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The Oregon renewable energy facility, which combines solar, wind and massive batteries to store the energy generated there, is the first utility-scale power plant of its kind in North America.

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The project, which will produce enough electricity to power a small city at maximum capacity, solves a key problem facing the utility industry as the US moves away from fossil fuels and increasingly turns to solar and wind farms for energy. Wind and sun are clean sources of energy, but utilities are forced to fill in the gaps when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining on fossil fuels like coal or natural gas.

At the Oregon plant, massive lithium batteries will store up to 120 megawatt-hours of electricity generated by 300 megawatt wind farms and a 50 megawatt solar farm, so it can be fed into the grid on demand. At maximum capacity, the facility will generate more than half of the electricity generated by Oregon’s last coal-fired power plant, which was demolished earlier this month.

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On-site battery storage is nothing new, and interest in projects that use solar panels and batteries has skyrocketed in the US in recent years, thanks in part to robust tax credits and incentives, as well as falling battery prices. However, the Whitridge renewable energy facility in Oregon is the first in the US to combine integrated wind, solar and battery systems at such a large scale in one location, giving it even greater flexibility to continuously produce energy without relying on fossil fuel to fill. in gaps.

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The project is “getting closer and closer to having something with a very stable power output profile, which we traditionally think of as being capable of with a fuel-based power plant,” said Jason Berven, vice president of energy storage at the American Association clean energy. , clean energy advocacy group.

“If the sun is chugging and cloud cover sets in, the battery can kick in and keep things running smoothly. does not look unusual for a network operator.”

The plant, located in a remote area three hours east of Portland, is the result of a partnership between NextEra Energy Resources and Portland General Electric, a utility company set to cut carbon emissions by 100% by 2040 under a state law passed last year. Oregon’s climate is one of the most ambitious in the country.

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Wires connected to solar panels in front of wind turbines

PGE’s customers are also demanding green power – nearly a quarter of a million customers receive only renewable energy – and the Wheatridge project is “a key element of this decarbonization strategy,” said Kristen Sheeran, PGE’s director of sustainability strategy and resource planning.

As part of the partnership, PGE owns one-third of the wind capacity and buys all of the facility’s capacity for its renewable energy portfolio. NextEra, which developed and operates the site, owns two-thirds of the wind power, as well as all of the solar power and storage.

“The very fact that many other clients are looking at these types of properties gives you an idea of ​​what we think might be possible,” said David Lawlor, NextEra’s director of business development for the Pacific Northwest. “Definitely customers want more reliable generation, starting with the battery at the back.”

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External view of the renewable energy facility

Large-scale energy storage is critical as the US shifts to more volatile energy sources such as wind and solar, and Americans can expect similar projects across the country as the trend accelerates. Models from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show that US storage capacity could increase fivefold by 2050, but experts say even that won’t be enough to prevent extremely damaging climate change.

Batteries aren’t the only solution the clean energy industry is trying out. Pumped accumulators generate power by sending huge volumes of water down through turbines, and others are experimenting with pumping water underground and holding it there before sending it to power turbines.

But interest in batteries for clean energy storage has skyrocketed in recent years, as battery costs fall and technology improves, boosting interest in hybrids, experts say.

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Aerial view of the field of wind turbines

Hybrid power generation capacity increased by 133% between 2020 and 2021, and by the end of last year, nearly 8,000 megawatts of wind or solar generation had been connected to storage, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is operated by the University of California.

The vast majority of such projects are battery-powered solar, largely due to tax credits, but projects under development include offshore wind farms, hydro plus batteries, and at least nine facilities such as the one in Oregon. , which will combine solar, wind and storage. Projects under development between 2023 and 2025 include projects in Washington, California, Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois, and Oregon, according to the Berkeley Lab.

However, many researchers and pilots are working on alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, mainly because their internal chemistry limits storage to about four hours, and a longer life would be more beneficial.

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Appearance of renewable energy batteries

“There is no silver bullet. There is no model or prototype that will fill all this need… but wind and solar will certainly be in the mix,” said PGE’s Sheeran.

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“This model could be a tool for decarbonization in the West as the entire country moves towards very ambitious climate reduction targets.”