New York City tries to cram in some energy storage

NEW YORK — The startup Urban Electric Power exists behind a steel door on a scary-looking block in Harlem. Get buzzed in and one sees a single L-shaped room with dingy brick walls and chemists at their benches. The CEO is in a little concrete bunker on the right.

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The Barclay, a 58-story apartment tower in downtown Manhattan, sacrificed a few parking spaces in its garage in order to add some batteries. Photo courtesy of Glenwood Management Corp., Demand Energy.


That CEO, Raymond Johnson, 58, left the fresh air of Boulder, Colo., this summer to head Urban Electric Power because he liked the challenge. The challenge is to mass-produce an extremely cheap, dense, nontoxic battery that could help a big building save money and maybe survive an emergency.

“We’re a pretty skinny operation right now,” Johnson said. “We have ambitions to be bigger, of course.”

Although Johnson was speaking of his own company, he could have been speaking of the energy storage industry in New York City, where a small contingent of inventors, regulators and entrepreneurs are trying to solve some truly New York-sized problems, and be bigger, of course.

New York is growing in population and needs more electricity, just as one of its major power sources faces closure. The Indian Point nuclear power plant, 35 miles north on the Hudson River, may shut down in the next few years, taking with it 2 gigawatts of power generation, equivalent to almost half the peak power use of Manhattan.

From the aircraft warning lights atop 1 World Trade Center to the deepest tubes of the subway, the city and neighboring Westchester County use about 13 GW of electricity on the hottest summer days. That’s more than a quarter of the highest power consumption of the entire state of California.

Build a new substation? Not so easy when there’s no room. The city’s utility, Con Edison, says it would cost $1 billion to make a new substation to serve rising neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. Another option would be to build more transmission lines from Pennsylvania or from upstate, but that’s difficult in a city that’s so dense that it’s taken almost 90 years, according to the New York Times, to build the Second Avenue Subway.

“I would rather cure world hunger,” said Doug Staker, a vice president at Demand Energy, a company making batteries for Manhattan skyscrapers.

Staker and others believe a relatively small number of batteries, crammed into basements and parking garages in enough big buildings, could nudge the city’s vast power needs downward on the most power-hungry days. That could delay the need to build more plants and power lines, and maybe help turn the state into a center for battery manufacturing.

Urban Electric is one of the more well-known outfits in a growing network of companies and universities across New York that are hoping to knit together into a supply chain. Johnson says deals are in the offing for Urban Electric, as well as a round of funding, and the company has hired six people since summer.

Next up is an installation at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Its traumas read like a catalog for why batteries matter in New York City.

9/11, a superstorm and a penthouse

The BMCC campus is blocks away from where the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. One of the lesser victims was the underground copper wiring that formed the school’s communication backbone. It literally “turned to slag in the streets,” said Scott Anderson, a BMCC vice president. Not wanting that to happen again, the school built a wireless voice-over-IP system, sourced at its data center on the first floor.

Then, two years ago during Superstorm Sandy, workers had to wade in and rescue those servers from the floodwaters.

Batteries are an integral part of Plan C. Urban Electric’s 100 kilowatts of energy storage, along with the data center, are moving up to the penthouse floor, taking up the space of two former classrooms that together sat about 700 students a day.

“We sacrificed instruction in order to have that space because it was critical for us,” said Anderson. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have an instructional program anyway.”

Along with a 300 kW solar array soon to arrive on the roof, the batteries will contribute to slimming the campus’s carbon by 12 tons a year, Anderson said. Moreover, the solar panels and batteries are expected to net the school $54,000 a year, through lower electricity bills and participation in demand-response programs with Con Edison.

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