Clean Power General Compression has won a grant from ARPA-E to develop wind power energy systems based on compressed air

Published on July 20th, 2010 | by Tina Casey


A Simple Solution for Wind Power Storage

July 20th, 2010 by  

General Compression has won a grant from ARPA-E to develop wind power energy systems based on compressed airIf you’ve ever blown up a balloon and let it go flying across the room, you’ve got the basic idea behind a new technology for storing energy from wind power: use compressed air.  ARPA-E, the federal agency charged with providing seed money for transformative energy technology, is so impressed with the concept (minus the hilarious fart noise that a ballon makes when it goes flying across the room) that it has awarded a grant worth up to $750,000 to a startup called General Compression, to assist the company in speeding up commercial scale development of the technology.


Of course, the technology for managing large volumes of air is fairly complicated, one factor being the tendency of a gas to heat up under pressure.  The company has trademarked its system as General Compression’s Advanced Energy Storage (GCAES), and in an interesting twist, has partnered on the project with ConocoPhillips.

The Petroleum Industry and Sustainable Energy

General Compression’s grant is part of a new $92 million round of federal funding for sustainable energy projects, and it’s not the only one involving a mashup between a small startup and a petroleum industry leviathan.  Shell, for example, has formed an algae biofuel joint venture called Cellana with a renewable energy startup, and Cellana is the leader of a consortium that won an ARPA-E grant to develop biofuel and cattle feed from algae that can grow in seawater.  For that matter, Chevron is planning $3 billion worth of alternative energy projects, including a solar installation to provide power for its oil fields in California.  In fact – oh, the irony – since the 1970’s, solar powered lights and other equipment have been commonplace at remote oil fields, on and off shore.  A historical rundown at the California Solar Center even credits the oilfield market with keeping the solar industry viable when prices for solar cells were still sky high relative to their capabilities.  The U.S. and Russian space programs were practically the only other reliable customers at the time.

General Compression and Wind Power

General Compression’s technology deploys a system called isothermal compression, in which excess heat is drawn out of the compressed air.  The use of wind power to run the compressor means that no fuel is burned in the process, unlike conventional compressors.  The compressed air can be stored in the same types of geological structures that store natural gas, with the aim of stabilizing the intermittant nature of wind power, converting it to a thoroughly predictable, reliable source.  Notably, Duke Energy – a utility that is aggressively pushing solar power and other alternative energy – recently invested in the company. 
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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • This sounds amazing. It seems that one of the main concerns with wind energy is what to do about the times when there is not enough wind blowing to sustain the power needed.

    This, on the surface, appears to solve that problem which would be a huge step forward for wind energy!

  • JonnyUtaw

    I also have heard of the salt dome idea. And also curious about how and where this storage ‘tank’ would be. putting large amounts of pressure underground in places that aren’t used to high pressure sounds like a bad idea. But I’m an engineer not a geologist. I think flywheel energy storage has more potential.

  • Mathew Markey

    Is this idea similar to air pressure accumulators?

  • Susan Levitt

    I think that liquids under pressure create hydraulic forces capable of displacing other liquids (and solids with low friction coefficient). Gasses under pressure generally do exert enough force to move liquids. Instead the gas atoms get forced into the liquid matrix. Then you get stuff like carbonated water, so Evian and Perrier would be happy to support CAES!

  • Mark

    In the article, it is stated that the compressed air is stored in the same type of geological feature used to store natural gas. This sounds like the “salt domes” described in several compressed air energy storage (CAES) papers I have read, a very large, underground, airtight cavern that is made during the solution mining of salt. Although a very good candidate for CAES, salt domes only occur in certain parts of the country, and can often be a long ways from where the wind energy is generated. Because of this, proponents of CAES are also looking at storing compressed air in aquifirs, a geological feature that is much more widespread. When I emailed/asked one of the authors of the papers if the cyclic displacement and pressurization of the water would hasten the depletion of the aquifirs via existing wells (e.g. irrigation), I got no response. Does anyone else have this concern, or can explain why this wouldn’t be a problem?

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