I was recently at a meeting hosted by at the Capital Visitors Center titled "Building a Bigger Battery." The panel presented ideas that get little attention and few people hear about. They discussed the use of batteries being energized through renewable energies to be of prominent use in the future electricity grid across the states.

Dr. Ali Nourai of American Electric Power has already started this process by building large battery sites across the central and eastern U.S. They have 2MW(Mega Watt) batteries in Bluffon, OH, Balls Gap, WV, E. Busco, IN, and soon to be a 4MW in Presidio Texas. He feels that energy storage can be used as a buffer and shock absorber into a new business opportunity. Building these types of energy storage facilities will further the progress of renewable energies and smart grid technology, ultimately creating a plethora of new business ventures. Dr. Nourai states that widely distributed storage units will benefit security, safety, reliability, grid constraints, and competitive pricing. In the future he would like to see the implementation of Community Energy Storage (CES). Essentially, they are relatively small batteries about the size of a community transformer, which would be placed appropriately in neighborhoods. These batteries would act as backup power to customers and allow for grid efficiency. The current grid is very old and unresponsive to changes in energy demands. This creates slow reactions and a lot of resources wasted. Having small batteries spread out would allow households to draw excess power from them instead of asking, in most areas, the fossil fuel plant to immediately deliver power.

Wind and solar energy are at the forefront of renewable energy these days but many do not realize the problem as using them as a main source for the grid. These technologies rely on nature and are not a stable resource to have the massive grid be reliant to. This is what Bernard Lee from the Institute of Gas Technology calls the Achilles' heel of renewable power. For example only 35 percent of a wind turbine's maximum energy output can be considered as the firm and constant energy level. When a wind turbine is operating at high capacity, a battery can be charged to offset the period of time when it is operating slower. Home-owned turbines can sell their excess energy back to the grid. However, a utility company has no one to sell it to if the energy needs of the grid are already satisfied. Thus the need for battery storage is lucid.

This same kind of technology is already being used in vehicles today. For instance, the Toyota Prius or the Ford Escape have gasoline engines that charges a battery for the driving force of the car. This is nothing new. Now take that same concept and apply it to the grid. Imagine the grid being hybridized, as Yet-Ming Chiang of MIT would put it. Whatever the power source may be (nuclear, coal, wind, solar, or compressed air) they would all charge a battery near their location that is hooked into the grid. The implications of this innovation would shave peak energy usage cost and use less energy. The utilities can only produce so much power; just like a hybrid car doesn't have a large enough engine to run alone, it needs a battery. Adding a supply of potential energy to balance off the crucial need of the grid when it is being asked to perform at demanding levels would significantly reduce the amount of resources needed to produce the electricity. The power from the grid would be coming from the source as well as a battery or batteries, hence the word hybrid.      

The use of batteries as a key player in the future of American energy may not get all the hype it deserves. But in reality why would it. Batteries have been around for a long time. This is all the more reason to develop new and more efficient ones; the fairly new lithium ion batteries are good but undoubtedly could be much better with more research. I personally feel that batteries in whatever shape or form certainly needs to be incorporated in the future plan of improving the efficiency of the grid as well as the lessening of our utility bills.  

Some questions for comments:

  • 1. What would the utility companies that produce the electricity have against this system?
  • 2. What kind of business ideas could come out of using batteries for power supply?
  • 3. How could these ideas get more attention?

Interesting Statistic:

In 2006, the U.S. grid used, for electrical production, 49 percent coal. 20 percent natural gas, 19 percent nuclear, 7 percent hydro, 2.4 percent non-hydro renewable, and 2 percent oil and refinery gas. U.S. power consumption was 22 percent of the global total.  

BP, "Statistical Review of World Energy 2007"; EIA Electric Power Annual with data for 2006, Table 2.2 Generator Nameplate Capacity


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