Wind Powered Energy

Jeff Siegel

Updated September 26, 2007

I’m sure you’ve seen and heard it by now: The unmistakable voice and rhythms of the original Sunshine Superman himself, encouraging a rustic lad in a vaguely once-upon-a-time Alpine setting to "try and catch the wind."

It is, of course, an ad for GE – catching the wind with their state of the art wind turbine technology. (The juxtaposition of Donovan and Jack Welch’s old company is a bit jarring, to say the least.) It’s among the latest masterful pieces of Boomer-targeted advertising from a global industrial behemoth hitching its wagon to the alternative energy technology star.

And as such it’s a little misleading. Sure, GE’s windmills catch the wind, but that’s where it ends. What that inventive lad in the ad has actually done, with his raised Mason jar and journey to Grandfather’s house, is devise a way to store that wind energy and transmit it over a great distance.

Storing and transmitting energy from alternative sources, whether from solar or wind has been the Holy Grail of the alternative energy crusaders for decades.

And miraculously, it looks like the Grail might finally be within reach.

It’s called the Sodium-Sulphur battery – or NAS for short – and it represents a quantum leap in energy storage technology, with the potential to bring alternative energy resources – wind in particular – from the fringes to the grid mainstream.

I don’t have to tell you all the pros and cons of wind energy. Suffice it to say that it works best when the wind’s blowing during times of peak demand, traditionally daytime hours. But here’s a funny thing: the wind generally blows strongest at night, during times of lower demand.

That’s right – wind turbines are most efficient during times of least demand. That translates into a lot of wasted energy.

NAS batteries, though, not only store the energy generated by the turbines, but also release it back into the grid during daytime voltage drops and times of peak load. And then charges back up that same night.

Now, they’re not small: they’ve been compared in size to a double-decker bus. And to be honest, at present they’re not very cheap. According to recent USA Today articles, a NAS battery can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $4,500 per kilowatt.

But the benefits are tremendous and potentially revolutionary. The combined carbon dioxide production of the wind turbine and the battery is zero. The batteries can deliver enough electricity to generate a small shopping center for seven hours at a stretch. One battery, in fact, reportedly can hold the energy produced by a single large wind machine in a day. They give back about 80 percent of the electricity put into them during nightly recharging. And they’re relatively portable, meaning they can be moved from one location to another to address specific needs.

And as one expert is quoted as saying, "If we ever really do get cheap storage…that’s a game changer"

At least one utility is ready to start changing the game. According to USA Today, American Electric Power (AEP) has seen the future in NAS storage and is preparing to install these batteries on a scale that’s never been undertaken before. Over the next 10 years AEP hopes to have 25 megawatts of NAS battery storage in place on its system.

AEP will be using NAS batteries produced by NGK Insulators, Inc. NGK developed their NAS batteries with Tokyo Electric Power Company. It’s been a risky venture, but after extensive testing and demonstration at a TEPCO substation, NGK believes that the prospect of commercial utilization has finally been achieved.

And it looks like the Nikkei agrees. Take a look at NGK’s performance on the Tokyo Stock Exchange over the past year:

(Chart prices are in Japanese yen.)

Storing energy from both traditional and alternative energy sources could well be the key to economical, efficient energy that offsets the environmental degradation of the past century. For now, NAS batteries are charged with a tremendous amount of promise.

– Jeff Siegel

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