How do you bottle the wind?

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Image: Powerhouse Museum

“The final perfection of the storage battery, which I believe has been accomplished, will in my opinion bring about a multitude of changes and improvements in our business and social economy.”
— Thomas Edison
North American Review, 1902

The Clean Energy Act recently passed into law. This carbon pricing legislation heralds a broad transformation in the electricity industry in Australia: increased investment in renewable energy will prompt a revision of our energy infrastructure, and a key focus of this restructuring will involve adding energy storage to the electrical grid.

Energy storage is exactly as the name implies: you take energy, usually electricity, and convert it to another form to save it for later use. The electronics industry has been revolutionised by innovations in energy storage: iPhones, portable GPS, and ultra-slim laptops would not exist without batteries that efficiently convert electricity into chemical energy, and back again. You might expect that the electrical grid, which brings power to homes and industry, has been similarly transformed by these innovations in energy storage. The reality is a very different matter. Bill Gates wonderfully summarised this in a 2010 talk: if we connected all the batteries in the world, including all batteries from the consumer electronic devices I mentioned above, this monumental collection of batteries would be able to store — wait for it — ten minutes of the world’s energy demands.

Given the ubiquity of batteries in our everyday lives, it may seem odd that we do so little grid-scale energy storage. The reason for this is historical: the technology for generating energy outpaced the technology for storing it efficiently. As a result, today’s electricity grid is the ultimate ‘just in time’ system: electricity supply is generated to match demand, as perfectly as possible, as demand varies across each day and season. To facilitate this, some power stations (coal or nuclear) generate continuously 365 days a year, while others switch on and off as demand fluctuates (natural gas or hydroelectric power stations). 

As we transition to renewable forms of power generation — e.g. solar and wind — the design of our electricity grid hits a roadblock, because most renewable power plants are intermittent generators. The sun doesn’t shine all the time, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time; and the times when these renewable plants are generating lots of electricity might not correspond to times when we, the electricity-consuming public, are demanding more power. As a result, renewable power plants can’t be on all the time (and compete with coal power) and can’t be switched on and off at will (and compete with demand-following power plants like natural gas). This limits the market uptake of renewable power technologies, and makes the energy they generate more expensive than energy from other sources.

The answer to both these problems? Energy storage. First and most obviously, storing energy when it is in surplus lets renewable power plants deliver power to consumers when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. With energy storage, renewable power plants can compete with continuously operating power stations like coal power plants. Secondly, integrating energy storage into renewable power stations allows the owners of these plants to engage in arbitrage: producing energy when a station can generate it most cheaply, and selling it at a premium when customers demand it. With energy storage, renewable power plants can also compete effectively with demand-following plants like natural gas power plants.

Improving competitiveness in both these ways will mean that renewable power plants are a more attractive investment, and it will drive down the cost of the energy they produce. This is a good thing for both the environment and your wallet.

There are many more benefits to grid-scale energy storage, but I hope I’ve sold you on at least two reasons why storing electricity is a good idea. (Those interested in other applications of grid-scale energy storage should see Appendix C of this 2002 Sandia report — be forewarned that it’s a little dry and technical). In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a number of blog posts about various forms of energy storage that we might see commercialised within the next ten years. Batteries are just the starting point: ultracapacitors, flywheels, molten metal, compressed air, and even hydrogen are all forms of grid-scale energy storage that are being considered by utility companies worldwide. Bottling the wind will soon be something that we rely on every day.

This piece was written by Brett Szmajda, intern at the Powerhouse Museum.

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