In my previous column, we talked about sweeping changes in the utility business model pushed forward by new technologies. This month, I want to focus on one area of innovation with the potential to change how we deliver electricity to your home or business—energy storage.
Electricity is a unique product that is consumed the moment it is produced, and there must always be enough of it flowing through our power lines to ensure that every time a member throws a switch, the lights come on. But what if we could capture the electricity generated by power plants when demand for electricity (and thus the cost of producing it) is low, then release it when consumers need it most?
Storing large amounts of energy has always been a challenge, often requiring expensive infrastructure. Consider the most common energy-storage system in use for decades, the hydroelectric dam. A variation of the typical hydroelectric dam is known as pumped hydro. During times when electricity use is low, pumps lift water into holding tanks or reservoirs. The contained water holds a large amount of stored energy. When consumers need more power, the water is released to turn generators, which convert the stored energy into electricity.
Another tried-and-true form of energy storage in use across South Carolina is the high-capacity electric-resistance water heater. More than 120,000 co-op-served homes have water heaters equipped with load-control switches. During periods of high demand for electricity, co-ops temporarily cut power to these devices so there’s more to go around. The homeowners who volunteer for load-control programs don’t know when the electricity is cut, because the insulated tanks hold enough hot water to meet a family’s needs for the control period. In effect, each water heater becomes a thermal battery, storing energy in the form of hot water.
While these time-tested storage methods will continue to be a part of our energy future, the search is on for additional technologies to more efficiently manage the distribution of electricity. Scientists and engineers tell us to expect multiple breakthroughs in energy-storage solutions in the coming years, including technologies that will make renewable energy sources like wind and photovoltaic solar farms far more practical than they are today.
Researchers across the globe are racing to improve one such form of energy storage—rechargeable batteries. Consumers can now buy large, wall-mounted, lithium-ion battery systems (the same kind of battery found in laptops and cellphones) capable of supplying much of a family’s needs for short periods of time. Engineers are studying other electrochemical battery technologies, with dreams of building massive battery systems that could back up an entire substation or power a neighborhood during emergency outages.
Other ideas in development include using superconducting magnets to store energy in magnetic fields and solar-thermal systems that trap the heat of concentrated sunlight in molten salts. These salts are highly efficient at retaining the heat until it’s needed to make steam and drive generators at power plants.
It may sound like so much science fiction, but, behind each of these experimental systems, there’s very real research, not to mention sizable investments. The emerging energy-storage market, fueled in large part by the growing success of renewable-energy production, has grown from a $200 million industry in 2012 to a projected $19 billion industry by 2017.
Studying the game-changing potential of new energy-storage systems is another challenge that your electric cooperative is poised to meet. As always, our guiding principle will be finding solutions that work best for our members.
Game changers – Technology may change the way we power our homes, businesses, churches and farms, but your local electric cooperative is always looking out for you.