I’m not in the electricity storage business, but I can recognize lousy ideas when I see them. Grid-scale battery storage is a bad idea. It will never be anything more than a frequency and voltage regulation technology, although I have to say these are critical functions that batteries can provide. Innovation comes out of left field while everyone else is trying to make a pig fly. And when I see it, I think, “Wow, why did I not think of that?”
The Roots of Sound Storage
Thermal power generation, particularly from coal, and to a lesser extent, nuclear, have enormous advantages over renewable energy and storage – advantages that storage and renewables need to overcome. These advantages include energy security and frequency and voltage regulation, at a price, of course.
Regarding energy security, there is nothing more secure than a mountain of fuel sitting next to a coal plant. The next closest thing is several months of U-235 (fissile uranium) stored in a reactor core. The third is natural gas. The problem with natural gas is there is no on-site fuel storage that I am aware of. If a pipeline is cut, or more frequently, when there are shortages, particularly in periods of cold weather where natural gas is the primary heating fuel, problems occur. We HAVE to have heat, and we HAVE to have electricity.
The combination of electrification and lower carbon natural gas-fired electricity moves the problem sideways. You might as well burn natural gas for heat rather than make electricity and use a heat pump for heating – as far as fuel security and emissions are concerned.
Frequency and Voltage Regulation
Regarding frequency and voltage regulation, most electric loads (devices like TVs, computers, non-incandescent lightbulbs) – critical stuff, require precise voltage and frequency control. Spinning reserves (think flywheel) by thermal power generators provide the near-instantaneous voltage and frequency regulation. Capacitors and other stuff provide some trim, but the big dogs of frequency and voltage regulation are spinning reserves. Batteries can also provide short-term frequency and voltage regulation at a reasonable cost. In essence, kind of like an uninterruptible power supply can power down a server in case the power goes out.
Batteries require too many expensive rare materials, much of which come from third-world countries under dictator-rule, to be useful for the grid. So what can we produce or build here in the greatest nation on the planet with materials mined and manufactured here? [again, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this] Potential energy! Gravity in the purest form.
A Promising Solution?
I discovered the Energy Vault in The Wall Street Journal last month. When I saw it, I thought, bingo (or at least bing)! Features and benefits as I see it include:
- Density – pack a lot of storage in a small footprint.
- Reliable – it could self-start with no energy input (battery).
- Efficient – a huge disadvantage to most electricity storage technologies is the round trip losses – like 50% for pumped hydro storage. This purest form of gravity storage is probably closer to 90%.
- Some flywheel effect for voltage and frequency response. A small flywheel could be used for short (seconds) response while the large system can handle it from there.
- Build anywhere – unlike pumped hydro, these can be built anywhere, including the middle of a city. What the heck?
This technology requires no extravagantly expensive materials, only steel, concrete, motor/generators, software, and controls.
This technology can be a huge bridge to carbon-free electricity, particularly in reliable solar locations, but wind will remain an issue, such as here in the upper Midwest, where July/August, the hottest months with the highest electricity loads, represent the least wind generating volume of the year. The gravitational system noted in this post is good for hours or even a day or two, but not a week as may be needed for the absence of wind.
Finally, Is there a more perfect way to kill the Duck by combining this with solar for flattening the duck-head ramp and providing kWh in the dark for charging electric vehicles?
I Lost My Tribe!
On a different subject: Along with electric vehicles, storage, and renewable energy, climate change is one of my fascinations – both scientifically and sociologically. One link led to another and led to this article from the New York Times. The crux of the article explains how climate change is more partisan than ever – well duh. Observe the chart nearby from the article.
The article failed to mention two things.
First, when the economy sucks, people care less about climate change. Money talks. We can see this phenomenon from 2008-2014.
Second, when the term changed from “global warming” to “climate change,” there is a sharp decrease in the gap. Why could this be? People are confused and disoriented. Where did my tribe go? It looks like a shark swam through a school of baitfish. They scatter and need to find their way back to the school (tribe). Groupthink.