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Quest for "Missing Link" in Storing Energy from Renewables Sets Ontario Companies On Path to Innovation

With wind and solar power becoming a larger part of the energy mix, the problem of smoothly matching supply with demand is a challenge green tech companies are gearing up to meet.

Submitted by: Francesca Rheannon

Posted: Oct 31, 2013 – 09:00 AM EST

Tags: energy, green tech, cleantech, renewables, wind power, solar, smart grid, ontario, innovation, enbala, temporal flywheel, government

 
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By Francesca Rheannon

Part three of a three-part series on renewable energy in Ontario, Canada

One year after Hurricane Sandy, the costs and risks of inaction on the climate are becoming clearer. Among the costs are those revealed in a new Ceres report about the growing taxpayer burden from climate inaction. The escalating risks to coastlines from climate-driven sea level rise are highlighted in granular detail in a major new expansion of Surging Seas, Climate Central’s online tool, released on October 29.

Happily, despite the ever more frantic efforts of the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel fat cats to force Congress to throttle the rising clean energy industry, the renewable energy gospel is spreading. Even the wing-nuts of the right are getting on the bandwagon, as Glenn Beck shills solar generators to his fans.

With solar and wind power costs coming downwind power – and parity with fossil fuel electricity (including natural gas) in sight – the carrot of decreasing prices will join the stick of increasing costs to rev up the race toward a clean power economy.

The Missing Link: Efficient Energy Storage for Renewables

But with real advances in availability of solar and wind power comes increasing need to store energy for use and smooth out the intermittence of supply—the Achilles heel of renewables. (E.g., wind power can vary from full capacity to a mere 10% of capacity.)

In addition to energy and capacity, the power system depends on flexibility – the matching of supply with changing demand to operate properly. In the renewables space, finding ways to store energy, whether physically or by taking it from where it is in oversupply and shunting it to where it is needed, is the key to flexibility.

The government of Ontario is supporting innovation in the search for efficient energy storage, as I found out on a press tour of the province’s green energy initiatives in September. Its urgency is being driven by an ambitious expansion of wind power – five thousand megawatts of renewable energy, mostly from wind, are due to go on line within the next 18 months.

Utilities are a major player in integrating renewables into the power grid, although the province does plan to leaven centralized power with power from more distributed sources. Utilities are seeking new technologies to help them with that integration, which will be needed not only to supply electricity to homes and businesses but also to incorporate new applications, like electric cars, into the grid.

Startups are working hard to meet the need with both hardware and software applications. Flywheels and smart grid data technology were two of the products presented on our tour of Ontario-smart-gridOntario’s green industry initiatives.

The Smart Grid

Ontario’s utility companies installed smart meters to the homes and businesses they service, initially with a mind to alleviate outages and peak load problems.

But benefits have exceeded expectations. With the data now flowing through the system – Toronto has one of the largest databases of smart meter data anywhere in the world – agencies can create more targeted conservation programs and consumers can use apps to monitor their energy usage.

The market for third party apps to help consumers manage their energy use is exploding. But software to help utilities exploit the data to maximize their capacity and supply of power is also in demand.

Enbala: A Smart Grid Software Company

One company seeking to fill that niche is Enbala, which has developed an ingenious real time demand management software platform, the Enbala Power Network.

The Network works with data to pinpoint places on the smart grid where capacity is lying idle and match it to another place where more energy is required. Such large power users as industrial, commercial and institutional operations typically have energy assets that are not being drawn on to capacity all the time. Enbala contracts with those users to connect to the Network, paying them to supply power to the grid when it’s not needed for their own work.

Enbala’s software allows utilities to buy flexibility separately from capacity and generation, smoothing out supply and demand like a kind of cruise control for the grid. The company expects to be able to extend the system to residential customers, offering them returns in the form of rebates for hooking up to the Network.

Flywheels Promise Storage Solutions for Renewable Power

Flywheels are mechanical batteries that store energy by means of angular momentum. They’ve been around for a long time – think of the potter’s wheel. They are used to “provide continuous energy when the energy source is discontinuous,” in the words of Wikipedia, so they are a natural solution to smoothing out energy supply from wind and solar.

However, high cost and safety problems have impeded their adoption. The Ontario startup Temporal Flywheel thinks it has solved these problems with its stainless steel flywheel. Made out of recycled auto parts, the unit (pictured here) is cheaper to build and can provide from three to fifteen minutes of stored energy in a rapid response to smooth out fluctuations in power supply.

The company says its flywheel can store up to 50 times more power than other industrial flywheels. The units can be sized to provide from 2 to 100Temporal-Flywheel megawatts.

Temporal has a contract to supply the Ontario utility HydroOne with 500 kilowatt units to balance out wind power and another contract with the publicly-owned power company, Ontario Power Generation. (I reported on OPG’s conversion from coal to biomass in the first post of this series.) It’s also attracted the attention of energy giant Enbridge, which has invested $13 million in the company.

The startup, like the others I visited on Ontario’s Renewable Energy press tour, has the full support of the provincial government, through development subsidies and business consulting. It’s all part of a virtuous chain – government support, innovation, the greening of the grid – that shows there is no dichotomy between economic growth and sustainability. It’s a lesson the U.S. Congress needs to learn, if we are to have a hope of being competitive in the post-Sandy future.

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