The adoption of renewable energy on a large scale by utilities has been on hold, waiting for a breakthrough to solve the biggest problem for large-scale use: how to store energy produced by wind and solar power for those times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? Without the ability to store excess energy from variable renewable generators during peak production times, utilities have been unable to deploy them on a commercial, financially viable scale. Grid-sized batteries have been tried, but they are expensive and have a short life span.

Now, two new companies have come up with distinct innovations that might resolve this energy storage issue. SustainX uses a patented foamy material to maintain an even temperature for compressed-air storage of renewable energy. LightSail has developed water-cooled compressed air storage systems.

In a sign that these technologies may be answers to solving the renewable energy storage problem, the companies have attracted significant support. SustainX has received $43 million from the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, as well as funds from venture capital firms Polaris Partners and RockPort.  LightSail has raised $42 million from Bill Gates and other investors. So promising are these tech innovations that the industry’s revenue is projected to rise from $37 million last year to $1.6 billion by 2016. That’s a powerful bottom line argument for power sourced from renewable energy.

Article by John Howell, appearing courtesy 3BL Media.

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  1. It is not exactly true that storage is required to deploy renewable energy “on a commercial, financially viable scale”. First, no storage is required for an amount of renewable energy up to about half the total energy, if the remaining half can also be variable on demand to balance the energy supply to match a more constant demand. Second, biofuels count as a renewable energy resource. Generating biofuels by using other forms of energy, particularly solar, is a form of energy storage, so we need to think beyond merely electrical energy storage. Third, some fraction of demand doesn’t need to be constant and instead the demand can be changed to take advantage of the variable supply. Fourth, more renewable energy can be generated than required, with the extra being thrown away when it is not needed, and this turns out to be more cost effective in some cases than building energy storage.

    Regarding the last point, in http://ecowatch.com/2012/12/18/renewables-power-grid-by-2030/ they report about a model that shows renewable energy could fully power the grid by 2030: “Unlike other studies, the model focused on minimizing costs instead of the traditional approach of matching generation to electricity use. The researchers found that generating more electricity than needed during average hours—in order to meet needs on high-demand but low-wind power hours—could be cheaper than storing excess power for later high demand.”