Texas' New Massive Wind Power Battery System Is a Gamechanger

Back in 2006, after the initial excitement over the potential of wind energy began to die down, so-called “experts” suddenly noticed a little problem with wind – it’s unpredictable – and forecasted doom.

Even as new technology drastically cut the cost of wind power, the New York Times declared that “wind is not reliable enough to assure supplies for an electricity grid that must be prepared to deliver power to everybody who wants it,” comparing it to owning a bike as a supplement for a car, but not a replacement. “Wind turns out to be a good way to save fuel, but not a good way to avoid building plants that burn coal.”

Less than seven years later, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Duke Energy Renewables announced a breakthrough advance in wind power: a system that stores wind power in batteries, making it available whenever and wherever its needed, just like other, more conventional forms of electricity. Fully operational as of December 2012, the new Notrees Battery Storage Project in west Texas—with a 36-megawatt storage capacity—may have solved wind power’s reliability problem.

The facility is the world’s largest battery storage project at a wind farm, funneling excess wind energy into battery power that can be used whether the winds are blowing or not. New Scientist notes that Nortrees’ “bus-sized, lead-acid battery modules with high surface area electrodes and multiple terminals” will make the “entire grid more resilient to spikes in demand, because battery arrays can respond almost instantly, whereas natural gas power plants take about 15 minutes to boost their output.”

The project’s success is in large part thanks to matching funds from the federal government, making it something of an anti-Solyndra—a public-private venture success story. Constructed with a $22 million grant from the Department of Energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, it exemplifies the kind of clean energy future investment our government should be making.

“Even though technology costs continue to decline as manufacturing capacity increases, the DOE match lowered the cost of the project enough for us to move forward and complete the battery installation in 2012,” Jeff Gates, managing director of Duke Renewables’ commercial strategy said. “Without the grant, it’s likely the project would have been delayed for several more years.”

Because of its record size and industry-changing potential, the company also recognizes the Notrees facility’s value as a small experiment that can have large implications. “For the present, we are focused on collecting and sharing battery performance data with the DOE and the Electric Power Research Institute to assess the potential for broader adoption of energy storage throughout the industry,” Gates said. The EPRI will collect and study the data, publishing the results on the DOE’s publicly available Smart Grid Information Clearinghouse, hoping to provide a model for the industry.

Back in 2006, the New York Times warned that, “Without major advances in ways to store large quantities of electricity… wind may run up against its practical limits sooner than expected.” With this problem getting serious attention, expect to see wind power supplying more and more of the nation’s energy needs.

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