High-speed flywheels, turbines that run off compressed air stored in caverns, super-sized versions of a cellphone battery ...
In the sixth-floor ballroom of a downtown Austin hotel earlier this month, power executives from around the country filed in as companies pitched a stream of technologies to store electricity.
It sounded promising. Reduce the grids notorious inefficiency and provide backup for weather-susceptible wind and solar farms. But the same spiel had been kicking around for decades. And the expense was huge when compared with all that cheap coal and natural gas waiting underground.
Except four weeks earlier Texas largest power line company, Oncor, announced a proposal to install 5,000 megawatts of batteries on the Texas grid, what is believed to be the largest project of its kind in the world. The future of the project remains uncertain in the face of concern from state officials that it would dramatically alter the states electricity market. But it has prompted renewed interest in a technology that has struggled to move beyond the prototype phase.
The utilities have been slow in broad adoption of storage in the U.S. Theyre very conservative and slow-moving companies in general. And with this technology being perceived as a threat, its especially slow, said Carl Mansfield, who heads Sharps U.S. power storage division. With Oncor committing to such large quantities, were definitely interested to see how the Texas market unfolds.
If you asked anyone in the energy storage business where their commercial breakthrough would come, it would not have been Texas.
In Europe, battery demonstrations are already up and running. Some Japanese companies started installing batteries to protect against outages after the majority of that countrys nuclear reactors were shut down following the Fukushima disaster.
And California has ordered utilities to build 1,300 megawatts of storage by the end of the decade.
But none of it compares to what Oncor is proposing. At $5.2 billion, they want to install enough batteries to handle one-eighth of the states power load on an average winters day at least for a couple of hours.
That Oncor says this can be done at no increase in cost to the consumer has caught many off guard. Energy storage is a $32 billion a year industry worldwide, according to the research firm Lux.
But almost all of that is car batteries and personal electronics. Large power companies including Duke Energy and Southern California Edison have their catalog of storage facilities. But most all are subsidized by the U.S. government.
Alternatives to lithium
The conventional wisdom was that a project such as Oncors would not be economical until the next decade, as the technology is refined.
Oncors proposal is built around the lithium ion battery, which was first conceived at Oxford University in the early 1970s. Over the years, scientists have steadily improved upon that original design, making a battery that can deliver a charge longer and cheaper year by year.
And the battery and car manufacturer Tesla has assured Oncor it can bring costs down even further.
But for now the cost of installing a utility-scale battery is about five times that of the equivalent natural gas generation, said George Crabtree, director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, a government-funded program outside Chicago.
Lithium is very light, which is great for personal electronics. But its also very expensive, Crabtree said.
The U.S. Department of Energy is spending about $140 million on energy storage research. The vast majority goes to lithium ion projects. But the federal government has also funded alternatives like compressed air technology, in which excess power is used to pump air into underground caves.
When power demand spikes, the air is heated. That forces it through turbines that generate electricity.
Crabtrees team, which is housed in the Argonne National Laboratory, is exploring alternatives to lithium. He said by using other materials they hope to create a battery that is both cheap and capable of powering a vehicle for 300 miles.
Source: The Dallas Morning News
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