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Analysis: Storing energy for a rainy day

By
ROSALIE WESTENSKOW, UPI Correspondent

THE DALLES, Ore., Oct. 24 (UPI) -- In the fight to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, both sides of the aisle seem to agree a few homegrown storage technologies could be key to winning the battle.

Last week the House Committee on Science and Technology passed two energy bills unanimously. One of the bills deals with energy efficiency in industry; the other bill, the Energy Storage Technology Advancement Act, pumps $130 million per year from 2009 to 2014 into the research and development of energy storage, both for stationary and vehicular purposes.

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The bills have yet to reach the House floor for debate, but the strong bipartisan support shown in committee may mean the legislation will serve as the House position on these issues in conference with the Senate, according to some legislators.

“Passing this bill gives … House negotiators a much stronger position as the House and Senate meet to craft a robust energy storage program in the energy bill,” said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the Science and Technology Committee.

Gordon said the bill will help “kick-start” the U.S. energy-storage industry -- a factor other committee members pointed to as an important element of energy independence.

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“Energy-storage progress will encourage development of clean, renewable energy sources” to replace foreign oil, said Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C.

If the bill becomes law, the funds would go to the Department of Energy, which currently houses energy-storage research in its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability.

The technologies supported by the bill include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which hold much promise for decreasing oil consumption, said Patricia Hoffman, deputy director of research and development for the Department of Energy's Office of Electricity.

“(Hybrid vehicles) have the potential to displace a large amount of gasoline if they deliver up to 40 miles of electric range without recharging -- a distance that would include most daily round-trip commutes, since more than 70 percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day,” Hoffman told representatives at a hearing on the bill earlier this month.

Hybrid cars generally combine a gasoline engine with an electric battery. The car runs off the energy generated by the battery, but the gasoline engine kicks in on longer trips once the battery runs out.

In order for cars like these to displace a substantial amount of gasoline, though, Hoffman said high-energy-density batteries must be further developed so the vehicles can run on electricity for farther distances.

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As a result, the Energy Department has been working to develop lithium ion batteries that have a higher energy density than the nickel-based batteries currently used in today’s hybrid cars. Over the next three years Hoffman said the Energy Department plans to invest $17.2 million, depending on congressional funding, in an effort to make these new hybrid car batteries commercially viable.

Car batteries constitute only one element of the bill, though. Other storage technologies promoted in the measure include large-scale batteries for electric power plants. Currently, plants have to be large enough to meet peak demand, or the maximum amount of electricity a particular area may require. However, the community served by the plant may only require that much electricity for a few hours or days each year, leading to wasted electricity at other times.

Large energy-storage batteries can help conserve generated electricity and store it for a rainy day -- or a hot, sweaty one. Maximum power is often required in the summer when air conditioners are turned on full blast, and a particularly steamy day or two can sometimes cause an increase in demand that exceeds the electricity available. This can lead to power outages.

Power-plant batteries can also decrease costs for electric companies, said Pat Hemlepp, a representative for American Electric Power, one of the largest electric utilities in the United States. “If the area around a substation grows in demand, in the past, we would have had to increase the size of the substation and put in a new transmission line,” Hemlepp said. “This takes a couple of years, but we can have a battery in place in six months.”

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In 2006 AEP installed the first megawatt-scale battery in the Western Hemisphere in West Virginia and plans to install another six megawatts this spring. So far AEP has bought the batteries, called sodium sulfide or NAS batteries, from a Japanese-based company, NGK. The West Virginia battery is about the size of a double-decker bus, making it small enough to move (with a forklift) but big enough to store enough energy to power 600 homes.

Overall, the company has been highly satisfied with the battery’s performance, Hemlepp told United Press International, but hopes the passage of the Energy Storage Act will further the development of the technology.

“Promoting the development of this technology would lower costs for us and improve the economy,” Hemlepp said. “It would lead to more and better technologies … (and) that’s not going to happen without government funding.”

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(e-mail: energy@upi.com)

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