How to Store and Ship Our Solar Energy Future
As Argonne National Laboratory Director Eric D. Isaacs noted in his recent Huffpo op ed, the U.S. must have a 21st-century energy grid if clean, renewable energy technologies like solar are to thrive.
The Argonne Lab is one of 21 laboratories operating under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to identify, develop and disseminate renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency protocols, energy storage methods, and environmental remediation best practices (think the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, for a comparison).
Renewable energy potential certainly isn’t lacking, Isaacs assures us, offering measurements for “grow-your-own” renewables like wind energy at more than 8,000 gigawatts (GW), and solar – as found in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology like crystalline and thin-film solar products – at even more.
In fact, the Center for American Progress estimates the solar PV potential of brownfields and other contaminated sites alone at more than 920,000 megawatts (MW; 920 GW), or enough to power about 400 million U.S. homes, even those in harsh climates. In 2008, the U.S. used 10.9 gigawatt-hours of electricity; 2009 usage was slightly less, partly due to an enduring recession.
But, as Isaac observes, all that potential energy generation doesn’t do us any good if we can’t save it for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing. It is also wasted if we can’t “ship” it from where it is generated to where it is needed, when it is needed.
Unfortunately, our battery technology is still somewhat primitive and largely aimed at portable electronics rather than utility-grade electricity storage. And our aging and fragmented transmission infrastructure, designed for the days when someone plopped down a coal-fired power plant and strung lines out to neighboring homes, isn’t equipped to handle renewable resources.
Working through A123 Systems, Inc., a 2001 start-up thrown off by MIT, AES Corporation – a global distributed power company – will avail itself of A123’s proprietary nanotechnological approach to phosphate batteries using lithium-ion metallurgy to hold larger charges for longer duration.
These batteries are offered in large-format systems that have built-in frequency regulation modulators (via computerized algorithms) that help utilities avoid using gas peaking plants, for example, to cover the gaps that result from incorporating renewable energies like solar and wind into the energy mix.
And this, in turn, will reportedly eliminate up to 70 percent of the resultant fossil-fuel burning greenhouse gas emissions, because while natural gas is cleaner burning than coal or oil, it is not emission free like clean, renewable solar energy.
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