Holy Grail for Generators, Transmissions Firms: Electricity Storage

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To say the power generation industry has its challenges is something of an understatement.

Aging generating capacity needs to be replaced in mature economies as nuclear plants come to the end of their lives and most coal-fired plants are phased out by 2025. Data from third-party sources such as the EIA suggests up to $180 billion of planned transmission projects are on the board for the US alone, both to replace aging infrastructure and to meet the intermittent nature of renewable sources.

Shockingly, figures from EPRI (the Electric Power Research Institute) suggest 25% of distribution and 10% of generation and transmission assets are used less than 400 hours per year, yet the capital cost and maintenance have to be met in our power bills. The need for better storage is widely acknowledged, and so far, sadly in short supply.

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In a recent NY Times article, Joseph Carbonara, project manager in research and development at Con Edison, is quoted as saying, “Energy storage in general has been kind of a holy grail for utilities — a lot of the generation and demand is instantaneous. The utilities have always been looking to buffer that.”

By comparison, out of total annual crude oil production of 4.75 billion cubic meters, we have storage capacity for 0.6 billion, or 12.6%, allowing the industry to even out peaks and troughs in supply and demand. In the electricity-generating industry, with consumption of 20 million GWh, we have just 1270 GWh of energy storage, mostly as pump storage schemes.

So to put it another way, we have 46 days of oil storage and 33 minutes of electricity storage – not surprisingly, we occasionally get blackouts, and in fact it’s amazing we don’t get many more.

As you would expect, time, effort and considerable sums of money have been flowing into research to develop affordable, reliable and acceptable forms of storage.

Energy Storage Developments

Compressed Air Energy Storage and Sodium-Sulfur Batteries have made some small headway. Current installed storage is said to be around 440 MW and 316 MW, respectively, but both have their drawbacks.

Continued in Part Two.

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