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Smooth Sailing for Wind Power with New Flow Battery… or Not

Wind power is ready for another leap into the future, with the announcement that a new redox flow battery from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is going into commercial development by the company UniEnergy Technologies LLC. The new grid-scale flow batteries can store huge amounts of energy from wind turbines, which basically eliminates the herky-jerky, unpredictable nature of “raw” wind power straight from the skies and packages it into a steady, reliable stream. Unfortunately, that new battery could find itself all dressed up and nowhere to go, because “the usual suspects” in Congress are stalling a crucial tax credit for the U.S. wind power industry.

pnnl and unienergy partner on flow batteries for wind power

What is a Redox Flow Battery?

Basic redox flow battery technology has been around since the 1970s (redox stands for reduction-oxidation). They work by storing power in the form of liquid chemicals kept in two separate tanks. The system literally does “flow,” since to generate electricity the liquid electrolytes are pumped from the tanks through a reactor.

Aside from being able to store vast amounts of energy from intermittent sources like wind and solar power, flow batteries can be idled for long periods without losing capacity, and they can be activated quickly when needed.

The problem until recently has been that flow battery technology has been bulky, expensive, and unable to handle a reasonable range of temperatures.

PNNL researchers solved these problems by focusing on a type of flow battery that uses two different vanadium ions (vanadium is a soft, silvery gray metallic element).

PNNL and UniEnergy partner on flow battery

Image: Courtesy of PNNL

Conventional redox flow technology relies on sulfuric acid. The PNNL team gained a 70% increase in storage capacity by adding hydrochloric acid. The hydrochloric acid also enabled the flow battery to operate in a wider range of temperatures.

The result is a flow battery that requires tanks far smaller than previous technology, without wasting energy on extra equipment needed for temperature control.

UniEnergy Built This! So Did We!

UniEnergy has entered into a licensing agreement with PNNL to tweak the technology a little further for developing commercial products that can be used by electric utilities, industry customers, and power generators, including wind farms and solar installations.

PNNL, of course, is a taxpayer-funded facility under the Department of Energy, so if the battery is a success and fortune smiles on the good folks at UniEnergy, we can all give ourselves a pat on the back. Sandia National Laboratory is working on another flow battery based on liquid salts, too, by the way.

About that Wind Energy Tax Credit…

Come to think of it, let’s not count our chickens before they hatch. The federal wind tax credit is the alternative energy industry’s equivalent of the kind of taxpayer support that has been showered on the fossil fuel industry for generations.

There is nothing new or controversial about it. This kind of support is meant to sustain a vital industry and create new jobs, and given recent job growth in the wind industry (including a cool wind power jobs for veterans program) it has been a smashing success.

Nevertheless, a routine extension due up this year has turned into a political firefight, because the aforementioned usual suspects in Congress (yes, leadership in the Republican party) are refusing to grant it.

Aside from provoking outrage from the wind power industry and major corporate supporters like Starbucks, the lack of support for the wind industry has caused a rift in the Republican Party.

The controversy intensified last summer after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared his opposition to the wind tax credit. He also threw more fuel on the fire during the first presidential debate by supporting the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, while also stating that he would be open to eliminating subsidies for the oil and gas industry.

Images: Wind turbine by vaxomatic (some rights reserved), infographic by PNNL (some rights reserved)

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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