Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tehachapi wind batteries get stimulus money

A San Joaquin Valley project that banks wind energy in batteries and could change the course and perception of renewable power appears on track to receive some federal stimulus funds.

The concept is a big one. Should storage batteries prove successful even in a limited sense, renewable energy based on whims of Mother Nature would increase substantially in value and stature on Wall Street. This would mean even when the wind dies or the sun drops below the horizon, stored energy could be released to make up for the slack in production.

The Tehachapi Wind Energy Storage Project was recommended by the California Energy Commission just before the new year for $1 million in Public Interest Energy Research Program funds. The amount is a fraction of about $25 million applied for by Southern California Edison but likely enough to get the project rolling. Its overall cost is a about $55 million, according to

The application to the National Energy Technology Laboratory says the project's "is to evaluate the performance of utility scale lithium-ion battery technology."

Southern California Edison says big battery systems would improve grid performance by better integrating wind energy generation in improving grid performance with the results helping to "accelerate the advancement of reliable, clean, secure, renewable energy resources and technologies."

Study into the project began in 2008 between SCE, Quanta Technology and wind power developer Oak Creek Energy. The site resides in the windy Tehachapi Mountains and would tap into the 66 kilovolt Antelope-Bailey wind turbine system.

Also involved in the project is A123Systems, which opened the largest lithium-ion automotive battery plant this past fall in Livonia, Mich. In a past interview with my former co-worker Jeff St. John, Paul De Martini, SCE vice president of advanced technologies, said his employer wanted A123 to develop "a 32-megawatt-hour battery out of racks of smaller batteries."

The concept fits nicely with California's Global Warming Solutions Act, which seeks to cap greenhouse gas emissions at 1990s levels by 2020. Part of that effort includes requiring utilities to get a third of their power from renewable sources.

Already, SCE says it can deliver 2,700 megawatts of clean electricity for about 17 percent of its total portfolio.

Last year was a big for wind energy news, with offshore getting a lot of attention and its first approved project near Nantucket. And solar projects continue to make news.

In California, a variety of projects continue to make news. The Mount Diablo Unified School District in San Jose plans a solar system that covers 51 schools and generates 11.2 megawatts. In the San Joaquin Valley's Westlands Water District, a solar project covering 30,000 acres of privately owned farmland retired because of high soil salinity has been proposed.

Should more of these projects move into the construction phase -- like the 400-megawatt solar thermal Ivanpah project in eastern San Bernardino County, only a few miles from Nevada, which broke ground late last year -- storage systems will continue to gain interest.

And oil prices continue to climb. This week the fossil fuel hovered around the $90 per barrel mark and indicated a one-year forecast of $103. Of course, the media's been playing up $5 a gallon gas arriving in the United States by summer.

Gas prices can be a big motivator and may spur sales of electric cars, which could increase demand for electricity and potentially make more expensive renewables more appealing. But that's if planets align. And the public has proven fickle in its support for clean energy.

Such things just increase the stakes of the storage game. Success of the Tehachapi project could scale back or end the need for backup by fossil-fuel fired generating plants.

And that is a big deal.

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