Posted by: dolan | February 17, 2009

Renewable energy is great, but what about storage?

Despite it being at least ten years late, it’s great to see some traction in funding renewable energy in the US.  Better late than never.  But my optimism always fades a little because I know what renewable detractors will counter with: “what good is solar when the sun doesn’t shine and what good is wind power when the wind stops blowing?”  Now I’m aware that those are largely specious arguments, but common knowledge points otherwise.  Which leads to the rather obvious question: That’s great that we’re investing in better, cleaner ways to produce power, but why not throw a dime to schemes to conserve it too.  And when I say conserve, I mean more than switching to CFLs.  I mean, literally, conserving energy by storing it, kind of like a battery.

Flywheels are one simple, relatively cheap way to do this.  You build a huge, heavy flywheel, bury it in the ground, and set it in motion.  Energy generated is stored in the flywheel, and when energy is needed it is tapped from the flywheel.  Voila, you’ve decoupled generation from demand.  Easier said than done, but a definite possibility.  Another simple, effective solution uses gravity instead of inertia.  Use some energy to pump water or lift a heavy weight uphill.  When you need it, let out some water or let the weight down.  There are plenty of other ideas out there, but the point is, we should be spending some of that 800 billion dollars seeding companies that are developing this area, instead of focusing purely on cleaner power generation.

One fairly promising solution is A Better Place.  Their big idea is to use plug-in hybrid vehicles as energy storage mechanisms to offload the grid during peak generation hours.  I’d love to see this succeed, and it may on a small scale (in the short term at least).  Definitely something to keep an eye on.  Japan and Denmark are forging ahead in this area, so we should know in the next few years how it’s working.

Of course, one can’t complain too much about spending on renewable power generation technologies.  I truly hope a little of that money goes to researching enhanced geothermal, as well as solar towers.  As has been stated many times, the government isn’t generally all that good in picking technologies, but they can be the ultimate angel investor, and give worthwhile ideas (and some that aren’t) a hell of a (critical) jump start. Perhaps if we’re lucky, clean power generation will be so successful that conservation is an afterthought (kinda like Quebecers with James bay).  Of course that’s what they said about nuclear, and that didn’t work out so well.

Multiple eggs, please meet multiple baskets, because we’re gonna break a few along the way.  Better to get started sooner rather than later, as we’ve already put off doing the right thing for far, far too long.


  1. Your concerns seem to overlook the greater generalized demand during the day. Non-solar power generating resources provide excess system capacity at night. My 4kw solar array on my roof expands the system capacity during the day. At night, I use the excess capacity in the system for my needs. This approach does not make me energy independent, but it does make our region less dependent on non-renewable energy in a manner that I think benefits everyone.

  2. Good point; solar is very complementary to the demand cycle. Wind, however, is not (necessarily), nor is tidal power. Wind is the fastest growing source of renewable power, so it is the one that in my mind would benefit the most from decoupling of demand and supply.

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