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Storage Warriors and Transmission Kings

By Roger S. Conrad on Apr. 2, 2015

n early February, I attended the fifth annual ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, DC, where university researchers and small and large corporations convened to highlight the latest energy-related technologies and advances.

This event gives presenters an opportunity to drum up interest in their research with an eye toward winning grants from the Dept of Energy and or inking joint ventures with deep-pocketed outfits like BASF (Frankfurt: BAS, OTC: BASFY) Chevron Corp (NYSE: CVX) and Siemens (Frankfurt: SIE, OTC: SIEGY).

Each year, certain themes emerge as a major emphasis of research and development. This year’s conference focused heavily on energy storage.

Pumped storage, the predominant solution in the US market, involves transporting water from a lower reservoir to one at a higher elevation during periods of off-peak demand. Allowing this water to flow into the lower reservoir releases this potential energy when the generated supply wanes.

Unfortunately, the energy consumed pumping the water uphill far exceeds the megawatts generated thereafter. This solution works in the current environment where baseload power runs 24-hours a day and constitutes the bulk of electricity production.

According to the Energy Information Administration, the 40 pumped-storage facilities in the US represent more than 22 gigawatts of generation capacity—about 2 percent of the national total.

AES Corp (NYSE: AES) operates the world’s only utility-scale storage facility of any consequence, and signed a contract with Edison International’s (NYSE: EIX) Southern California Edison unit to replace a 100-megawatt peaker unit, a plant that provides flexible power to the grid.

During a panel discussion on energy storage, AES Corp’s John Zahurancik indicated that the company’s prefers to focus on replacing expensive peaking power plants—as opposed to improving the economics of intermittent sources of green energy.

Zahurancik also projected that it would take at least five years to develop the long-term storage solutions that will be needed to support the clean-energy boom. Until then, the industry will continue to focus on products and processes that improve the efficiency of existing infrastructure, reducing the need to build additional generating capacity.

An hour or less of uninterruptible generation from a pumped-storage facility can keep the grid running in many emergencies; this objective remains front and center for utilities and other entities with the wherewithal to develop commercial energy-storage solutions.

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