Super-sized batteries sprout up around the world

Smart meters, smart grids, electric cars, wind and solar power … there’s one piece of the sustainable energy future that hasn’t yet gone as mainstream as these, but is showing signs of moving that way:

Large-scale energy storage.

Big batteries — or, at least, energy-storage technology of some kind — is critical for bringing our power systems into the 21st century. Without them, our efforts to develop renewables remain dependent on the wind blowing and the sun shining. No wind, no sun, no electricity. (Not a problem with fossil fuels or nuclear, of course, but we’re trying to move away from those, remember?)

Finding a way to store lots of energy efficiently for later use by homes, businesses and whole communities would not only help us make the most of clean power sources, but would help reduce — if not eliminate — strategies like “constraint payments,” in which energy generators are paid not to generate energy when the grid becomes overstressed. While such payments are made to generators of a variety of energy sources, they’ve become controversial in places like the UK, where complaints have been raised about paying wind farms to shut down their turbines.

If large-scale energy storage isn’t yet as efficient and affordable as it might one day be, it’s already starting to make its presence known in regions around the globe. China, for example, is building what it says will be the “world’s largest battery energy storage station” — an array of batteries being developed in conjunction with wind and solar power that will provide up to 36 megawatt-hours of energy storage.

Other countries exploring large-scale batteries include:

  • South Korea, which is testing energy-storage technologies as part of its Jeju Island smart-grid project;
  • Denmark, where an island-based pilot project will use electric cars to store extra energy;
  • Sweden, where a utility company is connecting large-scale batteries to the electricity grid;
  • Canada, which is testing the use of end-of-life vehicle batteries to provide utility-scale energy storage;
  • The UK, where a pilot project is exploring the use of compressed liquid air for energy storage;
  • Chile, which is using energy storage to provide 12 megawatts of spinning reserve at an electricity substation; and
  • The US, which has numerous rollouts, including a 32-megawatt energy-storage project coupled with wind energy in West Virginia and a wind-to-battery project in Minnesota.

While a large number of utility-scale energy storage projects are already operating, the technology is still in its early days and not every strategy might pan out. US-based Beacon Power, for example, which opened a 20-megawatt flywheel-based energy storage facility in New York in 2011, recently declared bankruptcy and is selling its assets to Rockland Capital. But the general concept of large-scale energy storage is one that remains hotly pursued, as demonstrated by the US Department of Energy’s recent announcement that it is launching a new, $120 million Innovation Hub for advanced research on batteries and energy storage.

The goal, says Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is to “be able to design and produce batteries here in America that last longer, go farther, and cost less than today’s technologies.”

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