The power in building bigger batteries

Sam Eaton Jul 29, 2009

The power in building bigger batteries

Sam Eaton Jul 29, 2009

EDITOR’S NOTE: The audio version of this story incorrectly identifies the Electric Power Research Institute. The correction has been made in the transcript below.


Kai Ryssdal: Crude prices dropped today, down about five percent amid reports U.S. consumers just haven’t been using as much of it. There will come a time when we won’t be able to use oil, either because it’s all gone or because it’s gotten too expensive. When that day comes the clean-energy business hopes to be ready. Actually, it hopes to be ready long before that day comes.

But first, it needs to solve a fundamental problem: How to store the power it creates from wind or from the sun. Think batteries. Really big batteries. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.

SAM EATON: If the University of California at San Diego were a city, its energy policies would be among the most forward-looking in the nation. Its electrical grid is computerized for maximum efficiency. And virtually every parking structure here is plastered with giant solar panels. Byron Washom leads the university’s effort to wean itself off fossil fuels.

BYRON WASHOM: We really are on the order of five to seven years ahead of what the utility industry might be looking at in the not too distant future.

But Washom says the more UC San Diego relies on renewable energy, the tougher it is to maintain a consistent power supply. He whips out a laptop and logs onto a digital power meter for the solar panels we’re standing under.

WASHOM: You see on this particular graphic where we had our typical morning of coastal fog.

Electricity output from the solar panels barely makes a blip on the chart.

WASHOM: And then at 9:30 the fog burned off and within about a five minute period it just had a five- times jump in production.

This is the Achilles heel of renewable energy. Solar panels and wind turbines only generate power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. But Washom says if you could store all that electricity in a giant battery so it could be used when it’s most needed…problem solved.

WASHOM: It’s the missing link.

And dozens of companies like Solar Reserve, in southern California, are rushing to develop ways to store electricity. Bill Gould is the company’s Chief Technology Officer.

BILL GOULD: Our product uses the sun to collect energy and then we store it as heat in large tanks filled with molten salt.

That heat is then used to generate power later in the day when demand peaks. Other companies are betting on technologies like massive lithium-ion batteries that could power entire cities. Or compressed air from wind turbines that’s stored in underground caves. Haresh Kamath is with the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit, utility-funded research group.

HARESH KAMATH: It’s a brand new market with no significant players in it at the moment that dominate that market. So it’s a very big opportunity for anybody who can rise to the challenge.

And an increasingly lucrative one. Today University of California, San Diego, announced it’s taking bids to build a $3.4 million energy-storage facility on campus.

There are also billions of dollars in federal stimulus funds set aside for developing the technology. And it’s been one of the few bright spots among venture capitalists, drawing more investment than any other clean-energy sector in recent years. But Kamath says progress is still too slow.

KAMATH: What we really want to see are pilot projects. Projects where you’re actually addressing a need and showing that storage can do the job.

Like the one being planned in San Diego. Byron Washom takes me to other side of campus where the new storage facility will be built.

WASHOM: This is going to be the Kitty Hawk of sustainability over the next five years.

Washom checks his watch and excuses himself for another meeting. The university’s push to make renewable energy more dependable is attracting attention from all over the world.

WASHOM: This afternoon I have a delegation from the leading Chinese battery storage manufactures to come visit the campus.

EATON: So the word’s out?

WASHOM: There’s an expression in the south and that is everybody smells meat-a-frying.

In San Diego, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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