Key Capture Energy’s Jeff Bishop guides new applications of storage to reduce energy costs, bolster grid resilience and reliability.
In 2018, Orange & Rockland (O&R), a New York City area utility, was struggling to manage the costs and logistics of meeting rising summer demand for electricity in its Pomona, N.Y. service areas while maintaining reliable service for its customers.
“Additional transmission lines would have been very expensive to build, particularly if they were all placed underground,” explained Jeff Bishop, CEO for Albany, N.Y.-based Key Capture Energy (KCE), an independent developer of utility-scale battery storage projects. “All they really needed was to reduce electricity demand on one transmission line during certain hours in the summer.”
To address this situation, O&R selected KCE in a subsequent competition to plan, design, install and operate a three-megawatt (MW) battery adjacent to the utility’s Ladentown substation in Pomona. The battery storage project, which went online in Dec. 2020, is part of O&R’s Pomona Non-Wires Alternative Project. Now, instead of relying on expensive infrastructure (transmission lines) to meet summer demand, O&R can use its new battery to handle periods of peak demand.
Joining the Future
O&R’s Pomona project is but one example of how battery storage has become a partner to the future of a reliable, resilient and increasingly green national grid. Bishop co-founded KCE in 2016 with an eye on just such a future.
“Compared to 18 months ago, there are a lot more utilities who instead of just talking about battery storage are now actually doing it,” he observed. “A lot of people are realizing that it’s a trend that’s really going to take hold.”
Bishop grew up on a small family farm in western Pennsylvania. It was a world where he learned early to work hard – his daily pre-dawn chores included feeding the family’s sheep and pigs – and to pursue new ideas. But much as the faithful son loved the tranquil, predictable nature of rural life, he was hungry to know how the rest of the world worked technologically, and how he could play a more active role in its evolution.
Bishop’s first break came during his junior year of high school when his school’s superintendent connected him with an internship at an Internet start-up in nearby Pittsburgh. That early exposure to tech inspired him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Houston.
Awakening to Clean Energy
At Rice, Bishop's career shifted gears — he had grown cynical about Internet start-ups after watching his former part-time employer meteorically rise and fall, all within three years — when he was invited to participate in a wind farm development program operated in Morocco by a Rice alumnus.
“That wind farm project in Casablanca helped me discover a love for #cleanenergy I didn’t know I had,” Bishop recalled fondly. “It also created within me an absolute desire to skip generations, from how things were at the time to how things could be, with no intermediate steps.”
Reshaping the National Grid
Today, Bishop and his team at Key Capture are laser focused on the “#electricgrid of tomorrow,” a grid that is no longer unidirectional, i.e., one in which power flows strictly from power-generating companies to consumers, but rather omni-directional, in which diverse sources of energy, including #renewableenergy, #electricvehicles and #microgrids participate freely in the energy exchange market.
On this brave new energy landscape, KCE develops, constructs and operates utility-scale energy storage systems, and integrates them with the grid’s traditional mix of power generation, transmission, and distribution systems. According to Bishop, who also earned an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the goal is to create a more resilient, efficient, sustainable and affordable grid.
“The missing piece in the power sector has always been instantaneous storage,” he explained. “Every other commodity – oil, milk, minerals – has some sort of storage up and down the supply chain. In the case of electricity, however, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it.’”
Adding Stability to Renewables
As more large-scale renewable energy projects come on line, Bishop continued, grid stability is also becoming an important issue. Which is why utilities are increasingly demanding that battery storage be a component of any wind or solar generation facility from which they purchase power.
“If a cloud comes over a solar farm, you can quickly go from maximum energy output to zero output, which can cause a voltage flicker,” he said. “Battery storage can help smooth out these disturbances.”
Battery storage can also be used, he added, to stabilize the levels of power being delivered by solar and wind farms during critical transition periods.
“Across much of Midwest (Texas to the Dakotas), the wind tends to blow harder at night than during the day,” said Bishop. “You might have a few hours, typically in early spring or late fall, when the wind is dying down and solar is not yet on. That’s when you can really use battery storage.”
Some utilities are even exploring ways to replace fossil-fuel-burning power plants with battery storage, though not every situation makes economic sense.
“Coal and natural gas plants are optimized for injecting energy into the grid, not for extraction from the grid,” explained Bishop.
“Some places on the grid may have enough incoming transmission to be able to both (since a battery needs source of power to charge it). In many cases, however, a utility would end up replacing that plant with say, solar plus storage or perhaps offshore wind plus storage.”
Relying on Lithium Ion
According to Bishop, the most prevalent battery storage technology now and for the foreseeable future is lithium ion.
“The efficiency of lithium-ion technology is increasing every year and its cost is declining about 10 percent year over year,” he said. “By the time any new entrant gets fully commercialized in three to five years, lithium ion will cost half of what it does today.”
Lithium is also safer, more reliable, well-understood and well positioned in supply chains, he added. Any new battery storage technology will have to be three or four times as good as lithium ion to compete.
Lowering Energy Costs
To what extent, then, should consumers care if their local utility uses battery storage or not to help ensure the reliable flow of electricity?
“Most consumers have way more important issues to think about than where their electrical power is coming from,” Bishop emphasized. “As long as their lights turn on, they’re happy.”
Which is not to say that new technologies don’t have an important role to play in the future of the national grid, he observed.
“The proper use of any of these technologies, whether it's wind, solar, battery storage etc. is really to lower the cost of energy consumption for consumers.”
Cycling Between Time Zones
True to his upbringing, Bishop still rises before dawn. As KCE's CEO, he enjoys the unique benefit of living in the hills surrounding Salt Lake City – a result of following a career move by his life partner to Utah in 2018. When his partner heads to the gym at 5:30 a.m., Bishop also gets up, makes coffee, grabs a protein bar and hops on his electric bike, weather permitting, for an 8-minute downhill commute to his office.
“Working with an East Coast team, I like being in the office when they are,” Bishop explained. “I love having that 6:30 – 9:00 a.m. block where I can be responsive to them before the rest of the world has woken up. It’s definitely my most productive time of the day.”
About mid-afternoon, he knocks off work and heads to the gym for his own workout. Then it’s back to the office for another few hours of think time before heading home on his bike about 6:00 p.m. But Bishop is not an absentee boss. He travels to Albany or KCE’s field office in Houston every other week, and maintains offices in all three locations.
Preparing for the Future
Bishop faces the future with a keen sense of history … and both eyes open. “Every industry thinks that it is immune from the current convergence of technology, the environment and economics,” he reflects. “Leaders in every industry have to be alert for threats, for evolving trends, and for falsely believing that the next generation of technology won’t come as quickly as the last. Just ask taxi companies, cigarette makers or makers of flip phones.”
Similarly, he continued, the national grid is in a rapid state of change and innovation, with the explosive growth of solar and wind power generation and electric vehicles changing the fundamental calculus about the marketplace.
“It’s clear that American consumers want more green energy, and clearly, battery storage has a role to play in shaping a national grid that can deliver that energy,” observed Bishop. “The market for storage, while still maturing, poses a really big and exciting challenge. At Key Capture Energy, we’re delighted to play the very small part that we do.”
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If you enjoyed reading this story, please check out my profile of Brian Williams, a specialist in transmitting renewable energy underground from where it's generated to where it's most needed. If you have ideas for future topics for this blog, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Many thanks.