A new organic flow battery is getting a test run at a gas power plant in Wisconsin (image courtesy of CMBlu).

“Solar Wave” Sets The Stage For New Flow Battery In Wisconsin

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A fresh wave of solar development is coming to Wisconsin, and the German energy storage innovator CMBlu is here for it. The company is pilot testing a new, long duration flow battery at a power plant in downtown Milwaukee. It could make a perfect match with utility-scale solar arrays that are coming down the pipeline in farmlands all across the state. So, why are they testing it in downtown Milwaukee?

A New Diesel-Killing Flow Battery For A Gas Power Plant

Why, indeed. CleanTechnica is reaching out to CMBlu to find out why the new energy storage system is getting a look-see at a gas power plant instead of a solar array or wind farm.

The plant in question is the Valley Power Plant, a gas co-generation facility that provides 24/7 electricity along with steam for Milwaukee’s downtown heating district. It sits on a 22-acre site adjacent to the city center.

The owner of the plant is WEC Energy Group, through its WE Energies subsidiary. WEC has a growing portfolio of utility scale wind and solar projects that could be put to use as a test site for a new flow battery. Nevertheless, the Valley Power Plant is the site.

If you can guess why, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, note that the 1960s-era Valley Power Plant flipped from coal to gas in 2015. More to the point, the facility hosts a diesel backup generator. So, perhaps the flow battery test involves replacing or supplementing diesel fuel with an energy storage platform.

Another partner in the project is EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. EPRI has been keeping an eye out for low carbon technology that could replace the nation’s fleet of diesel backup generators. In a report on low carbon alternatives issued back in 2021, they listed fuel cells and alternative fuels including hydrogen, biogas, and compressed natural gas among others.

EPRI has also been taking a look at replacing diesel generators with flywheels and other energy storage devices, including flow batteries, with a focus on optimizing costs as well as cutting carbon emissions.

What Is An Organic Flow Battery?

Flow batteries are based on the ability of two specialized liquids to generate electricity when they are set in motion adjacent to each other, typically (though not necessarily) separated by a thin membrane.

At this time, lithium-ion battery arrays are the energy storage platform of choice for wind and solar power. However, flow batteries are beginning to catch up. The potential advantages in terms of performance are many, and that includes the potential to provide electricity at scale for longer periods of time. Typical Li-ion arrays are only good for a few hours. Flow batteries can work for up to ten hours, and more.

Flow battery innovators have been focusing on the metal vanadium (not vibranium!) as the essential element. Other formulas are beginning to emerge as stakeholders begin to focus more attention on supply chain issues and end-of-life recycling or re-use opportunities.

That’s where CMBlu comes in. The company has its roots in a research project back in 2011, which eventually gave rise to its Organic SolidFlow energy storage technology.

The organic side refers to the use of carbon-based molecules in solution, instead of vanadium or other metals.

“Why carbon?,” CMBlu asks.

“It’s simple,” they answer. “Certain carbon-based molecules have the intrinsic ability to be oxidized and reduced, or charged and discharged. They are the essential element in “redox” reactions that have been powering all living cells, for billions of years.”

“Nature had a choice to use metal or organic molecules to store and release energy. It chose organic. So are we,” they add.

CMBlu also notes that its organic materials are widely available on a global scale, and they are fully recyclable.

The Quinone Plot Thickens

If you’re thinking this has something to do with quinones, that’s a good guess.

Flow battery researchers have been looking into a class of organic molecules called quinones, which are typically produced from coal tar. They can also be found in fungi and bacteria among other natural sources.

In 2021 the National Institutes of Health published a study noting that quinones have recently “attracted a lot of industrial interest since their electron-donating and -accepting properties make them good candidates as electrolytes in redox flow batteries.”

The study also observed that “the possibility of producing quinones by fungal cultivation has great prospects since fungi can often be grown in industrially scaled bioreactors, producing valuable metabolites on cheap substrates.”

A Solar Wave Is Coming To Wisconsin

The choice of Wisconsin as a demonstration site for new energy technology doesn’t appear to be ideal, at first glance. To the extent that wind and solar development are linked to energy storage, Wisconsin is lagging behind other states.

Wisconsin office holders established a reputation for squelching clean energy back when Scott Walker was governor. That’s is no surprise considering the influence of fossil energy stakeholders on state policy.

The state still has a dismal record on wind. As of 2021 the Energy Department listed only 737 megawatts of installed wind capacity statewide. In comparison, neighboring Minnesota clocked in at 4,578 megawatts installed with another 340 in the pipeline.

Wisconsin doesn’t particularly shine in the solar area either, but that appears to be changing.

Earlier this week, the Sun Prairie Star news organization published a long form article by reporter Mike Sunnucks under the heading, “Wisconsin’s renewable energy wave is prompting some farmers to lease land for fields of solar panels.

Sunnucks took note of the planned 300-megawatt array Koshkonong Solar Energy Center Project among 30 or so projects in the pipeline, together adding 1,000 new megawatts of solar power to the state grid.

As Sunnucks observes, farmers in Wisconsin have become strong advocates for solar development, as a means of securing a steady source of good income. Solar arrays can also be compatible with long term agriculture planning goals. After all, federal agriculture policy already pays farmers to take fields out of production for periods of time, enabling the soil to rest and rebuild. Solar arrays can be deconstructed and removed at the end of their lifespan, typically 25 years or so.

Farm-based solar design can also push the regenerative agriculture angle by replacing a monoculture crop with native plants, especially pollinator-friendly plants. The emerging but fast-growing field of agrivoltaics adds on, with opportunities for grazing and growing crops within a solar array.

Placing large new solar developments in rural communities is not an easy sell, and local opponents have reportedly networked with fossil energy stakeholders to hold back the wave. However, the alliance between solar developers and agricultural stakeholders appears to be gathering steam, and the ripple effect could create new opportunities for CMBlu and other energy storage innovators.

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Photo (screenshot): Innovative flow battery energy storage technology courtesy of CMBlu.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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