Monday, November 7, 2011

A hundred million batteries for our power grid

The loony right's frequent lament:
So-called green energy often is not very green and cannot possibly serve as a substitute for most fossil fuels. Windmills and solar panels are far more expensive than coal and gas; their production is intermittent, unreliable and largely unstorable [sic].  Because of the physics of the electrical grid, wind and solar can never produce more than about 18 percent of electrical production — at least not until low-cost storage devices are developed.
Technology doesn't stand still; whilst fossil fuel apologists are bemoaning an "intermittency problem" that could really ramp up if we had ten times as much renewable power on the grid as actually exists(*), bright engineers are already installing work-arounds.

From the NYTimes:

As a result, the Bonneville Power Administration, the wholesale supplier to a broad swath of the region, turned this year to a strategy common to regions with hot summers: adjusting volunteers’ home appliances by remote control to balance supply and demand.

When excess supply threatens Bonneville’s grid, an operator in a control room hundreds of miles away will now dial up a volunteer’s water heater, raising the thermostat by 60 more degrees. Ceramic bricks in a nearby electric space heater can be warmed to hundreds of degrees.

The devices then function as thermal batteries, capable of giving back the energy when it is needed. Microchips run both systems, ensuring that tap-water and room temperatures in the home hardly vary.
 I'm guessing the efficiency of the system is not great, especially since they are using "found" materials and not purpose-built components. But even a small amount of energy storage, multiplied by the number of water heaters and home heating systems in the US, could add up to a large reserve of stored power.

On the other end of the spectrum, power companies are experimenting with power storage attached to the site, allowing them to manage surges and lulls in demand.

Of course, a extensive North American backbone of HVDC lines could render such adaptations unnecessary by combining the output of thousands of sources and the averaged demand of tens of millions of customers.

Fearmongering, denial of the possibility of technological progress, disbelief in our capacity to adapt and overcome obstacles -- isn't that kinda the mentality the right likes to accuse "greens" of falling into? I thought they were supposed to be the troubadours of technological optimism and faith in human progress? I'm so confused.

* Current power from wind and solar is about 3.3%


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