The biggest challenge posed by large-scale wind and solar? The “variable load” problem–i.e., the fact that grids depend on a steady, constant flow of energy, and renewable energy technologies change with the weather and/or the time of day. Recently, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, long known for its cutting-edge work on vehicle batteries and fuel cells, announced that they’ll be focusing research on a different type of battery, courtesy of a new grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: a battery aimed at evening out variable loads from wind and solar for use by the electrical grid.
This $1.6 million grant comes from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), whose mission is to invest in projects that will develop transformational energy technologies, part of the $92 million announced by ARPA-E last month for “43 cutting-edge research projects that aim to dramatically improve how the U.S. uses and produces energy.” The aim of Berkeley Lab will be to develop a novel storage device for the electric grid.
A grid-scale battery would be a major boon to utility companies looking for ways to incorporate wind and solar on a meaningful scale, storing energy when it’s abundant and discharging it at a steady rate when it’s not, allowing the grid to distribute the energy when demand is higher–i.e., when it’s most needed, rather than when it’s being generated. In order to make this happen, the Berkeley Lab team has proposed a flow battery using hydrogen-bromine chemistry. Flow batteries are different from conventional batteries in that the energy and power are separated, making them analogous to a car, where the engine provides the power and the fuel tank provides the energy. To get faster acceleration, or more power, one can simply increase the size of the engine, and to increase the range, one can increase the size of the tank. (This is also similar to the way fuel cells work.)
“At the end of the project, we expect to have a high power, high efficiency, long life, low cost, safe storage device,” says Berkeley Lab scientist Venkat Srinivasan, the lead investigator on the project, in a statement.