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Large-scale storage: A tough but possible task

Mia Henderson is a freelance writer and blogger for TexasElectricityProviders.com, a comprehensive information resource for retail electricity companies in Texas, US

Posted: 
8. May 2013 - 15:42
While there are companies looking to break through the energy storage glass ceiling, technology needs to be developed that can put energy storage for renewables on a big scale, says Mia Henderson. Getting there is tough, but not impossible, she says

One of the major talking points against increased investment in renewable energy technology, whether it be solar, wind or hydro, is the inability to efficiently store the energy produced for later use. While there are many companies exploring new ways to build batteries, more often the solution continues to be simply installing backup generation stations fired by fossil fuels. Luckily, there is a group of people out there looking to truly break through this glass ceiling once and for all.

The challenge is to create a method of storage that can be used on a grand scale. We're talking about enough energy storage to accumulate enough of a surplus to last several days. This scale of storage capacity would mitigate any risk related to changes in natural conditions necessary for renewable energy production.

Getting to a grand scale

Energy storage has never had the full attention of the industry's research and development teams. Simply put, there wasn't any need for storage on a grand scale in the old world of electricity generation. Fossil fuels are instant gratification fuels. The more resources we have amassed, the more energy we can create at a moment's notice.

Renewable energy technology has introduced a need for vast energy storage that hasn't been present before, and it's just taking a little while to achieve the necessary infrastructure advancements. In early 2013, Duke Energy's Renewables arm completed the largest battery storage facility to date attached to a west Texas wind farm, the Notrees Windpower Project.

The 36MW facility is the largest of its kind built to date and offers an example of one viable energy storage route. The company behind the storage facility, Austin's Xtreme Power, has engineered a single kWh, dry-cell battery that is the basis for its larger applications.

While this new facility is certainly impressive, it still has its limitations, not the least of which being that battery technology is very expensive. Even with a station as large as the one recently completed at the Notrees facility, the current battery technology onsite can only provide 15 minutes of a full 36MW flow. Texas power companies will need more than that.

Other examples of battery installations are visible around the world, such as in the BRIC countries. This includes China's Zhangbei National Wind and PV Energy Storage and Transmission Project, completed in 2011. This facility utilises both wind and solar generation technologies, while incorporating lithium-ion battery storage rated at 20MW. According to officials, the Zhangbei station can be upgraded to match the Notrees facility's capacity of 36MW of reliable energy storage.

Other approaches to storage

There are plenty of other entrepreneurs out there pursuing new ideas when it comes to grand-scale energy storage. For example, Velkess founded by Bill Gray is pursuing a solution that uses flywheels to hold electricity in limbo. Velkess recently joined the group of Kickstarter projects to become fully funded. Its newfound cash-on-hand is going to be used to develop a larger working prototype, according to Kickstarter.

The existing Velkess prototype is able to store ½ kWh of electricity, while the new model is purported to be able to store 15kWh. That's still a long way off from being a viable storage option, but every world-changing idea has to begin somewhere.

Moving forward

The one thing that remains an absolute certainty is the energy industry must find a way to reliably store electricity if renewable energy sources are to become our only source of power. On the flip side, if we wish to maintain the status quo, where emergency capacity is generated on-demand with fossil fuels, the need for finding an efficient storage method is reduced dramatically.