ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES WITH RENEWABLE ENERGY is the problem of delivering power to the grid 24/7. Our country demands a consistent, predictable, and uniform supply of electricity.
Since the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, wind and solar power must usually be combined with other, more traditional sources of electrical generation.
But that might be changing.
There have been some interesting developments for renewable energy storage, as recently reported by the New York Times. You can read the article at this link but here is the essence.
There are ways to store energy from wind and solar generation so that it can be used even when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
Xtreme Power, based in Austin, Texas, is putting in 15 megawatts of battery storage that will operate in conjunction with a wind energy facility in Hawaii.
Hawaii presently uses diesel fuel—every gallon of which is brought to the islands by ships—to generate most of its electricity.
As a result, Hawaii’s electricity not only faces security risks, it is very expensive compared to most places. (As of April, residents in Hawaii paid an average of more than 27 cents per kilowatt-hour—or more than three times what we paid in Wyoming and the highest rate in the country.)
Because of the substantial cost of producing diesel-based electricity on the islands, Hawaii has a goal of deriving 70 percent of its energy needs from renewables by 2030.
Advances in efficient energy storage would be a game-changer for the state.
Elsewhere, a Massachusetts company, Beacon Power, is building a bank of 200 one-ton flywheels that will store energy from the grid on a moment-to-moment basis to keep the alternating current system at a strict 60 cycles. (In the U.S. all electrically powered motors, appliances, and devices operate at 60 cycles per second and are intolerant of cycle variations.)
Because wind speeds vary, wind turbines can have variations in their rotation speeds. The flywheels are apparently designed to compensate for the variability of wind energy and to maintain a consistent 60-cycle delivery of power.
This means that wind turbines can deliver power through a broader range of wind speeds than they currently do, because the flywheels, due to weight and rotation, have the ability to “store” inertial energy.
And yet another development is the use of compressed air to store energy. Surplus electricity can be used to pump air into an underground cavity; when the electricity is needed, the air is injected into a gas turbine generator. In effect, it acts as a turbocharger that runs on wind energy captured the previous night, instead of burning natural gas at a peak hour.
Finally, hydro storage of energy is a well-understood method that is being tested in a variety of settings around the world.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR WYOMING?
Energy storage presents some interesting ideas for us to consider, and maybe some opportunities.
One possibility is that we won’t have to install as many wind turbines in Wyoming as has been predicted in order to meet consumer demands in other states for renewable, or “green,” electrons.
This could be a very good thing because it would mean fewer impacts on wildlife and better conservation of open space.
One opportunity for the state might be to attract investment and research money to work with the University of Wyoming on renewable energy storage technologies.
We believe the University of Wyoming is uniquely positioned to do this kind of research.
When I raised this idea with Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, he was receptive.
“Efficient energy storage would provide a large benefit to integrating renewable energy with the existing grid,” Northam said in an email. “UW would welcome investment by the state and the industry in research to further develop efficient energy storage technologies.”
Such investments would likely bring good jobs to the state—and maybe, if efficient processes are developed, a company devoted to storage technology might be persuaded to locate its manufacturing facilities here.
WHAT ABOUT COAL?
Meanwhile, where does this leave our traditional energy commodity, coal? Coal’s challenge (and Wyoming’s) will be to clean up its emissions and stay competitive with all kinds of technologies in a carbon-constrained world.
This is part of an “all-of-the-above” strategy that has the potential to produce at least as many jobs, and as many megawatts, as the country needs.
Contact: Richard Garrett, Jr., energy and legislative advocate, Wyoming Outdoor Council, 307-332-7031 x18; 307-438-9516; firstname.lastname@example.org.