Sticky point of clean en­ergy is stor­age

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Resources - Keith Orchi­son

IN the on­go­ing de­bate about the role re­new­able elec­tric­ity can play in com­bat­ing global warm­ing, en­ergy stor­age is the game-changer. At present the curse word for wind and so­lar power sys­tems is ‘‘ in­ter­mit­tency’’. Calm days and vari­able wind pat­terns blight the mar­ket ex­pan­sion of wind farms, as do night and dull days for so­lar ar­rays, not least be­cause of the strains that un­pre­dictable sup­ply places on high-volt­age trans­mis­sion net­works.

If the power gath­ered when the wind is blow­ing and the sun is shin­ing can be ‘‘ bot­tled’’ in a com­mer­cially vi­able way, the role of wind farms and so­lar ar­rays takes on a whole new im­por­tance in an in­creas­ingly car­bon-con­strained en­ergy sup­ply en­v­i­ron- ment. Be­cause the chief ex­pense of th­ese re­new­able sys­tems is the ini­tial cap­i­tal cost, with low mar­ginal costs of ac­tu­ally gen­er­at­ing power, ac­cess to stor­age can make a sub­stan­tial change to their mar­ket con­tri­bu­tion.

Now a re­mote fish­ing com­mu­nity in West­ern Aus­tralia is about to take on role in help­ing the al­ter­na­tive en­ergy in­dus­try to pur­sue its dream of be­ing able to op­er­ate on de­mand in peak pe­ri­ods, when power prices are at their high­est.

Us­ing a $1.83 mil­lion sub­sidy from the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment, part of a five-year $20.4 mil­lion pro­gram to pro­mote elec­tric­ity stor­age tech­nolo­gies, Van­cou­ver-based VRB Power Sys­tems and Aus­tralia’s Cougar En­ergy Lim­ited are set­ting up a trial of the Cana­dian startup com­pany’s bat­tery tech­nol­ogy — at ap­pro­pri­ately named Windy Har­bour. The tech­nol­ogy was ini­tially de­vel­oped at the Univer­sity of New South Wales, where re­search on the con­cept is on­go­ing.

The joint ven­ture es­tab­lished its first bat­tery stor­age op­er­a­tion in Aus­tralia for Hy­dro Tas­ma­nia on King Is­land in 2003, and hopes to set up 90 more such trial sites across Aus­tralia over the next three years. Th­ese would be in ad­di­tion to demon­stra­tion projects in elec­tric­ity pro­duc­tion and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions sup­port in North Amer­ica, Ja­pan, South Africa and Ire­land.

The largest project is in Ire­land’s County Derry, where VRB has a $US9.4 mil­lion con­tract to sup­port a 39MW wind farm with stor­age. The Ir­ish Gov­ern­ment’s sus­tain­abil­ity agency has es­ti­mated that if the trial is suc­cess­ful the op­por­tu­nity ex­ists to in­stall stor­age ca­pac­ity of 700MW to sup­port a 3000 MW wind farm de­vel­op­ment na­tion­ally. This could meet a quar­ter of Ire­land’s power needs — at the mo­ment gas-based gen­er­a­tion is its dom­i­nant method, fu­elled from Rus­sia.

The VRB bat­tery tech­nol­ogy in­volves pump­ing an elec­trolyte that con­tains vana­dium and sul­phuric acid through a mem­brane, caus­ing a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion to re­lease elec­tric­ity, avoid­ing the degra­da­tion of solid sur­faces present in con­ven­tional bat­ter­ies — crit­i­cally, a process that can also be re­versed to store power.

The com­pany also boasts that its bat­tery has the low­est eco­log­i­cal im­pact of all en­ergy stor­age tech­nolo­gies, most of which rely on toxic sub­stances such as lead, zinc or cad­mium.

Un­like con­ven­tional lead-acid bat­ter­ies, VRB’s in­ven­tion does not wear out and the units are ‘‘ scal­able’’ — they can be grouped to store more power for longer pe­ri­ods.

At present a VRB bat­tery and stor­age tank sys­tem the size of a fridge can hold enough elec­tric­ity to power an av­er­age-sized house or a mo­bile tele­phone trans­mis­sion tower, and a col­lec­tion the size of a foot­ball field can store power from a 40MW wind farm.

VRB also puts the vana­dium bat­tery for­ward as a good com­ple­ment for a diesel gen­er­a­tor in an off-grid com­mu­nity — and it ac­quired the rights to an­other ‘‘ flow’’ bat­tery sys­tem us­ing chem­istry based on bromine and poly­meric sul­phur from RWE, Ger­many’s largest en­ergy util­ity.

VRB’s ini­tial mar­ket­ing fo­cus is on 200 is­land com­mu­ni­ties around the world and coun­tries such as Aus­tralia, where there are large num­bers of off-grid re­gional com­mu­ni­ties re­liant on ex­pen­sive and noisy diesel gen­er­a­tion for their power. The com­pany is cur­rently also ex­plor­ing prospects in Den­mark, Spain, Scot­land, On­tario, Ore­gon, Hawaii, Cal­i­for­nia, parts of Latin Amer­ica and New Zealand.

Its chief ex­ec­u­tive, Tim Hen­nessy, claims that the prospec­tive global mar­ket is worth $US1.5 bil­lion a year in the medium term and far more as the tech­nol­ogy is de­vel­oped. Mean­while, the De­part­ment of En­ergy in Wash­ing­ton DC be­lieves that elec­tric­ity stor­age in Amer­ica alone has a mar­ket po­ten­tial of $US3 bil­lion to $US5 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

The Sa­nia Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries, a US gov­ern­ment agency in New Mex­ico, adds: ‘‘ The elec­tric­ity in­dus­try is be­com­ing aware that en­ergy stor­age can be cost ef­fec­tive in cer­tain ap­pli­ca­tions and cer­tain lo­ca­tions. It will change the way util­i­ties and elec­tric­ity con­sumers do busi­ness.’’

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