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Packing some power

Mar 05, 2012   |   The Economist

Energy technology: Better ways of storing energy are needed if electricity systems are to become cleaner and more efficient

SUMMER in Texas last year was the hottest on record. Demand for power spiked as air conditioners hummed across the state. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state grid operator, only narrowly avoided having to impose rolling blackouts. To do so, it had to buy all the electricity it could find on the spot market, in some cases paying an eye-watering 30 times the normal price.

On paper at least, ERCOT ought to have had plenty of power. In 2010 it reported 84,400 megawatts (MW) of total generation capacity, well over last summer’s peak demand of 68,294MW. In theory, this is enough to produce some 740 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity a year—more than double the 319 billion kWh that ERCOT’s customers actually demanded during 2010. In electricity generation, however, aggregates and averages carry little weight. One problem is that wind energy accounted for 9,500MW of ERCOT’s total capacity, and the wind does not blow all the time. It tends to be strongest at night, when demand is low. Moreover, power firms are required by regulators to maintain a safety margin over total estimated demand—of 13.75%, in ERCOT’s case—in order to ensure reliable supply.

If only it were easier for ERCOT and other utilities to store excess energy, such as that produced by wind turbines at night, for later use at peak times. Such “time shifting” would compensate for the intermittent nature of wind and solar power, making them more attractive and easier to integrate into the grid. Energy storage also allows “peak shaving”. By tapping stored energy rather than firing up standby generators, utilities can save money by avoiding expensive spot-market purchases.

Surely the answer is to use giant batteries? Although batteries can deliver power for short periods, and can smooth out the bumps as different sources of power are switched on and off, they cannot provide “grid scale” performance, storing and discharging energy at high rates (hundreds of megawatts) and in really large quantities (thousands of megawatt hours). So other technologies are needed—and growing demand, driven chiefly by wider use of intermittent renewable-energy sources, is sparking plenty of new ideas.

It’s got potential

The most widely used form of bulk-energy storage is currently pumped-storage hydropower (PSH), which uses the simple combination of water and gravity to capture off-peak power and release it at times of high demand. Pumped-hydro facilities typically take advantage of natural topography, and are built around two reservoirs at different heights. Off-peak electricity is used to pump water from the lower to the higher reservoir, turning electrical energy into gravitational potential energy. When power is needed, water is released back down to the lower reservoir, spinning a turbine and generating electricity along the way. PSH accounts for more than 99% of bulk storage capacity worldwide: around 127,000MW, according to the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the research arm of America’s power utilities.

Yet despite its dominance, traditional PSH has limited capacity for expansion. The kind of sites needed for such systems are few and far between. As a result, several firms are devising new forms of PSH.

...The second-biggest form of bulk-energy storage, though it is dwarfed by PSH, is compressed-air energy storage (CAES). This involves compressing air and storing it in large repositories, such as underground salt caverns. During peak hours the air is released to drive a turbine. There are only two commercial CAES plants in operation: one in Huntorf, Germany, and the other in McIntosh, Alabama. The big drawback of CAES is its inefficiency. According to RWE, a German utility, the Huntorf plant is only 42% efficient, and the one in Alabama is only slightly better. The problem is that air heats up when pressurised and cools down when expanded. In existing CAES systems energy is lost as heat during compression, and the air must then be reheated before expansion. The energy to do this usually comes from natural gas, reducing efficiency and increasing greenhouse-gas emissions.

As with hydro storage, efforts are under way to adapt the basic concept of CAES to make it more efficient and easier to install. RWE is working with GE, an industrial conglomerate, and others to commercialise a compressed-air system that captures the heat produced during compression, stores it, and then reapplies it during the expansion process, eliminating the need for additional sources of heat. Having proven the theoretical feasibility of this concept, the partners must now overcome the technical hurdles, which include developing pumps to compress air to 70 times atmospheric pressure, and ceramic materials to store heat at up to 600°C. The aim is to start building a 90MW demonstration plant in Strasfurt, Germany, in 2013, says Peter Moser, the head of RWE’s research arm.

Several smaller outfits are also developing more efficient forms of CAES. SustainX, a company spun out of Dartmouth University’s engineering school and supported by America’s Department of Energy (DOE) and GE, among others, has developed what it calls “isothermal CAES”, which removes heat from the compressed air by injecting water vapour. The water absorbs the heat and is then stored and reapplied to the air during the expansion process. And rather than relying on salt caverns, SustainX uses standard steel pipes to store the compressed air, allowing its systems to be installed wherever they are needed. The firm has built a 40 kilowatt demonstration plant and is partnering with AES, a utility, to build a 1-2MW system. General Compression, a Massachusetts-based company also backed by the DOE, has developed an isothermal CAES system focused on providing support to wind farms. With the backing of ConocoPhillips, an energy giant, it is building a 2MW demonstration plant in Texas.

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