The Panama Canal, Apollo 11, ISS... Energy Storage

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes.  Fortunes have been made (and sometimes lost) on devices as simple as a new type of vegetable chopper (“the Slap Chop”) or as complex as a self-balancing people mover (“the Segway”).   But when it comes to really large engineering projects, true innovation requires a highly skilled workforce, years of research and development, and vast sums of money.   And although it may be unpopular to say it I think in most cases these kinds of projects need government backing to be successful.

In 1881, a private French company began construction of the Panama Canal.  Armed with an experienced lead engineer that had successfully completed the Suez Canal in 1859 as well as strong financial backing, the project looked eminently feasible.  However, the considerable engineering challenges were overshadowed by an inability to control tropical diseases, which decimated the workforce.  Furthermore, the planned sea-level canal without locks proved impossible.  In the end, after spending almost $300 million (almost $7 billion in today’s dollars) the canal project was abandoned.

When work resumed on the canal project in 1904 it was funded by the U.S. Treasury and managed by a government commission.  Realizing that something had to be done about safe-guarding the health of workers, extensive research into the spread of tropical diseases, in particular malaria, was undertaken and mosquitoes were identified as the carriers of the disease.  As a result extensive measures were put in place to control the mosquito population before work could begin in earnest.

After the resignations of two civilian chief engineers President Roosevelt appointed an Army colonel to oversee the project after which it was run, quite literally, with military precision.  In 1914 the canal was completed ahead of schedule and under budget having cost $375 million (approximately $8.6 billion in today’s dollars).

In September 1962 John F. Kennedy declared that the United States government would undertake a variety of research and development activities with the goal of landing a manned spacecraft on the moon by the end of the decade.  He famously stated that these efforts would be undertaken “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

In less than 8 years a multitude of technical challenges had been overcome despite significant setbacks including the loss of the Apollo 1 crew in a flash fire.  On July 20, 1969 the lunar module of Apollo 11 landed in the Sea of Tranquility.

A recent NASA review of the Apollo program estimated the total cost at $170 billion in 2005 dollars.

In 1993 independent U.S., Russian, and European initiatives designed to create a permanently inhabited Space Station were combined into a single multi-national effort.  With the addition of Canada and Japan the 5 partners in the consortium designed, constructed and built a number of interlocking components that were launched into low earth orbit starting in 1998.  The International Space Station now consists of dozens of modules and has been continuously inhabited for more than 12 years.   Total program cost; approximately $150 billion so far.

I site these examples because they were all enormously challenging civil engineering projects that faced innumerable problems, some with no known solution at the time the project began.  In each case the ultimate goal was clear although the path to success was anything but clear.   No cost/benefit analysis was run, no shareholders were engaged to provide capital, and no projected payout period was defined.

Only the collective resources of a nation or a consortium of nations were sufficient to enable these projects to achieve their goals.  I believe that the time has come for another such effort, this one aimed at overcoming the greatest single obstacle blocking the path to a sustainable energy future.

If you read my Christmas blog you already know what I am referring to.  Given the fact that solar energy is not available after sunset and wind is controlled by unpredictable weather patterns there exists the statistical certainty that on some dark winter night an unusually strong ridge of high pressure will result in virtually no wind over the entire Midwest of the U.S.   If we have developed wind energy to the point where it constitutes a significant percentage of total electrical generation this situation would be disastrous.  The huge load imbalance would likely overwhelm the regional transmission grids causing a massive blackout at the most inopportune moment.

There are only two ways to mitigate the impacts of this inevitable “perfect calm”.

The first is to maintain all existing thermal assets (coal-fired and natural gas-fired plants) in a standby mode as “spinning reserves”.  This would be environmentally irresponsible and financially untenable in the long run.

The second and only reasonable solution is utility-scale energy storage.

There are a number of existing or proposed energy storage solutions being discussed today.  Hydro-pumping is probably the most widely deployed but there are very few geographic locations where this technique works.  There can also be serious downstream environment consequences associated with hydro-pumping.

Batteries would seem to be an attractive alternative storage mechanism until you realize the scale of the problem.  In a research proposal referred to in one of my earlier blogs a warehouse containing 60,000 mattress-sized post-consumer and factory-reject electric car batteries would be able to store the electricity generated at night by one small wind farm.  In another example, the world’s largest battery complex, installed in Fairbanks, Alaska consists of 13,760 Ni-Cad cells.  It is able to provide 27 MW of grid power for a grand total of 15 minutes and cost $35 million to build.

The only true utility scale storage in use today consists of molten salt Thermal Energy Storage (TES) facilities at Concentrated Solar Power plants.  The largest of these, the Andasol plants in Spain, have sufficient storage to produce 150 MW for up to 7.5 hours.  The Solana plant under construction in Arizona will be able to provide over 250 MW of power for up to 8 hours.

One or more of these technologies, or possibly another technology altogether, will surely be able to provide the energy storage required to make renewable energy sources reliable enough to provide 7x24 base load electricity.   But to develop these technologies, even to build small demonstration plants, costs 10’s of millions of dollars.  Fully optimizing, commercializing, and deploying these technologies en masse will cost billions of dollars.

This is not the kind of research and development that can be undertaken by the private sector.  In a recent blog posting noted venture capitalist and entrepreneur Richard Stuebi argues that the development of Black Swan Energy technologies will not take place without significant and sustained support from the public sector. In particular he challenges the concept that venture capitalists have enough risk appetite to fund and develop truly radical energy sources and technologies.

Apart from financial and logistical support, governments also need to introduce regulations that provide special status for energy storage solutions with respect to transmission grids.  In many cases grid operators treat energy storage as a consumer and charge grid access tolls that can destroy the economics of an energy storage solution.  Grid operators need to acknowledge the vital importance of energy storage in a world where renewables become the dominant source of electricity.  There should be no access tolls on energy storage solutions and I would argue that there should be Feed-In-Tariffs (FITs) for energy supplied to grids from storage facilities.

Utility-scale energy storage is not impossible.  Moreover, without it there really is no path forward to a sustainable energy future.  But it will take an international consortium and a “failure is not an option” attitude to develop and implement the various technologies needed.


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