Think of it as a giant energy bank. Withdraw when you need it; deposit when you don’t.
The concept has been used before, most notably in the natural gas storage facilities that are common across the country. But a group of researchers led by the Richland-based Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration are exploring whether that idea can be put to use in a different form. The goal: storing excess energy in the form of compressed air and water in the Northwest’s expansive, porous underground basalt formations.
Researchers are a long way from proving that it’s doable here, or that it makes financial sense to pull the trigger. But if successful, the concept could have big implications for a Northwest power grid strained by an ever-growing forest of wind turbines pumping new energy into the system.
“The ultimate objective is to be able to store and shape and shore up renewable energy resources like wind,” said Steve Knudsen, a BPA project manager helping with the study, which began last fall. “You would use it essentially as a load to soak up and store excess wind energy.”
Excess energy has been a problem in the past. Just last year, unusually high flows in the Columbia River Basin put the region’s hydroelectric dams at maximum capacity. The situation led to a well-publicized dust-up between the BPA and the region’s wind generators when the BPA ordered them to shut down to avoid overloading the grid.
Wind farms objected. A Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decision last December ruled in their favor.
If the concept pans out, BPA and PNNL researchers are hoping the new form of energy storage helps alleviate similar over-generation events.
“The compression takes that load,” said PNNL laboratory fellow Pete McGrail.
Here’s how it works: Compressed air energy storage plants would take on the extra power produced by wind farms, for example, and use that energy to pump compressed air into a huge bubble underground – keeping it off the rest of the power grid when it’s not needed.
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