Stored power

Green-tech manufacturing, climate science, and wisdom from the Amazon

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rebecca@sfbg.com

BASED ON EARTH

For this second installment of our environmental news column, we're looking at climate change from wildly different perspectives. We'll explore whether local green-tech manufacturing firms can help wean California off fossil fuels, highlight some key data from the National Climate Assessment, and hear from an Amazonian shaman who's fed up with white people making a mess of the planet and his home territory.

 

STASHING ELECTRONS

A new green technology sector in the Bay Area could help find the missing puzzle piece needed to establish a sustainable clean-energy mix for the state's future.

Californians continue to rely on a majority of electricity sources that are environmentally unfriendly: natural gas, nuclear power, and even coal. Generating electricity by burning fossil fuels contributes to air pollution, consumes vast quantities of freshwater, and releases greenhouse-gas emissions, exacerbating global climate change.

But this is all starting to change. Since California requires utilities to convert one-third of their energy mix to renewable sources by 2020, there's incentive for investment in carbon-free alternatives, such as wind and solar. Meanwhile, procurement decisions at the California Public Utilities Commission have pushed utilities to purchase more renewable power.

"Solar is succeeding beyond people's expectations around the world," because pricing has come down, said Julie Blunden, a consultant and energy-sector expert who formerly served as vice president at SunPower. "California set itself up to say, 'we're for changes to our power sector.'"

But renewables have an inherent problem — the power they produce can't always be tapped just when it's needed. Without some way to store the electricity generated by a wind or solar array, to be kept on hand for when demand hits a peak, wind and solar are unreliable for primary energy generation because they're subject to fluctuations in wind and natural light. This is where energy storage comes in.

Throughout the Bay Area, companies specializing in battery manufacturing are starting to gain traction, with 11 regional battery manufacturers enrolling in CalCharge, an accelerator program for energy storage created with help from the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Clean Energy Fund.

CalCharge gives regional energy-storage companies access to national laboratories such as Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, facilities described by DOE renewables expert David Danielson as "science and engineering powerhouses at the forefront of clean energy innovation."

One of the first grid-scale energy storage firms to join CalCharge is EnerVault, a flow battery manufacturer that's working on a major installation in Turlock that will be co-located with a tracking solar system and an electric irrigation pump.

"The little dark secret about solar is that it's intermittent," explained Tom Steipen, CEO of Primus Power, a flow battery manufacturing firm based in Hayward that recently joined CalCharge.

On cloudy days, solar arrays won't produce as much power. Wind presents similar challenges: "Wind in North America is stronger at night — but we don't need it at night, we need it in the afternoon. So anything you can do to de-couple the instantaneous supply from demand is good for the environment, good for the economy, and that's what energy storage does. ... I like to describe it as a warehouse of electrons."

Primus makes energy pods — an array of batteries that stand about six feet tall, placed in two rows within a shipping container — fed by renewable power arrays and tied in with the grid.

The pods can be stacked in Lego-like fashion, enabling more energy storage. They are then positioned beside a second shipping container, outfitted with equipment to convert stored DC power to AC power that can be sent over transmission lines.

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