ShareThis Page

Large-scale batteries are integral in shift to renewable energy

| Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Constructed pallets of battery stacks, ready to be shipped from Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Constructed pallets of battery stacks, ready to be shipped from Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Constructed pallets of battery stacks, ready to be shipped from Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant in September 2014. (Trib photo)
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Constructed pallets of battery stacks, ready to be shipped from Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant in September 2014. (Trib photo)
Anodes displayed off of the assembly line on their way to assembly at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Anodes displayed off of the assembly line on their way to assembly at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Joanna Bibb secures wires and connects battery to battery on a pallet of battery stacks at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Joanna Bibb secures wires and connects battery to battery on a pallet of battery stacks at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
An exposed battery pack, with contents inside, at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
An exposed battery pack, with contents inside, at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Joanna Bibb, secures wires and connects battery to battery on a pallet of battery stacks at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Joanna Bibb, secures wires and connects battery to battery on a pallet of battery stacks at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Anodes move along an assembly line on their way to assembly at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Anodes move along an assembly line on their way to assembly at Aquion Energy's production facility on Technology Drive near Mt. Pleasant, on Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.

At Turkey Hill Dairy in Lancaster County, the secret ingredient in its ice cream is wind.

Along with conventionally derived power used to make its sweet treats, the dairy is the sole customer of a nearby wind farm, built in 2010, that provides 25 percent of its electricity.

“That's honestly all we need,” said company spokeswoman Andrea Nikolaus.

Relying on wind for bigger operations, or to power the grid, is a different matter. As critics of renewable energy are quick to point out, the wind doesn't always blow — or it does when customers don't need it — and the sun doesn't always shine on solar panels.

But tougher environmental rules are prompting more interest in solar and wind power as the government looks to change a national electrical grid that gets most of its power from traditional sources — 39 percent from coal, 27 percent from natural gas and 19 percent nuclear.

Finding a cheap, reliable way to store electricity generated by renewables — energy resources that are abundantly available and environmentally friendly — is the hope of many researchers, government officials and power producers.

“The main issue is cost,” said Gabriela Hug, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “There's not one technology that has been decided, ‘That's the winner, that's the one we should go after.' ”

Many people are focusing efforts on making batteries commercially viable.

“Batteries have not traditionally been designed to be installed and used in a large scale,” said Ted Wiley, vice president of production at Aquion Energy, a Lawrence-ville-based company that is working on solving bulk storage for solar and wind power. “Everything is small-scale, or an existing type that has been repurposed.”

The types of non-battery storage that exist require unique geological features such as elevation for pumped water storage or caverns for compressed air storage. Or, they are expensive or require construction, experts said.

Aquion's battery, developed at Carnegie Mellon, is powered by lithium salts, cotton and activated charcoal and other chemicals. They can be charged and discharged thousands of times, said Wiley. And, because those materials are abundant, the cost of the battery is fairly low.

Southern California Edison, a utility that serves about 14 million people, is testing a collection of 600,000 lithium-ion battery cells to see if they can store power generated by 5,000 nearby wind turbines for later use.

Aquion is competing to get batteries to communities and power suppliers in California and New York, where Wiley said the grid is under stress.

“In Pennsylvania, the system isn't broken,” he said. “In California, the renewables that are already on the grid are adding to the mismatches on the grid.”

Nearly one-quarter of energy produced by California's three largest electricity providers comes from renewable resources, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.

Another company, Axion Power in New Castle, has created a lead-carbon battery for energy storage. Though corporate officials said they could not comment because of restrictions associated with a recent incorporation filing for the Securities and Exchange Commission, product specifications say the battery has a faster recharge rate and is more environmentally friendly than lithium-based batteries.

While both companies try to optimize more common battery technologies to large-scale storage, pilot projects funded by the Department of Energy will look at new battery technologies:

• In Harlem, Urban Electric Power is funded by the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program to build a zinc/manganese oxide-powered rechargeable battery that could withstand the rigors of the electrical grid.

• ARPA-E also is funding two flow batteries — an iron-based system that uses two tanks of liquid that flow back and forth to charge and discharge the battery, and an organic battery that uses carbon compounds from oils and foods to store and release energy.

With the focus on storage, Hug, the Carnegie Mellon engineer, cautioned: Stored energy dissipates.

Researchers are working on how to best transmit electricity to meet demand, and how to make sure usage doesn't stress the grid.

“Storage may be the one you think about immediately,” Hug said, “but how to coordinate demand response and storage? You don't generate energy when you store. You're always losing a little.”

Bloomberg News contributed to this report. Megha Satyanarayana is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.