This California city is trading an old gas plant for a…

MENIFEE, California — For a decade, twin smokestacks loomed against the bright blue skies of Menifee, in Southern California’s Inland Empire. But the old gas combustion plant came down, and on the flat industrial site it left behind an army of batteries is now being assembled.

When it comes online this summer, developer Calpine’s Nova power bank will store more electricity than all but one battery plant currently operating in the U.S. The billion-dollar project, with 680 megawatts and 2,720 megawatt-hours, will help California shift its nation-leading solar generation into the critical evening and nighttime hours, bolstering the grid against the heat waves that have pushed it to the brink multiple times in recent years.

The facility embodies the clean energy transition in multiple ways. The power plant itself will shift from an 800-megawatt combined cycle plant, installed by GE in 2008 as a model of efficiency, only to languish when its 12-hour startup time made it a poor fit for the era of cheap gas and weather-dependent renewable production. The town of Menifee gets to move on from the power plant exhaust that used to join the smog flowing from Los Angeles, dulling the rays that inspired the name for nearby Sun City, which sprang up in the 1950s as home for heliotropic retirees. And the grid gets a bunch more clean capacity that can, ideally, displace fossil fuels.

A lot of us remember what was here just a year ago with the two big smokestacks,” Menifee Mayor Bill Zimmerman said. It would take all day just to get that thing up to speed and running, and they would have to anticipate whether or not they would need it. This is going to be ten times better and ten times more efficient, without all that extra work.”

Moreover, Nova represents Calpine’s grand arrival in the energy storage market, after years operating one of the biggest independent gas power plant fleets in the country alongside Vistra and NRG. Houston-based Calpine previously dabbled in battery technology with two California projects, but Nova’s pricetag and power capacity catapult Calpine into the upper echelons of storage developers and owners.

Federal analysts predict 2024 will be the biggest-ever year for grid battery installations across the U.S., and they highlighted Calpine’s project as one of the single largest projects. The 620 megawatts the company plans to energize this year represent more than 4% of the industry’s total expected new additions.

Many of these new grid batteries will be built in California, which needs all the dispatchable power it can get to meet demand when its massive solar fleet stops producing, and to keep pace with the electrification of vehicles and buildings. The Menifee Power Bank, and the other gigawatts worth of storage expected to come online in the state this year, will deliver much-needed reinforcement.

Massive scale, built fast

The scale of the Nova project is difficult to grasp, even if you visit in person. A hefty yellow crane looms overhead, Star Spangled Banner flapping below it, indicating something grand being constructed. But the flat ground obscures the full heft of the project: 1,096 total battery containers, holding 26,304 battery modules, or a total of 3 million cells, all manufactured by Chinese battery powerhouse BYD, according to Robert Stuart, an electrical project manager with Calpine.

That’s enough electricity to supply 680,000 homes for four hours before it runs out, Calpine explained. The project is not literally wired to back up any specific homes, but it gives California that much extra firepower.

What’s remarkable is just how quickly the project came together. Construction began last August, and is expected to hit 510 megawatts of fully operational capacity over the course of this summer, even as installation continues on other parts of the plant. Erecting a conventional gas plant of comparable scale would have taken three or four years of construction labor, due to the complexity of the systems and the many different trades required for it, Stuart told Canary Media.

Developers of gas plants or batteries have to do legwork prior to the installation to secure land, permits and connection to the grid. At Nova, Calpine moved quickly because the grid was already built to receive lots of power from the site. Calpine only started working with the city to secure permits in 2021, said Emily Precht, strategic origination manager at Calpine.

Given the fact that this plant was retiring and there was all of this existing infrastructure on this site, batteries really helped with grid reliability in the face of all of these intermittent renewables,” she said. They are instantaneous ramping, you can start and stop them whenever you need to, and it just made a whole lot of sense.”

That speed and flexibility makes batteries a crucial solution as utilities across the nation grapple with a spike in expected electricity demand unlike anything seen in the last few decades. Some utilities, particularly in the Southeast, are planning to build a raft of new fossil gas plants to deal with this predicted surge. If time is of the essence, the Menifee project demonstrates that grid batteries have the clear advantage.

Battery installations move expeditiously due to their modular nature. The enormous battery — and others like it — is really a series of much smaller, identical blocks containing inverters and battery enclosures that all eventually connect to the project’s substation and from there to the broader grid. To build an enormous battery storage plant is to wire up the same design over and over again until it’s done. That’s why Calpine can energize swaths of the project as they become ready — something that’s not possible for a gas turbine.

When Phase One will be completed, operators will take it over, while we’re still working on Two, Three, and Four,” Stewart said. We’ll be actively building these and then turning them over right away as they’re ready.”

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