The White Stuff Can Help Us Get to the Electrical Smart Grid

EnergyBiz Insider has an article this morning that is almost literally a description of a silver lining on a storm cloud.  http://www.energycentral.com/site/newsletters/ebi.cfm?id=613  Editor Kate Rowland details how the need for emergency preparedness following major weather incidents (hurricanes, for instance, or continent-wide ice storms) may be improving utility dependability in numerous ways, partly because of public outcry, and partly out of a need to comply with an increasingly demanding regulatory environment.

Celeste LeCompte of Earth2Tech takes it a step farther: http://earth2tech.com/2008/12/22/heavy-snowfall-with-a-chance-of-smart-grid/ She says, “Bad weather-induced power outages are a big motivator for utilities to build out their “smart grid” infrastructure. This winter, utilities are getting a chance to see just how good smart grid systems are at reporting outages and restoring service safely and cheaply. ”

On top of the smart grid concept, which implies a computerization of electrical distribution beyond a simple “traffic cop” stage, the most encouraging development are the various demonstration projects at grid buffering, which allows the storage of excess energy capacity (like the energy that is generated in the middle of the night when lights are out and businesses are largely shuttered), in order to be fed back into the grid in the daytime when the nation’s washers and dryers, televisions, computers, heaters and air conditioners switch into high gear. 

The New York State Energy Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA to friends), has been a leader in these demo projects.  http://www.nyserda.org/.  One project, set for LaGuardia College in Queens, will derive solar energy from rooftop installations, store them in batteries, and then either use the energy later or feed it into the grid.  A second project, on the upper Delaware River, will use ranks of batteries to store nighttime or off-peak energy from existing turbines to moderate the need for new turbines (and new coal-burning) by “buffering” the differences between generation and use.  See http://www.gaiapowertechnologies.com/download/Utilities_handout.pdf.

The key is finding a battery that offers high enough performance combined with low enough cost to make the project economical.  That probably lets out the newer batteries, like Li-ion and NiMH, or other exotics, and has boosted interest in PbC batteries engineered by New Castle, PA-based Axion Power Intl (http://www.axionpower.com).  PbC batteries are a latter-day descendent of the lead-acid battery in your car, with half the lead replaced by nanocarbon (basically carbon created through specialized incineration of biological materials — which obviously keeps it out of the air), and they offer the sort of high performance and low cost that may lead the pack for utility buffering or the storage of energy created from renewable sources.

So when you’re dreaming of a White Christmas, remember that the stuff you ski on or toboggan on may be encouraging your local utility to harden up, smarten up and plan for the future in creative and innovative ways.

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