If 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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