Solar array off River Road generating power for research
NISKAYUNA — The new field of photovoltaic panels off River Road is neither the biggest nor the most powerful solar farm in the Capital Region, but it is unique among the 9,000-plus solar arrays in the area.
It’s not only generating up to 240 kilowatts of electricity, it’s providing a test bed for power storage on an industrial scale, which will keep the lights on after the sun goes down.
A team of three dozen engineers and scientists at General Electric’s Global Research headquarters is testing two prototypes of the company’s new Reservoir storage unit, and they're building a third. Company officials hope to bring the battery system to market in 2019 and says it already has one significant purchase commitment.
The Reservoir is a 20-foot shipping container stuffed with stacks of batteries that use the same lithium-ion technology that powers today’s hybrid electric vehicles. That’s not a coincidence: Significant research has been devoted to lithium-ion batteries for automakers in recent years. That research has boosted the batteries' capacity and reduced their cost so much that they are now a viable means of storing enough electricity to run hundreds of homes for hours at a time.
Johanna Wellington, a mechanical engineer who is the product breakout leader for energy storage at the Niskayuna facility, said integration of battery storage into the power grid is increasingly important, as more electricity is generated by clean — but inconsistent — means such as wind and sunlight.
“The trick of being able to do this is, 'How do you take a battery and make it integrate with the grid, understanding all the complexities and everything that happens there?' ” Wellington said. “And we think GE can do that better than the folks that make cars, or are new to the business.”
GE began manufacturing its own batteries (using a different technology) on a new production line it built in Schenectady several years ago. But that line was discontinued when the market didn’t develop as expected. Since then, lithium-ion technology and sales have soared for other manufacturers.
GE does plan to do final assembly of the Reservoir itself, at a location to be determined, but it is not going to manufacture batteries — it will buy them from top manufacturers. The prototype Reservoir units are stacked with batteries made by LG. Samsung batteries also are being tested.
“A key part of the learning is really understanding the life of those cells,” Wellington said. “So even though we aren’t manufacturing the cells, we’re doing an awful lot of testing to understand how they behave in different circumstances.
“Understanding that better allows us to build our controls and optimization tools so that our customers in real-life situations will be able to create these solutions that meet their needs and protect their assets, to the extent possible.”
GE also doesn’t manufacture solar panels, though it is one of the top wind turbine manufacturers.
What the company is pitching with the Reservoir is its expertise in tying the various components and systems together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The Reservoir is designed to factor all the needs of the customer’s application -- and all the characteristics of the batteries -- into an algorithm that optimizes the product’s output and life span.
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