Dec 2, 2015

Electricity storage: Pumping heat | The Economist

IT WAS while hang-gliding that Jonathan Howes, a British aeronautical engineer, came up with an idea for a meteorologically powered engine to fly him between thermals, the columns of rising air which glider pilots use to gain altitude. It would use a thermal's updraught to turn a small turbine which captured some of the thermal's energy, for storage. Then, when the glider was in level flight, the pitch of the turbine blades would change and it would become a propeller driven by that stored energy.

A neat thought. But what was truly novel was that the captured energy would be stored not as electricity in a battery, but as heat—or, rather, heat and cold—in two small reservoirs. Mr Howes has, however, yet to put such a device on his hang-glider because he is too busy building a far bigger version as part of the search for a cheap and reliable way to store electricity on the grid, a breakthrough which would transform the use of renewable energy.

At the moment, grid managers match demand from industry and consumers by generating just enough electricity at any given time. This is not too hard, for the output from some sorts of fossil-fuelled power stations can be turned on and off reasonably swiftly. But power from renewable sources, particularly the wind and the sun, is intermittent. The wind does not always blow and the sun shines for only part of the day, even in cloudless skies.

As costs come down and efficiency increases, renewable energy is being used more widely. Solar power is already the cheapest form of electricity in most sunny climes, and in America the Department of Energy wants it to provide 27% of the country's electricity by 2050, up from less than 1% today. But without efficient grid-scale storage, costly backup generation will be needed to keep the lights on. In many poor countries that means running a smoky diesel generator.

A number of technologies are being developed to store electricity on the grid. They include various sorts of giant battery, such as flow batteries which can accumulate energy in liquids. Supercapacitors could charge up and discharge rapidly, as could giant flywheels, which store kinetic energy. Pumping compressed air into sealed caves and releasing it to run turbines is another idea. But Mr Howes thinks his invention can beat them all.

His system is based on a heat pump—a device like an air-conditioner that transfers heat from one place to another. In his case, though, the device is reversible, and when the heat flows back it works like a heat engine, converting thermal energy to mechanical power like a car engine.

Isentropic, a company Mr Howes co-founded with two colleagues, James Macnaghten and Mark Wagner, has developed several prototypes of what the trio call pumped-heat electricity storage (PHES). The firm is now completing a demonstration unit with an output of 1.5 megawatts and a storage capacity of six megawatt-hour (which means that, at full power, it can provide four hours of electricity). This will be used for further testing at its factory near Fareham, on Britain's south coast.

The PHES system consists of two silos each filled with crushed rock, such as gravel. The silos are connected top and bottom by a series of pipes filled with argon, an inert gas. When electricity is in surplus, it is used to power a motor that operates a compressor to squeeze the argon. Doing work to compress a gas heats it, and in this case the argon reaches 500°C. As it is pumped through the first silo it transfers its heat to the gravel. The cooler gas that emerges is then expanded, which lowers its temperature to -150°C. When it is pumped through the second silo it cools the gravel therein. The resulting difference between the silos can be used to generate electricity by reversing the process. Gas heated by the hot silo flows to the cold one, driving the cylinders of what had been the pump to turn what had been the motor as a generator.

There is always some loss in energy-storage systems. But Isentropic says PHES is able to store and discharge electricity with a "round-trip" efficiency of 72-80%. This compares with 74% for pumped-hydro, the way 99% of grid-scale storage happens at the moment. Pumped-hydro uses surplus electricity to pump water between two lakes on a mountain side, one higher than the other. Once the water is in the higher lake it can be released at will and used to drive a hydroelectric plant. Pumped-hydro is efficient, but you have to have a nearby mountain to make it work....Please continue reading from: