Week of June 16, 2008
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C O M M E N T A R Y
Electricity Storage – A Dream That's Coming True and Opening Vast New Development Opportunities

by McKINLEY CONWAY
editor bounce@conway.com
E
ver since the discovery of the light bulb, those seeking the full benefits of electricity have been frustrated by the lack of storage capability. For decades mankind has extended wires from distant generators or used batteries of very limited capacity. The pressure has built, and the prize has gotten larger for those who can develop systems that store electricity for long times in great amounts.
   Today, there are fabulous opportunities just ahead. These tantalizing incentives are producing a boom in launching new ventures and expanding existing industries related to electricity storage. Established firms such as battery manufacturers are investing heavily in research. Scores of start-ups are attracting millions of dollars in venture capital in order to pursue new types of fuel cells and other ideas flowing from research labs. Here's a quick look at the state of the art:

Large systems
   The leading form of grid-energy storage today is pumped-water storage. At many locations around the world a substantial part of the energy that drives hydroelectric power plants is water pumped from a low level up to a high reservoir during the time when most customers are sleeping. The system uses cheap off-peak electric power to run the pumps. Then, during periods of peak power demand, the water is released to flow through generator turbines, enabling the utility to maximize power at times that it charges higher rates.
   New solar energy mirror farms are managing to store substantial amounts of electrical energy for several hours using molten salt mixtures. During the day, mirrors direct sun to heat salt mixtures to several hundred degrees. Then the hot mix is pumped into an insulated tank and held for use at night. One developer claims to be able to store a day's solar harvest for about 20 hours.
   More recently, compressed air energy storage (CAES) systems are being developed for wind farms and other intermittent sources. Power produced during periods of strong winds is used to compress air and store it in underground geologic structures. During peak power demands the air is released, mixed with a fuel and used to power combustion turbines. A 300-MW system is being planned for the Iowa Stored Energy Park near McIntosh.
   Another approach is via what are termed "flow batteries" in which an electrolyte flows through a power cell that converts chemical energy to electricity. These systems involve combinations of sodium-sulfide/bromide, vanadium, zinc-bromide and other dissolved electro-active materials. There is also much research on "NAS batteries" based on sodium (Na) and sulfur (S) for high-temperature applications. A 6-MW unit for grid- energy storage has been installed at a power plant in Japan.
   Experts argue that metal-air batteries are the most compact and, potentially, the least expensive batteries available. They are limited at present because of problems with recharging. When this handicap is overcome, they will become attractive. The fact that they are environmentally benign will help.

Intermediate and smaller systems
   Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in portable consumer electronic products. Also in general use are NiCad batteries using nickel oxide hydroxide and metallic cadmium as electrodes. Most common are lead-acid batteries, the oldest type of rechargeable battery. Such types are used in automobiles and many other applications.
   On the horizon are new designs that promise to extend performance parameters greatly. For example, "super capacitors" now being developed have a storage capacity thousands of times greater than a typical D-cell electrolytic unit. Also attracting attention are high energy fly wheels that spin more than 20,000 rpm in a vacuum case. Their main problem seems to be the risk of an exploding flywheel – necessitating enclosing them in a heavy metal vault or locating them underground.
   Perhaps the most speculative new development is the Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (SMES). Such systems store energy in the magnetic field created by the flow of direct current in a superconducting coil in a cryogenic environment.
   To date, none of these systems fill the national need for a system for storing electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources for months – making it possible to feed it to our grid as needed and reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels. For the average citizen, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow would be a small electricity storage system for serving any single off-grid home with dependable power – making the home electrically independent.
   What do leading scientists think are the most likely solutions to the storage challenge? Here's what Dr. Gene Berry of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory told a conference recently:
   "The storage needs of a predominantly (intermittent) renewable electricity supply may ultimately be best met in the future by increasing levels of integration with a hydrogen (H2) fueled transportation sector. In addition to reducing greenhouse gases from transportation, this long-term option could have unique energy security, electricity reliability, and market-efficiency benefits, which may be foregone if H2 production, storage, and vehicle technologies are not developed and deployed in coordination with intermittent renewables.
   "It is therefore important that hydrogen research and development efforts focus on technologies enabling efficient integration of future carbon-free transportation and electricity generation. Examples would include much higher-efficiency electrolysis and fuel cells, and reversible systems that can produce H2 from electricity as well as electricity using H2, potentially in homes or on vehicles."

Companies positioned for growth
   Against this background of opportunity and uncertainty what firms are involved in electricity storage today and which will explode into prominence tomorrow? A cursory scan reveals a fascinating mix. There are long-established global giants, middle-sized enterprises filling niches, and a host of start-ups armed with multi-million dollar venture capital funding. They are found around the world.
   Here is a list we have compiled to provide a picture of the size and scope of this activity. Data has been collected from many sources and cannot be guaranteed. No doubt we have overlooked some strong contenders and included others that will prove to be flashes in the pan.
McKinley Conway
Author McKinley Conway
Photo: Rebecca Conway
About the Author
    McKinley Conway's development history is voluminous and distinguished. Just a few of his milestones include founding Site Selection, the first-ever magazine focused on corporate real estate and economic development, and founding two industry associations that set the standard for the industry's professional development — the International Development Research Council (IDRC) and the Industrial Asset Management Council (IAMC).
   And there's much, much more. Conway created the industry's first development-focused Internet site, SiteNet, all the way back in 1983. And he founded Spruce Creek, the pioneering fly-in community near New Smyrna Beach. For even more on Conway's sizeable development-industry legacy, click here.


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