The recent bad news out of the state of New Jersey is that it’s proposed slashing its renewable energy budget to a mere $7.5 million in 2014. The good news is that this loss will be at least somewhat offset by a proposal to bulk up funding for energy storage specifically.
One of the key difficulties with renewable energy is that it often relies on an intermittent source of power — solar panels require sunshine, turbines require the wind to be blowing, etc. The result is often a mismatch between when demand for electricity is high and when electricity from renewables is available. (Power plants that rely on fossil fuel, by contrast, can be ramped up or down in response to demand.) But improved storage technology could go a long way towards solving this problem, since excess power generated when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing could be built up, and then provided during other times when needed.
So while New Jersey may be backing off funding for further development of renewables, the storage funding may allow it to get significantly more power out of the wind and solar installations it already has:
In a straw proposal developed in the Office of Clean Energy at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, the staff is suggesting that the state allocate between $5 million and $10 million over the next four years for energy storage. The proposal says it may award up to $2.5 million in state fiscal year 2014. Over four years, the total could rise to $10 million.
Power storage of course largely means batteries, but the technology is still trying to catch up with the growing needs of the grid, expanded use of renewables, and electric cars. But if New Jersey wants to help push the technology along, there are a few areas the state could choose from.
Lithium-ion batteries are the obvious go-to choice, and they’re already widely used in small consumer electronics. But at larger scales they’re prone to shorts and overheating — as Boeing found out when their new Dreamliner fleet had to be grounded after the lithium batteries on board two separate planes caught fire. But there’s a new technological approach being developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that promises to overcome these safety issues, while making the batteries lighter and far more efficient in the process. It’s still embryonic though, so it could sue a boost.
Alternatively, Bill Gates and other investors recently announced they’ll be plowing $35 million into a new battery system by Aquion that relies solely on cheap and non-toxic materials like carbon, sodium, manganese, and good old fashioned salt water. The batteries are modular and thus can be grouped as a stack, making them applicable to large and small-scale projects, and they can even withstand a wide range of temperature extremes. Aquion is hoping to have production up and running at a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania by the end of this year.
And if New Jersey wants to get really ambitious, they could take a cue from Belgium’s plan to build an artificial island to store power from wind farms. Excess power generated by the turbines would be used to pump water 15 meters up to a reservoir on the island, and then when electricity demand was up but wind was down, the water would flow back out for hydroelectric generation.