By COLLIN GALLANT on October 25, 2019.
The adage is that you must make hay when the sun is shining, and the same is currently true of renewable electricity though researchers at the University of Alberta who are developing short-term storage solutions that could smooth a move to clean energy.
Alumni of the institution gathered at the Medicine Hat Lodge on Thursday morning to hear about research into energy storage systems that could further improve the economics of renewable power and also improve general reliability of the power grid.
“It would be nice to be able to put electrons in a bucket, but it doesn’t quite work like that,” said Pierre Mertiny, the associate chair of the U of A’s solid mechanics engineering department.
“At current stage we’re linked to (on-demand generation from) fossil fuels by necessity,” he said.
He is the leading a $75-million federally funded research program into “Future Energy Systems,” specifically on flywheel technology. It could store power in a mechanical form when solar or wind sources produce more than needed in peak weather conditions, then convert it back when there is a “cold, dark lull”in weather.
“It’s how you take care of peaks and valleys,” he said.
“It’s economics, not politics.”
Mertiny said renewable energy is now cost comparable with coal or natural gas-generating plants, but the nature of intermittent production must be folded into the existing power market “mix” of generation capacity.
In Alberta’s power supply bid system, generators offer power at prices that meet costs plus profit. It’s sold when the rate rises above that mark.
Wind and solar, once built, they have low – almost nil – variable operating and input costs, meaning their bid prices are essentially zero, but when that the supply drops, price rises and traditional producers step in.
Current large-scale energy storage projects typically involve pumping water to higher elevations, which is not practical in the prairies.
A flywheel system would only work on a small scale, and over a much shorter time frame, but could fill several important roles to stabilize power supply.
The device uses excess power to wind a spring that later spins a magnet to recreate electricity – no different than a car’s alternator or a child’s wind-up toy car, said Mertiny.
The basic design is an oil-drum-sized device vacuum sealed and made from high-performance composite material, which would negate the need for batteries or toxic substances.
Some U.S. utilities already use the devices in sequence to prevent blackouts when operators have to switch power routing or provide bridging supply.
Most pressingly, Mertiney’s team is studying how to best charge an entire fleet of vehicles in a short amount of time without the cost of massively expanding wiring capacity. (The City of Edmonton is partnered in the study to further the conversion of it’s 800 buses to electric power by 2030).
His group is also studying materials, manufacturing process in order to maximize the efficiency in balance with cost.
“You can engineer the best solution in the world, but if no one buys it, it’s not going to work,” he said, adding a multi-disciplinary approach is key to success.
The presentation was part of a touring outreach program presented by the U of A’s senate and alumni affairs office.
Local senate member Colleen Wilson, U of A Chancellor Doug Stollery and about two dozen U of A alumni attended along with Medicine Hat College president Kevin Shufflebotham and Sarah MacKenize, a recent addition to the MHC board of governors.