CREDIT: AP Photo / Jeff T. Green
Thanks to a $14.3 million grant from Washington State, a new three-part project could herald the crucial role of effective batteries in modern, smart, renewable energy grids.
The goal of the project is to push forward the use of batteries on electrical grids, especially those of the smart variety. Smart grids use modern communication technology to better monitor and direct demand and flow of electricity on a grid, thus reducing peak demand and smoothing out the load. Along with storing up the energy generated by solar and wind power when it’s generated, and then releasing it when needed, battery technology also plays a crucial part in managing those functions.
As reported by CleanTechnica, the project is being led by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which developed much of the battery technology being put to use by the project through a federal grant from the Department of Energy. Several of those batteries will in turn be built by the firm UniEnergy Technologies (UET), relying on PNNL’s work. And as for the grants for the Washington project itself, they came courtesy of the state’s Clean Energy Fund, which supports “development, demonstration, and deployment of clean energy technologies.”
The three recipients of the grant are:
Avista Utilities in Spokane received $3.2 million to install an advanced, 3.2 megawatt-hour “flow” battery — designed by PNNL and built by UET — on the smart grid project underway on the Washington State University campus. Smart grids use modern communications technology to better monitor and direct demand and flow of electricity on a grid, thus reducing peak demand and smoothing out the load. Along with storing up the energy generated by solar and wind power, and then releasing it when needed, battery technology also plays a crucial part in managing those other smart grid functions.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE) in Bellevue was awarded $3.8 million to install a 4.4 megawatt-hour lithium-ion battery on its grid. PSE already ran a previous project with PNNL and others to study the costs and benefits of installing battery technology at various sites on the utility’s grid.
Snohomish County Public Utility District No.1 in Everett got $7.3 million to install both a 500 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, and a 6.4 megawatt-hour UET flow battery. The goal in that case is to test out modular storage systems that will service a particular area while communicating with the utility, and which can be scaled up or down depending on a particular application’s needs.
The goal of all three projects is to test out how well these new applications of storage technology improve things like grid flexibility, utilization of storage capacity, and the efficiency with each electricity is distributed. And as GreenTech Media reported, communication between the batteries, the grids, and the utilities in the Snohomish and PSE projects will also be handled by a software system called Modular Energy Storage Architecture. It was developed by the Seattle-based firm 1EnergfySystems with an eye toward creating an open software platform for running smart grids, which can be scaled up or down depending on the size and needs of the grid in question.
The Washington State project’s reliance on flow batteries is also noteworthy. Unlike most batteries, which generate an electrical current by shuttling ions between two solid electrodes, flow batteries create their current by pumping to different fluids past opposite sides of a membrane, across which the ions move. According to Jeff Chamberlain, the Deputy Director of Development and Demonstration for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Labs, this makes flow batteries highly flexible: the volume of the tanks and size of the membrane can all be independently varied depending on the different needs of a particular setting. Applications that require short but powerful bursts of electricity could use small tanks and a large membrane, while applications that require a low current over an extended period could use the opposite combination.
Flow batteries are still relatively new to the commercial market, but the system built by UET features modular flow batteries that can be “stacked” to create larger or smaller battery packs. The batteries rely on fluids made using vanadium — an element that’s been hard to come by, which has traditionally made the batteries costly and relatively uneconomical. But that could change, now that the company American Vanadium is gearing up to re-open a vanadium mine in Nevada in anticipation of the expanding market for flow batteries.
The other limitation vanadium flow batteries and other forms still face is that their fluids are aqueous, meaning water-based. As Chamberlain explained, such batteries can only get up to about 1.4 volts, after which the electricity begins to break the water down on a molecular level. Meaning the next big technological step will be developing flow batteries that rely on other fluids.
“So if you go non-aqueous, the fluid’s a little more expensive than water,” Chamberlain said. “But if you can get to about a three volt window, then you can store way more energy inside your device. And the reason that’s important is if I can store more energy in my device for the grid, then I can spend less money on the containers that hold that fluid and the pumps and the valves and all that stuff.”
“If I can decrease the cost of my flow battery by going to a new chemistry, then I can meet the grid needs.”