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Batteries pnnl and unienergy partner on flow batteries for wind power

Published on October 5th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


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

October 5th, 2012 by  

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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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+.

  • How the Vanadium Redox Battery (VRB) Works https://vimeo.com/50853867

  • Guest
  • Guest

    How the Vanadium Redox Battery (VRB) Workshttps://vimeo.com/50853867

  • PacificOre Mining in Vancouver, BC is developing the largest supply of Vanadium in North America and has the inventor of the Vanadium Redox Battery (VRB) on their advisory board.

  • What are the chances of a fire ? Hawaii had a huge problem recently .

    • Bob_Wallace

      Apparently there was a problem with a battery charger in the Kawailoa Project and an electrical problem set the building on fire.

      There’s always a chance of problems when you do stuff.

      We’re now paying more than $5/gallon for gas here in CA because of a refinery fire.

  • JDH

    This flow battery technology improvement is incremental at best and doesn’t make the basic Vanadium chemistry any more affordable. There are plenty of independent studies that support this truth, including EPRI. Additionally, DOE/ARPA-e have been throwing lots of public money at trying to drive real improvements, but nothing has come of it (likely more wasted public funding being bet on the wrong players? Sound like Solyndra?). The truth is Vanadium flow batteries need a minimum of 2X increase in energy density, membranes that last 2-3X longer and electrodes that also last far longer. Seriously folks, VRB and Sumitomo have been trying to commercialize this product for decades and have a large body of IP that would also need to be overcome to have any commercial product. Bottom line: this will never be a fund-able technology because it doesn’t stand on its own merit.

    • Steven Sullivan

      not aware of vanadium flow battery capabilities & flexibility are you? for instance that dual rating allows you to take a 500kw 4 kWh flow battery and meet a 750 kw 2kWh or a 1MW 1kWh peak demand without spending extra money. Only a flow platform allows you to do this.

  • Near retirement

    My electric bill is too low to justify solar panels. I have an excellent, large, south facing roof that I calculate to produce 15 KW at maximum output. The only way I can economically justify solar power is to charge a car with it, but I work when the sun is shining. Either I need a portable, exchangeable battery for the vehicle, or a storage ability to save the daytime electricity. My hope is a 10 KWH lithium battery about the size of a 5 gallon propane tank at about 30 to 40 pounds for about 500 dollars. I could charge 6 of them while at work and exchange them in the evening. I could use the batteries in a “second life” as power backup for the house in low amp draw conditions. If this format of portable power were adopted, I see old ships with a windmill sitting off the shore for a few days, charging thousands to restock Home Depots and Walmarts. (Customer draw to store for “refueling”. Give the kid a dollar tip for exchanging them) Any competition for big oil is in order, (from big retail) and a little carbon credit from the government would help. The goal would be 400 uses pays for the battery. Maybe 800 more pays for the system. 4 year payback to go off oil. Maybe if defense spending to secure middle east oil (including medical for wounded soldiers) was included in a tax for final use transportation fuel, that payback time would be quicker. The answers are out there, but do people really want to know?

    • Sounds like you are still connect to the grid. So you can use them as a battery to save all those kWh your roof would generate in the daytime and charge you car at night. Sure the electric company makes some money too, you give them peak and they give you off peak. But your paying them to be your battery for now. Now if you like in Texas where you can do time of day and get free electric at night then its even a better deal.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I’m not sure I follow your claim. Are you saying that you use very little electricity? If so, you would need only a small solar array to produce that electricity.

      Or are you saying that you live somewhere that has very low electricity costs? If so, then installing solar wouldn’t make financial sense.

      And Matthew has it right when it comes to charging your EV. Feed your solar to the grid, charge at night off the grid.

      During sunny hours demand for electricity rises and utilities have to purchase expensive power or turn on more expensive to run gas peaker plants. Sending them your solar lets them avoid those expenses and then they can pay you back with cheap late night power. They save some money which will help lower the utility rate for all and you avoid the expense of owning a battery storage system.

      Old ships sitting offshore and charging isn’t a great way to produce power at a good price. Stick the windmills out there 24/365 and run a wire to shore. Put the batteries on shore where they can draw from wind, solar or whatever is producing at the time.

  • Can this technology also scale down some so that it can be used by small wind (10 kw) and residential solar again (7-10kw). That would allow people to store energy when the sun shines and the wind blows and go completely off grid. This should appeal to a few billion people world wide

  • KYang

    Well, the CEO of UniEnergy Technologies is actually my father. And personally, I feel like he deserves more credit. He didn’t just start up a company and borrow technology from PNNL. He was actually a chief scientist for years at PNNL, leading the research for these batteries. He knows the ins-and-outs of the technologies he’s handling. He was a scientist first, and a businessman second.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Cool. Do you think you could talk him into writing a piece about the technology and what he thinks the costs will be once scaled up? If he sees this technology as being suitable for multi-day storage?

      Yeah, I know that some stuff you don’t want to reveal to the competition, but perhaps there’s information that he could share.

      Large scale storage is the missing part of the 21st Century grid puzzle. We’ve figured out how to make electricity for very reasonable prices, now we need a cost-practical way to move supply to demand.

      • I could certainly bring up the idea to him. I’m quite sure he’s willing to answer some questions.

        • That would be awesome! Thanks a ton.

        • Ya, thank you very much Kathy. I hope we didn’t ruffle any feathers. We all just know how important this technology is and how influential you father is. My sincere apologies to your friend for being offended for his followers passion towards this technology.

  • rkt9

    I guess Starbucks and the other private owners of UniEnergy Technologies haven’t been making large enough donations to the Republican House members.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Tina – can you possibly shake some cost figures out of the technology?

    How much would a storage system add to the cost of wind if used for bringing nighttime wind to peak hours, for example.

  • Ross

    Terminology police. Are you trying to perpetuate myths? Wind is gradually variable and is forecast in advance.

    • While wind can be forcasted in general, it does shift in very small time frames. So wind has two uses for batteries.
      1) Short term smoothing so that they put into the line just what is requested. I think this is what the post means by “herky-jerky”. This is to keep the grid happy.
      2) Longer term, shifting power from off peak to peak. This is to make more money. You know, “buy low, sell high”.

      And I have to agree with Bob, this is still a tease from PNNL and UniEnergy. Not time line, no est price. So it may or may not “work” for either (1) or (2). Neither link above give info on time/$.

      Also if you have ever been at a coal power plant during a thurndstorm, all you have to listen to the generators or watch the dails to know it is not totally smooth either. Sure maybe it is responding to needed changes, but that is what (1) above is about.

      When the price does get good enough, then they aren’t just for wind/pv. They are for big company so they can buy at night and use it during the day; thus getting off peak pricing. They are for grid operator to place at keep points to stablize the grid. You can avoid adding new transmission line along exist paths, since you don’t have to handle peak flow. You transfer the energy before it is needed.

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