Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Engineering Storage

A 2011 remake of the 1967 classic The Graduate would probably have the revised memorable line - -

Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin.  "I want to say one word to you.  Just one word . . . Are you listening? - Storage."

From plastics in 1967  to storage in 2011.  In this case storage is storage to store electricity generated from alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.  Consider the article (It's Not Enough to Harness the Wind) in the October 24, 2011 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek:

"Arguments for solar and wind power are enticing (endless availability, no pollution, and so on) that it's easy to see why the idea of transitioning the world economy to alternative energy over the next 40 years keeps gaining favor.  Public discussion often makes it seem as if the only obstacles are efficiency and cost.  Photovoltaic solar cells and offshore wind farms can provide power at about $160 A megawatt hour.  That's far costlier than coal-fired plants, which deliver power at about $70 a megawatt hour.  that price gap keeps narrowing; it may close completely in a decade or two.

Recent events in Germany, though highlight a less discussed, but equally crucial, challenge.  German energy prices have began careening in the strangest ways.  Sunny, gusty days generate so much alternative energy that utilties pay industrial customers to take it away.  Cloudy, calm weather creates shortages that can send wholesale prices as high as $220 a megawatt hour.  Zigzagging energy prices aren't just a short-term annoyance.  They distort budgets and spending  priorities, forcing utilties to spend billions on fossil-fuel plants that are used only part-time to ensure steady power when wind and solar are in short supply.

The most elegant solution would be to improve grid-level storage of solar and wind power, so yesterday's sunshine can continue to yield power during today's storms.  Achieving next-generation storage will take years.  False starts will abound.  Partial breakthroughs will need to be freely shared.  Such long-horizon projects are anathema to the private sector, but well-suited to government support.  The U.S. Energy Dept. took a step in the right direction last month when it issued a slew of $3 million or smaller grants to labs exploring projects as varied as molten batteries, nanomaterials, high-temperature salts, and compressed vapor.

Alternative energy's potential goes well beyond the approaches being commercialized today.  The sooner major advances in areas such as storage can be found, the easier it will be to save billions by shrinking the need for backup plants."

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