Last summer I visited the Netherlands, the original home of the windmill. Surprisingly, I saw hardly any of the quaint structures we associate with Dutch wind power. One hundred years ago Holland had about 10,000 wooden windmills dotting its landscape. Today, barely 10% remain. What I saw instead were high tech wind turbines, white and spare and gracefully generating electricity with wind from the North Sea. Many view these modern day towers as an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope. Like giant flowers across a landscape, they symbolize for me a clean energy future. But wind power, and solar, have a handicap that fuels claims that renewables will never be more than a small percentage of U.S. power. These energy sources can’t be counted on when night falls or the wind subsides. Their inconsistent and therefore unreliable nature poses a problem for a world with an enormous appetite for electricity. If only excess power could be stored on a grand scale, it might solve many of our energy problems.
It isn’t that electrical energy isn’t currently storable, but as Andrew Tang, Senior Director of PG&E’s Smart Meter program points out, the current generation of batteries can’t store electricity at a price that’s cost effective. But both he and Steve Berberich from California System Operators were optimistic about future storage possibilities. Tang described an experimental project that uses a sodium sulfur battery the size of an 18-wheeler trailer. The battery would be located next to a substation, or somewhere in the network, and its stored power would be used during times of peak demand. He also talked about the future of plug-in electric cars whose batteries could both store energy and in theory put it back onto the grid when the car’s not in use. Steve Berberich envisioned several possibilities for storing excess power. He proposed converting it to hydrogen, which could be burned in a gas plant or could be used in a fuel cell. And he suggested using power to compress air, which could be injected into the ground and called upon when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining.
Whatever the final solution to storage, you can guarantee it will be a game changer in the renewable power industry. No longer will wind and solar be looked upon as unreliable. Hopefully this missing puzzle piece will go a long way towards helping us detach from our dependence on fossil fuels. But we’ll still be left with the challenge of getting all that clean, green energy onto the power grid. And you can be sure that environmental concerns, zoning, aesthetics, and cost will undoubtedly be cantankerous issues for years to come.