New UML Report Examines Challenges, Opportunities in Utility-Scale Energy Storage

A sun sets behind a wind farm Image by Adobe Stock
The UML report on "The State of Grid Energy Storage in Massachusetts" addresses the state's changing renewable energy landscape, which includes the upcoming procurement of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy.

By Ed Brennen

The race to slash carbon emissions by 2050 is well underway – on a course laid out through ambitious commitments at many levels, from the global Paris Agreement, through Massachusetts’ Global Warming Solutions Act, to the university’s Climate Action Plan.

But there’s a hurdle to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources: energy storage. Today’s electrical grids require on-demand energy from coal, oil, natural gas, hydro and nuclear to avoid power disruptions and blackouts; they aren’t designed to run solely on intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

To help clear this hurdle, faculty and student researchers from UMass Lowell recently completed a report on “The State of Grid Energy Storage in Massachusetts (pdf)” for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). The report examines the current state of utility-scale energy storage in the commonwealth (such as existing technology, key barriers and state and federal incentives) and offers recommendations for future policies and incentives.

The report’s authors – faculty researchers Christopher Niezrecki, Ertan Agar, Hunter Mack and Aaron Smith-Walter, graduate student Zachary Traverso ’19 and undergraduate student Maria Fonseca-Guzman – presented an executive summary of their findings to more than 100 leaders from business, education, government and research at a conference, “The Role of Energy Storage in Our Carbon-Free Future,” held recently at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center.

“Energy storage is a game-changer with the potential to revolutionize how society operates,” says Niezrecki, a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the university’s Center for Wind Energy. “The question is, what are we going to be doing in the next decade? And that’s a tough question to answer, because nobody really knows what the energy landscape is going to be.”

Student panelist Zachary Traverso speaks during the conference Image by Ed Brennen
Graduate student Zachary Traverso, left, discusses the report findings alongside junior Maria Fonseca-Guzman and faculty members Hunter Mack and Ertan Agar at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center.

The report recommends that lawmakers encourage investment in building, owning and operating new systems through policy incentives and long-term contracts. It also calls for further study of future energy storage needs.

“The technology that will be successful will win primarily because of economics,” Niezrecki said. “What can be most cost-effective, not only on initial capital expenditures, but also on supply chain?”

Without utility-scale energy storage, the report predicts that the commonwealth’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 “will likely fall short.”

“I believe the people in this room are up to that challenge,” state Rep. Tom Golden ’94 told conference attendees, adding that he’s “emboldened” by the research work led by Niezrecki and Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen to find energy storage solutions.

“UMass Lowell is doing a fabulous job from the engineering side. I truly believe they are solving tomorrow’s problems today,” said Golden, a Manning School of Business alum. “Today’s students, who are studying at a cutting-edge university, are going to find that next piece in energy that’s going to make us the greenest state in the nation.”

The students took a leading role in the report, researching current literature, identifying gaps in understanding and outlining recommendations.

Prof. Chris Niezrecki leads the panel discussion Image by Ed Brennen
Prof. Chris Niezrecki, director of the Center for Wind Energy, leads the panel discussion on the report findings.

Traverso, a master’s student in energy engineering from Townsend, has researched flow batteries (electrochemical cells that provide chemical energy) for the past four years with Agar, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“Energy storage is a passion of mine,” says Traverso, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering last spring. Over the summer, he participated in a National Science Foundation program called I-Corps, interviewing more than 100 people from the energy industry around the world about their energy storage needs.

“To be able to do something like this, as a student, is really amazing,” Traverso says. “I’ve been able to get so much experience learning about different technologies, policies and outlooks. It’s really been eye-opening.”

Fonseca-Guzman, a junior chemical engineering major from Georgia, had already been researching energy storage on her own when she was invited to be part of the AIM report by Mack, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

“As soon as I got to UMass Lowell, I realized there are so many opportunities in these areas,” says Fonseca-Guzman, who as a sophomore did an Honors fellowship on the political and technical challenges related to developing solar and storage initiatives in Massachusetts. Last spring, she presented her work at the New England Energy Research Forum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, winning a second-place poster prize.

Students Zachary Traverso and Maria Fonseca-Guzman pose for a photo Image by Ed Brennen
Graduate student Zachary Traverso and undergraduate student Maria Fonseca-Guzman did "most of the work" on the report, according to Asst. Prof. of mechanical engineering Ertan Agar.

“This (AIM) report has really enlightened me as a scientist and engineer to the decisions I’m going to make in proposing new technologies, because the policy and the market matter so much,” she says. “We always need to keep that in mind.”

Agar, who led the study, said the students really did “most of the work.”

“We were just facilitating the project,” says Agar, who joined the students, along with Niezrecki and Mack, for an academic panel discussion on the findings. “They did a fantastic job.”

The event also included a panel discussion with AIM Senior Vice President Robert Rio, Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judith Judson, Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert and Golden.

Reichert noted that one of the report’s recommendations is to educate people about the benefits and impact of grid-scale energy storage.

“These are important challenges for the state, for entrepreneurs and for students to be focusing on,” Reichert said. “I think events like this, and reports like this, are incredibly important.”