Smooth Operators

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On October 28th a battery factory opened in Concord, North Carolina. That was good for an area which has seen dark economic times, but the event made few headlines. Perhaps it should have made more, though, for this factory’s owner, Alevo, a Swiss company, is not in the business of manufacturing cells for torches, mobile phones or even laptop computers. Rather, it is making batteries that can store serious amounts of electricity—megawatt-hours of it. And it plans to sell them to power-grid operators.

To start with, the new batteries will be used to smooth the consequences of irregular demand through the day by absorbing electricity during troughs and regurgitating it during peaks. If that pans out, it will eliminate the need for gas-powered “peaker” stations which fire up quickly when needed, but are expensive to run. It would also allow non-peaker stations to operate more efficiently. Alevo reckons that if a grid as big as America’s Western interconnection (which supplies the west of the United States and Canada) were to use 18GW-worth of its batteries the grid could save $12 billion a year. Though the company has no North American contract yet, it does have an agreement to deploy its batteries in Guangdong, China.

Smoothing the operation of existing grids, however, may be only the beginning. In the longer run, optimists believe, batteries like these, or some equivalent technology, are the key to dealing with the problem not just of irregular demand, but of irregular supply. As the unit cost of solar and wind energy drops ever closer to that of power from fossil fuels, the fact that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine becomes more and more irksome. It is not just the great power-gap that is night which matters. As the chart below shows, even during the day—and even in deserts—the amount of sunlight can vary from minute to minute. And the wind, of course, is equally fickle.

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