially & # 39; will rise.

A VPP is easier for a tool to deal with than individual solar panels because a VPP works as an asset rather than multiple individual houses. If too much energy is produced from the solar panels, it can easily be stored in the residents' batteries. And because the energy from the solar panels is stored locally, the utilities can draw on batteries during peak hours, explains Ostermann.

The software that comes with the batteries can also reduce the voltage on the grid. For example, the batteries can be set so that devices such as electric vehicles or air conditioners do not necessarily consume power during peak times, but before or after. "We shave the peak consumption and supply, if you want," says Ostermann. Ultimately, that can mean that you save utilities money: they don't have to build new power lines because the peaks in use are less drastic.

This sounds like a convincing plan for Gerbrand Ceder, professor of materials science and technology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Personally, I thought that this was always the model that Tesla went to with SolarCity," he says The edge. "But they just haven't been particularly good at performing it."

However, there are some obstacles in Sonnen's plan. In particular, it may not earn any money. Whether or not you can earn money with a VPP has to do with regulations, says Ceder. Every state – even every utility – can set its own rules, and a provider like Sonnen cannot avoid them if it wants to set up a VPP. "If the utility says," No, the network is ours, and we are not in favor of your idea, "then it doesn't work," says Ostermann.


There is an even greater economic hurdle: incentives for solar energy. In many parts of the US, customers who add solar energy to the grid through solar panels can then consume just as much of the grid without paying a cent, Hledik says. Consumers therefore have no financial incentive to actually use the electricity generated. They can supply superfluous clean power to the grid during the day and extract the same amount of conventional power from it at night.

"The customer basically uses the grid as a virtual battery and probably saves more money in the production of his solar facility than it is really worth," says Hledik. “That policy has prevented solar energy plus storage from becoming very common for private customers in the US. They do not have to use the energy of the solar panel on location to prevent the full sales rate. "

Ostermann points out that in some states regulators are already renouncing the net measurement policy. Hledik agrees that this is a trend, so the economic incentives to have a battery cannot continue.

Meanwhile, Sonnen follows a strategy that worked for his project in Utah: finding utilities, housing companies, and consumers who want to try the technology. The best candidates for Sonnen projects are those who are interested in both the financial benefits and climate protection. Cedar believes that the strategy for Sonnen can be partially successful, because batteries are much cheaper than most customers think.

But it is also true that the US has many regional and local network operators – after all, it is a very large market. "Sonnen could probably choose the environments in which it is easiest to operate in the next ten years," says Ceder. That means that the Soleil Lofts in Utah may just be the beginning.


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