Dominion battery pilot to provide hands-on training at historically Black university in Virginia

Dominion battery pilot to provide hands-on training at historically Black university in Virginia

At 1.5 megawatts, the battery destined for a college campus near Petersburg, Virginia, might not be the mightiest in Dominion Energy’s growing storage fleet.

But don’t underestimate its power and reach.

In addition to providing backup power for Virginia State University’s main sports and entertainment venue, it will serve as a hands-on laboratory and research project for engineering students and faculty at the historically Black university.

“This is so exciting,” said Dawit Haile, dean of VSU’s College of Engineering and Technology. “Our students don’t know the challenges we are having to save energy when you need it later. Storage is the missing piece.”

It isn’t the first time the 4,000-student university has collaborated with the state’s biggest utility. For several years, Dominion has lined up professionals to teach students enrolled in a specialized power and energy curriculum. 

That relationship prompted Haile to nudge Dominion when he found out the utility was seeking sites to test metal-hydrogen battery technology instead of a more commonplace lithium-ion model. The appeal of metal-hydrogen, a standard in the aerospace industry, is that the materials are longer-lasting and much slower to discharge.

“We were actually looking for a university so we could pull in the learning aspect,” said Dominion’s Ellen Jackson, program manager for the pilot project. “VSU really wants this to be a visible part of their campus.”

Utility regulators are now reviewing the proposal, which a hearing examiner with the State Corporation Commission has already recommended for approval. If greenlighted, it is expected to be operational by the end of 2027.

“Cost for the whole kit and caboodle is $14.4 million,” Jackson said, referencing the architectural design, construction and installation of a final product with a footprint that will likely include more than two dozen containers measuring 11 feet by 9 feet.

Haile, who has taught at VSU for 27 years, is eager for students to dive into lessons about battery configuration, building and maintenance. Collected data will help them assess efficiency, longevity and operational costs.

“So many of us take it for granted that energy powering our homes will be there, and we don’t think about the source,” he said. “Any opportunity we get to help students learn more about this profession, it’s a plus.”

The Multipurpose Center at Virginia State University, where the battery will be located. Credit: Virginia State University

On target for 250 MW by 2025

The VSU pilot project is a small slice of the volume of battery storage the General Assembly expects Dominion to meet to comply with the Virginia Clean Economy Act. 

By next year, that number needs to reach 250 MW. Targets are slated to rise to 1,200 MW by 2030 and then more than double to 2,700 MW by 2035. Dominion is aiming for 65% of the battery projects to be company-owned and the remainder to be power purchase agreements with third-party owners.

“We’re well on our way to meeting that first target,” said Brandon Martin, who manages a business development team that oversees Dominion’s battery projects. “We’ve seen a lot of pricing volatility, but some of that will start to work its way out.”

Thus far, Dominion has petitioned the State Corporation Commission for a total of 180 MW of battery storage projects. Of those, 98 MW are company-owned and the remaining 82 MW have third-party owners with power purchase agreements.

The largest one that regulators have approved is at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County. 

Once completed in late 2026, it will generate up to 100 MW of solar energy and store up to 50 MW of power, enough clean energy to electrify more than 37,000 Virginia homes at peak output. Dominion broke ground on that project last August.

“In the big picture, battery storage might be in its infancy, but it’s the unsung hero of the renewable energy profile,” Martin said. “It’s critical to be able to store and discharge when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”

Meanwhile, the 1.5 MW initiative for VSU is one of three non-lithium-ion battery projects—totaling about 10.5 MW—under review by regulators. Other pioneering projects in the mix are a 5 MW iron-air battery and a 4 MW zinc-hybrid battery that Dominion plans to install at the gas-fired Darbytown Power Station in Henrico County, near Richmond.

If approved, construction on the pair of Darbytown pilots would be operational by late 2026.

Batteries aren’t a one-size-fits-all technology, said Martin, adding that smaller projects are geared for the distribution side of electron delivery.

“Trying out nascent technologies is going to be critical for future deployment,” he said. “Utilities need to know if they’ll perform as anticipated.”

Interim energy storage targets spelled out in the Clean Economy Act allow the utility to innovate with a variety of technologies before scaling up. 

The advantages of experimenting with resources other than lithium is the extended discharge time, availability and durability, Martin said. For instance, an iron-air battery can discharge power for up to 100 hours. While zinc-hybrid batteries have roughly the same discharge time as a lithium-ion model, they’re manufactured with a readily accessible chemical element.

“They don’t compete with the same raw materials,” he said, referencing the high demand for lithium for electric vehicles, cell phones and other electronics. “As you’re thinking about geopolitical concerns and price volatility, these components take that out of the mix.”

Still, Martin continued, promising ideas need a path to commercialization or they will stay on a shelf gathering dust.

“It’s exciting that this space has a number of new entrants,” he said. “Other utilities will be piloting different technologies. By not all choosing the same ones, the energy community can learn what’s successful and where much quicker.

“We want to provide as many solutions as possible at the lowest cost to customers.”

This rendering from EnerVenue shows what the hydrogen-metal cells might look like arranged inside a storage building. Credit: EnerVenue

Battery to be shipped from Kentucky

The teams that both Martin and Jackson lead have spent countless hours comparing notes with utility peer groups, technology vendors and experts at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to narrow down their battery choices.

For instance, Dominion has contracted with EnerVenue, a California company, to build the metal-hydrogen battery for the VSU campus.

The company, founded in 2020 by a Stanford University materials science researcher, is borrowing the same technology that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deployed to power signature — and distant — enterprises such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Exploration Rovers and the International Space Station.

“This is a proven chemistry that we are commercializing for the grid,” said Brad Dore, EnerVenue’s vice president of global marketing. “The difference is that NASA didn’t have to care about the cost — and we do.”

In a nutshell, here’s how it works. During the energy charging process, the water inside the vessel is split, creating hydrogen gas. At discharge, that gas recombines into water.

Such batteries can discharge for up to 12 hours, said Dore, more than double the capability of a typical lithium-ion battery. 

He emphasized that the charging process is stable, repeatable and doesn’t cause the degradation common with battery chemistries such as lithium-ion. The other plus, he added, is that the metal, which is 99% nickel, means most of the battery is recyclable when it does finally wear out.

Once Dominion partnered with VSU, the utility collaborated with EPRI researchers to sort through technologies and manufacturers, as well as basics such as cost and land footprint.

“They did a lot of the legwork for us,” Jackson said about matching a battery with the 6,000-seat Multi-Purpose Center, which attracts audiences from the university and the community.

Fortunately, the battery won’t have to be shipped from California because EnerVenue announced a year ago that it is constructing an energy storage factory in Shelby County, in north central Kentucky. That will translate to a much shorter trip to the Petersburg campus three years from now. 

In the meantime, Haile and fellow faculty members are creating a power storage curriculum.

The professor is already anticipating the new battery could be a springboard to attract more on-campus energy storage projects as the technology evolves.

“The potential is huge,” he said. “Our mission here is access and opportunity, so to be able to show our students what the future is, that’s a big deal.”

Dominion battery pilot to provide hands-on training at historically Black university in Virginia is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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