Alternative Energy

Published on March 30th, 2010 | by Susan Kraemer


Vinalhaven, Maine Shows Us How We Can Help Store Wind Power

If you wish we had more wind energy on the grid, you no doubt have been frustrated by all the Nay Sayers who say; “Nah, wind will never work. And when it does blow in the wee hours of the mornings, nobody has any use for the power. You can’t store wind power.”

Not so fast. A very simple low-tech solution is being tested over the next few months on Vinalhaven Island in Maine, that last year installed its own 100% wind power and then discovered that they needed a way to store the extra power! Now they are testing a low tech  “distributed” storage for that extra 3 AM wind power.

Even better, if it works, this very simple wind storage solution is one that WE can ALL help to supply. And it benefits us, by supplying clean, low-carbon heating.

Image: By Vinalhaven resident Karen Oakes  Vinalhaven

Vinalhaven Islanders greeting their delivery of wind turbine parts last summer

You’ve heard of “distributed” energy, right.
If we supplied our electricity from solar spread out among all of our rooftops instead of coming from a centralized power station; that’s “distributed”.

This is a test of distributed storage:
Likewise distributed storage is also spread out among all of us, but instead of being on our roofs, wind power could be stored in boxes in our living rooms. We can use the “distributed storage” of wind power to make something else we need anyway: heating.

Using decades-old technology:
Thermal Electric Storage Heaters store enough electricity, in the form of heat, to warm a home for up to 24 hours by heating up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. When you want to warm up your house you flip a switch and they start to release slow-release heat stored in very dense ceramic bricks. These have been around for at least 20 years. Because they can tap electricity at night at low night time rates, it is the cheapest form of heating.

Why we need storage now
But now that many states have Renewable Energy Standards requiring utilities to add more wind power, that cheap night time coal power is increasingly being displaced by cheap (or even sometimes actually free!) night time wind power. Excess wind power on the grid at night is such a problem that utilities sometimes have had to shut down wind farms at night because because there’s been nowhere to send the electricity. Till now.

What Maine is pioneering this spring
A test starting this week on Vinalhaven Island, Maine could be the future of renewable energy storage for people needing heat in the windy states: “distributed” energy storage.

By adding smart technology to the electric heating units, researchers will test smart grid control of  Steffes Thermal Electric Storage heaters, turning them on or off from a remote location, based on wind generator output, grid demand, and the spot price of power (that fluctuates with the demand on the grid).

They will replace the oil heaters in six of the Vinalhaven Island residents’ homes with wind powered electric heaters that can store and safely transform electricity in the form of heat in extremely dense ceramic bricks – and slowly release the heat, on demand, for up to 24 hours.

Each unit stores enough electricity to heat up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit
The way that these heaters work is that electricity heats coils that radiate heat to extremely dense adjacent ceramic bricks that store the heat in a supercharged thermal mass. Once they reach their maximum core temperature, they won’t charge anymore. At that point, the heaters controls won’t accept more power from the grid. 

To supply 24 hours of warmth on demand:
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Of course, no homeowner wants a raging hot house at 3 AM in the wee hours while the wind is howling outside. That doesn’t happen. Space-age insulation keeps the exterior from heating above 160 degrees F, and enough is stored inside the units to provide 24 hours of gradual warmth on demand.

New use of old technology:
Until recently, nobody has thought to use these specifically as a form of distributed energy storage option for wind power, by adding sensors to detect and absorb excess grid power. But people are starting to realize that we will need more storage as we add more renewable energy.

Reduces the carbon footprint and helps utilities add more renewable energy
Some states are even passing laws that we must add more storage, now that we need it because we are adding more renewable power. Well, here’s a nice warm way we can do just that, and seriously reduce our national carbon footprint to allow for more electric power on the grid and to supply clean energy heating at the same time! This is one energy efficiency technology that should be included in Cash for Caulkers.

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