A battery storage system. (Getty Images)

The age of the battery dawned with a dead frog, but its next chapter may be all about keeping one alive.

That link isn’t as obscure as it might seem. The first frog, after all, was quite literal: in 1780, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani laid the groundwork for the creation of the battery when he observed that electricity flowing through two wires attached to a frog cadaver made the amphibian’s leg twitch. From that experiment would sprout the legions of double-As that still illuminate millions of flashlights and power remote controls around the nation.

The second frog, however, is metaphorical — ever since scientists grasped the relationship between greenhouse gases and climate change, they have turned to the parable of the frog slowly being boiled to death in ever-warming water to explain the situation in which humans now find themselves. In this account, because climate shifts occur slowly enough for people to adapt to them, by the time nations are galvanized to action, it will be too late.

So what does that have to do with battery storage? Quite a lot, it turns out.

With recent advances in technology and swelling political will, energy storage is increasingly becoming a key part of states’ efforts to cut emissions and curtail continued damage from climate change. A Climate Central brief released this week reported that since 2014, large-scale battery storage has more than quadrupled in the U.S.

California, unsurprisingly, is leading the pack when it comes to installation of this technology, with 262 megawatts as of this August (by comparison, Dominion’s natural gas-fueled Bellemeade Power Station in Richmond produces 267 megawatts, enough to power about 57,000 homes). Filling out the rest of the top five are Illinois, Texas, Hawaii and West Virginia.

So just what is Virginia doing when it comes to battery storage? And with a new Democratic majority set to lead the General Assembly for the first time in a generation, what (pardon the pun) might be in store for the commonwealth as it seeks to transform its electric grid? Here’s four basic things to know:

1. Virginia utilities have used energy storage technologies for almost 60 years … 

Energy storage might be having a moment, but it’s actually as Virginian as Smith Mountain Lake.

The lake, which was constructed in the early 1960s by Appalachian Power Company’s parent company, American Electric Power, was built as a giant energy storage project.

At its most basic, energy storage is just the process of taking energy produced at one time and then holding it in reserve for later. For years, power producers have done that using systems of reservoirs and hydroelectric dams like those at Smith Mountain Lake. During times when energy demand is high — such as daytime — electricity is generated by releasing water from one reservoir through the dam into the second reservoir.

Then, when demand drops at night and electricity becomes less expensive, the power company pumps the extra water in the second reservoir back into the first, and the cycle begins all over again.

In the U.S., 93 percent of all energy storage comes from pumped hydroelectric projects. Power companies like pumped hydro because of its flexibility: whenever electricity is needed, they can open up the dam and produce energy virtually immediately — unlike a gas or coal plant that takes time to fire up. Furthermore, these projects produce no emissions (although their pumps often rely on electricity from facilities that do produce emissions), and people tend to like or at least not complain about living near bodies of water.

Dominion has aggressively pursued pumped hydro storage in Virginia. The utility’s Bath County Pumped Storage Station is the world’s largest storage facility of its kind, with a capacity of over 3,000 megawatts, enough to power 750,000 homes. This summer Dominion also announced its interest in developing another major pumped hydro storage project in Tazewell County in Southwest Virginia.

2. … but they’ve only dipped a toe into battery storage.

Pumped hydro, however, isn’t the only way to store energy. Today, industry watchers see the most potential in battery storage, which can be used almost anywhere on the grid (not just where rivers flow, sun shines or wind blows). Batteries can also vary considerably in size and have become far cheaper over the past few years.

The General Assembly has taken notice: among the many sweeping provisions of the 2018 Grid Transformation and Security Act was the requirement that Appalachian Power and Dominion both establish battery storage pilot programs capable of generating up to 10 and 30 megawatts of power, respectively.

This August, Dominion filed plans to build just over half of its goal through four battery storage projects in Powhatan, Hanover and New Kent counties that would be able to store 16 megawatts of energy. The pilots are expected to cost $33 million and must still gain approval from the State Corporation Commission.

Beyond these projects, however, as an August 2019 Energy Storage Study conducted for the Virginia Solar Energy Development and Energy Storage Authority found, “there is no clear path.”

3. Supporters see energy (and battery) storage as a way to strengthen the electric grid and foster the development of more wind and solar.

While the batteries of yesteryear were seen as a solution to individual problems, a way to get products like cars, cell phones and appliances to work, today they’re seen increasingly as a vital part of infrastructure.

On a grid level, batteries can help decentralize power centers and build in backups that can be used if a primary power source stops working. That may become more crucial as increasingly extreme weather puts greater strain on the nation’s — and Virginia’s — power grid, making failures more likely, as the U.S. Army War College warned in a recent report on “Implications of Climate Change for the U.S. Army.”

The main attraction of battery storage, however, lies in its ability to replace fossil fuel energy. Renewable energies like wind and solar have one major weakness: they can’t generate power 24/7. As Virginia State Corporation Commissioner Mark Christie is fond of pointing out, the sun can’t shine and the wind can’t blow 100 percent of the time.

It’s precisely because wind and solar are intermittent, available only when nature pleases, that utilities have argued to keep fossil fuel plants running or even build new ones. Dominion, for example, recently issued a request for proposals for “dispatchable” facilities that can provide 1,500 megawatts of energy. These facilities, which would almost certainly be fueled by natural gas, would be used at times of peak demand “when solar and wind aren’t generating enough due to lack of sunlight and/or low wind speed.”

Battery storage could be one less financially and environmentally costly solution, the Virginia Energy Storage Study found. Using stored energy to meet peak demand, the authors found, could serve state energy and emissions goals by “eliminating the need for seldom used peaking plants and better integrating renewables” into Virginia’s energy portfolio.

4. Without new legislation, there’s little incentive for utilities to invest in energy storage.

The Virginia Energy Storage Study offers a host of recommendations for policymakers looking to ramp up the state’s energy and battery storage. Among the most important: the need to set a statewide energy storage target and to establish incentives for storage development.

California, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts and New Jersey have all set goals for energy storage development, which the Energy Storage Study found “have been key factors in the rapid commercialization and growth of the storage market,” driving down costs. The authors’ recommended target? 1,000 megawatts of energy storage by 2030. One way to do that quickly, according to the authors, is to “bypass” more pilot projects and instead “leverage lessons learned from existing pilots deployed elsewhere” in the U.S. where storage is already flourishing.

At the same time, the Energy Storage Study points out that without any incentives or requirements to develop energy storage, utilities may be unlikely to invest in such projects, particularly if they replace major capital projects — like the building of new natural gas plants — that could reap rewards for shareholders. Consequently, “regulatory or legislative reforms,” like the establishment of a mandatory renewable portfolio standard committing utilities to derive a certain portion of their energy from renewable sources by 2025, may be needed.