AEP Ohio installs a lithium-ion system

Thanks to a green metal box, power failures could become a rare occurrence for a cluster of houses in Gahanna. The box, about the size of a small refrigerator, was lowered into place yesterday by American Electric Power workers, part of a test to see whether the lithium-ion batteries that are housed in it — and boxes like it — can be used as a backup for traditional electricity sources.

Glenn Allen, 57, watched from his driveway. He works from home as a technical writer, a job that makes him sensitive to the power interruptions that the battery is supposed to help prevent.

"If there is a power outage during the daytime, that puts me out of operation," he said.

AEP is installing 80 of the boxes in and around Gahanna. This is part of the utility’s gridSMART initiative, a $150 million project that gets about half of its money from the U.S. Department of Energy, that is scheduled to continue until 2013.

Each box serves two to five houses, providing enough electricity for two to three hours of use, the company said. When the power goes out, the battery is designed to seamlessly fill the gap. Ideally, the customer wouldn’t notice what had happened.

When the power is out for more than three hours, customers still will need to reach for their flashlights.

Each box and its components cost about $75,000. That price tag makes the system too expensive to be used on a large scale, but utilities such as AEP expect the price to drop over the next few years. If that happens, such boxes could be considered for use on a larger scale.

Emeka Okafor, one of AEP’s project leaders, looks forward to the moment he can begin to see data on how the battery is being used.

AEP is describing the test as the first of its type to be done with real customers in an uncontrolled setting, which makes it exciting to employees such as Okafor.

"To have something where you can say you’re first in the world is really a lot of fun," he said.

AEP has faced criticism for the frequency and duration of its power failures.

Last year, an average customer of AEP’s Columbus Southern Power operating company had 1.21 outages of at least five minutes, which was the most of any investor-owned utility in the state. The average interruption lasted 123 minutes, which was second-longest in the state, behind AEP’s Ohio Power operating company. The figures do not include interruptions related to major storms.

The utility has met state standards for reliability, though critics have said the standards are not strict enough. In recent years, AEP has increased its spending on tree-trimming and other tasks that can help reduce outages.

Backup power is one way to make electricity more reliable, but it would take a much-larger investment for the technology to make a dent in power-failure statistics.

Initially, the boxes are being installed in areas with underground power lines. Most of the time, the units will be placed next to another green metal box, the transformer that directs electricity from the lines to individual customers.

Customers will pay for electricity from the battery at the moment it comes into their homes. AEP is working on ways to allocate power among the homes served by each box, one of many technical issues yet to be resolved.

While customers like the promise of reliable electricity, environmentalists see the batteries as a tool to deal with some of the challenges presented by renewable energy. The electricity from wind turbines and photovoltaic panels needs to be used almost immediately, even if those power sources may not really be needed at the time.

Batteries, if deployed on a large scale, provide a place for the power to be stored, said Samir Succar, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that is not affiliated with the AEP project.

"In kind of a broad-brush sense, I would describe energy storage as the addition of flexibility to the energy system," he said.

He credits AEP with being at the forefront of using batteries in this way. He sees the central Ohio test as an essential step toward showing the potential of the technology. 

Dan Gearino,