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Electricity Storage Possibilities

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Last month, The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington took public comments on electricity storage. Some consider it the missing link that would finally make wind and solar power a viable alternative to goal and gas. Here Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus follows a discussion led by The National Regulatory Research Institute.

In 2008, the price of gas in The U.S. hit $4 a gallon. Politicians and the media began talking more about renewable energy. Some states had already adopted renewable portfolio standards. California is trying to make 33% of its energy supply come from wind, solar, biomass or other fuels. But even renewable advocates are concerned.

David Popper is an attorney who writes about regulatory issues.

“The perishable nature of electricity is especially problematic for environmentally friendly generation sources like wind, solar and run of the river hydro. Those are all using free energy sources that are not stored.”

Popper took part in a call-in discussion organized by The National Regulatory Research Institute in Washington. The NRRI is funded by all 50 of the state public service commissions. Popper says renewable energy is not right around the corner.

“Their usefulness in reliably meeting system demand is seriously compromised.”

Coal and gas can sit in one place or get moved around by boat, plane or train. They can be stored for years on end. That’s how they provide power to entire cities, entire states.  But renewable energy comes in a second. Then it’s gone. If you don’t use it, you waste it.  Storing renewable energy would finally make it easier and cheaper.

So what are these technologies? The Obama Administration has invested more than $2 billion in battery storage for electric vehicles.  Tom Stanton explains.

“The technological progress and the manufacturing progress, especially with respect to batteries, is coming quite rapidly. So costs are tending to decrease over time.”

Stanton works for the National Regulatory Research Institute. He ran the renewables section of The Michigan Public Service Commission. During the call-in discussion, he got an email from someone advocating cheaper more familiar technology.

“There is a pilot program already in the Pacific Northwest and atleast one elsewhere in the country using hotwater heaters as storage by raising their temperature to a certain degree.”

Germany is trying to retire nuclear plants and go all renewable. This will create great demand for storage. Countries in Africa dumped colonial era land lines and went straight to cell phones. The same for electricity. If they don’t have real power grids then they’ll leap frog to storage facilities. Some technologies aren’t new at all. Dam up a river and then let the water flow through turbines when you want electricity. That’s the Tennessee Valley Authority. Or pump water up into a tank when people don’t need it. Then let the water drop down through turbines when people do. That’s the Ludington Michigan Pump Storage Facility.

Many of these alternative technologies hold power for only 6 hours.  Lawrence Kirsch is an economist. He imagines a guy at the controls of your local power plant. Can he count on coal, gas and nuclear or some new technology that has stored energy from a windmill?

“Well now if you’re a system operator and you’ve got a peaking problem are you going to prefer to have a gas fired generator that you can run indefinitely or a storage facility that’s going to run out of juice after only a half dozen hours?”

Sherman Elliot is also an economist and a member of the Illinois Public Service Commission.

“The characteristics of storage aren’t gonna replace the characteristics of coal based……it just can’t happen. With the capacity factor or renewable and….not economically competitive to compete with coal……  If we are going to retire the coal I think we’re gonna replace it with gas.”

Natural gas is clean enough for us to burn it on our kitchen stoves. But it’s still loaded with CO2. That’s the main substance that causes climate change when released into the atmosphere. So far now at least, stored electricity can’t come to the rescue of wind, solar or biomass energy.

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