March 27, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Saving wind power for later
General Compression, based in Attleboro, Mass., last week said it received a $5 million round of seed funding to commercialize a wind-power storage system that uses compressed air.
Wind turbines typically have an onboard power generator that sends electricity down the tower and onto the grid. General Compression plans to break with that basic design and place an air compressor in the nacelle, the housing on a turbine where the generator usually sits.
Its plan calls for sending highly compressed air down the tower and into underground storage, such as caves or depleted gas wells, or through pipelines. The pressurized air can be released when needed to power an electricity generator, even if wind is not spinning the turbine's blades.
General Compression is one of a wave of companies trying to meet a growing demand for clean sources of power. Like others, the company is trying to commercialize concepts that have been around for decades but not fully pursued because they were considered too expensive or technically difficult. Now, with higher prices of energy forecast, these ideas are being applied to the clean-energy market.
Company executives argue that a compressed-air energy storage system will allow wind farm operators to charge more for their product.
Rather than get paid for electricity only when the wind is blowing, they can now make wind-generated power available when the demand--and price--is highest, say company executives.
"The problem with wind is intermittency," said company president Michael Marcus. "It does not garner high prices from power purchasers because it is not schedulable...(but) you can get a higher price if it's available on demand."
For example, if the wind is blowing hardest at 11 at night, a wind farm operator could store the energy generated from the wind and release it at 10 o'clock the next morning when demand for power starts spiking up.
The compressor was designed by Mechanology, a compressor research and development firm which spun off General Compressor in 2005 and remains a shareholder.
The company now has a prototype device and plans to build a large-scale version of put it through testing later this year. The plan is to test the "compressor array" in a turbine in the field next year, Marcus said.
Iowa's stored-energy park
Although General Compression's design is a radical change from existing turbines, the compressed-air energy storage (CAES) idea has already been implemented.
There are two existing compressed-air storage facilities in operation, one in Germany and one in Alabama. But neither is fueled by wind turbines.
A more recent development is the Iowa Stored Energy Park, which recently chose a site for a CAES operation with wind power in mind.
Projected to cost $200 million and funded primarily by municipalities, the Iowa Stored Energy Park will store compressed air in an underground aquifer in central Iowa, said Kent Holst, the project's development director.
In large part, the gear required for the operation is already available because they intend to modify equipment used to store natural gas underground, he said. "The most difficult part was finding a usable geologic structure. Several are already being used for natural gas storage," Holst said.
In the Iowa project, set to be online in 2011, the wind turbines will not be on site, but the motors to power the compressor are expected to be generated from wind electricity.
The economic reasoning behind the operation is to store wind power when the resource is available and sell it on the market at peak demand times, Holst said.
Wind power--an industry that is seeing a boom in turbine construction--already operates in a cost-effective manner even though utilities can't rely on wind turbines at all times, said Josh Magee, senior wind analyst at Emerging Energy Research.
But if utilities were able to count on wind power to boost the capacity they need to meet their highest demand, such as the middle of a hot summer day, it would make wind power far more attractive, he said.
"If you could figure out a way to do it cost effectively and show (utilities) you can be very profitable at it...then you would have the ability to rapidly scale wind power," he said. "If all of the sudden you had capacity, you can make a bigger dent in climate change, energy security and make a significant contribution to peak demand."
For years, government research efforts have explored the idea of "firming up" wind power--that is, make it available during peak times--by storing electricity in fuel cells or batteries, but there have been few significant attempts, Magee said.
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