As PG&E ramps up renewable power in response to the California RPS requirement that it get 33% of its electricity from renewables by 2020; it has been exploring ways to add that much renewable power to the grid while smoothing out the ups and downs of wind energy, which often peaks at night.
The utility needs a way to turn sometimes too much wind into anytime always there electricity.
The solution? Simple tech. Underground compressed air.
With compressed air energy storage; air is compressed and then pumped in natural underground reservoirs. The air is released later and converted into electricity. With enough storage, even fickle wind could actually supply base-load power.
So PG&E has applied for DOE smart grid stimulus funding under The Recovery Act; to build a compressed air energy storage project with output capacity of 300 megawatts. Cost? $25 million.
By comparison, building a plant to burn fossil fuels would cost around $850 million for the same 300 megawatts of fossil energy.
PG&E estimates their project will take five years to design, permit and build. Wind turbines would compress the air during off-peak times and then draw from the reservoir during peak times. Shifting the energy from off-peak to peak times, such as the middle of the day, makes it more valuable as utilities pay far more for peak energy.
If granted, the utility would use the smart-grid stimulus funds available in The Recovery Act in order to build enough storage to hold and release as much electricity as a medium sized base-load power plant for about 10 hours each time.
Compressed air energy storage or CAES has orders of magnitude more capacity than typical utility batteries and appears to be the most cost-effective form of energy storage according to technical experts at the Electric Power Research Institute and a massive study of CAES at Princeton University which concluded:
"CAES appears to have many of the characteristics necessary to transform wind into a mainstay of global electricity generation. The storage of energy through air compression may enable wind to meet a large fraction of the world's electricity needs competitively in a carbon constrained world."
The concept has been proven. The Alabama Electric Cooperative in Alabama now has 20 years of experience with a 100 megawatt CAES system. A major new project is being backed by the DOE in Iowa, which gets 15% of its electricity from wind.
So just through time-shifting energy delivery; storage can make it possible for wind to essentially supply base-load power for far less money than building more fossil fueled power stations. What this amounts to is adding 300 megawatts of new power to the grid.
Hmm… $25 million for 300 megawatts of carbon-free future-friendly time-shifted wind power or $850 million for 300 dirty megawatts of a dwindling resource?
I'm betting that that very smart Steven Chu of the DOE is going to grant this $25 million to PG&E…