The push to build supersized batteries capable of storing unused energy for later use on the grid is taking a big step forward:
Private companies are interested in moving the technology out of the laboratory and into commercial production.
Many energy experts say for renewable energy to become better integrated onto the grid, some sort of energy storage system is needed. That’s because renewable energy isn’t always reliable. The sun doesn’t always shine. The wind doesn’t always blow.
For years researchers have been trying to figure out a way to store extra renewable energy to help fill in that intermittency.
“Since the invention of electricity, mankind has had no viable means to store electrical energy in large quantities with the exception of hydroelectric dams,” said Greg Cipriano, founder of WattJoule. “Now with the rapid growth of solar and wind power the need for energy storage on the grid has never been greater.”
WattJoule is the most recent company to license a new battery technology engineered in the Pacific Northwest that purports to help store renewable energy, said Peter Christensen, technology commercialization manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Two other companies also hold licenses to the battery.
“It’s more than just an interesting science experiment. This is doing something in the real world, which is very exciting to us,” Christensen said.
That real-world something is called the redox-flow battery, and they’re so big that four of them will fill a shipping storage container.
One of the major problems with large-scale energy storage technology is cost, Christensen said.
“The primary reason why this is more cost effective is that it operates on a broader temperature range and is more stable,” Christensen said. “You can spend much less energy supporting the system. That energy, instead, can be used to support the grid.”
That means the batteries can run well in different climates, hot and cold, Christensen said.
The first company to start developing this technology is based in Mukilteo, Wash., north of Seattle. UniEnergy Technologies is a start-up company built around this renewable energy storage technology. (The third company licensed the technology anonymously.)
Russ Weed, UET’s vice president of business development, said the company plans to start making the batteries commercially available this summer.
Weed said the company eventually wants to produce 100 megawatts of battery systems per year.
“That sounds like a lot. It is,” Weed said. “On the other hand, the global market appears to have many gigawatts of need for storage.”
That amount of storage won’t take up much space. The UET battery systems are loaded onto shipping containers. Weed said that allows the battery storage footprint to be one-fifth of its original size. He hopes eventually utilities will place the batteries at electrical substations.
“As the technology is productized, and products come out that meet the needs of the market,” Weed said, “storage is going to become as ubiquitous as transformers.”
Clarification: Feb. 6, 2013. An earlier version of this report described the storage capacity of a 100-megawatt battery system that has since been disputed by a source for this story.
Correction: Feb. 6, 2014. An earlier version of this article misstated the number of batteries in UniEnergy Technologies’ storage containers. There are three batteries in the storage containers.