Energy’s Balancing Act

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on April 02, 2019
Traver Kennedy
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A couple of weeks ago, we explored how storage is the “next game-changer” in energy as depicted by CleanTechnica. The transformation in storage is being driven by the balancing act required to match the always variable supply of electrical power from fast-growing renewables, like wind and solar, with demand, which is also variable, albeit in a more predictable way. The energy storage revolution is needed to ensure the world’s transition to renewable energy doesn’t hit a ceiling.

Although batteries are usually the first thing that spring to mind when we consider energy storage, in its basic form, storing energy is much more encompassing. Think, for example, of a pump powered by a solar cell that pushes water to a water tower situated at higher-altitude during the day when the sun is out. This is a simple way of storing energy. At night, when the sun is gone and the solar panels are inactive, gravity can be used to bring down the water and run a turbine that generates electricity. This week, we explore two very different and interesting energy storage initiatives, one from Siemens and another from startup Energy Vault.

Meet the next generation of hydro-inspired energy storage.

Siemens: ‘Intelligent’ Storage in Every Home

A few weeks ago, Siemens launched the Junelight Smart Battery system in Germany. As reported by Energy Storage News, they are “lithium-ion battery-based energy storage systems for private households, aimed primarily at maximizing the use and integration of onsite-generated solar energy, dubbed ‘self-consumption’ in many markets.” The article explains how the battery system uses “predictive charging and discharging procedures” that are “coordinated in line with forecasted weather patterns and expected energy demand.” The big breakthrough here lies in the use of artificial intelligence that reads and learns the patterns in energy production and energy demand by incorporating variables such as weather forecasts, time of the year, and use patterns of the specific household they reside in to match the supply generated by solar panels with household demand as much as possible.

In a sense, the Junelight is a battery system that mimics what the grid does―a balancing act between supply and demand―on a very small scale. This frees consumers from relying exclusively on the electricity grid. It also eases the frustration that solar panel owners often experience when they sell the surplus energy that their panels generate at less than what they buy it when they need it back. The business model of the innovative Siemens battery has been designed from the ground up to adapt to this new reality, which is also a small-scale version of what some innovative utilities are doing, such as NB Power. (Read our recent interview with Gaëtan Thomas, President and CEO of NB Power here.) In fact, Marlon Hassel, global sales and marketing manager for the Junelight Smart Battery system recently stated in an interview, “Rather than targeting big profit margins from selling the product itself, it’s the services and opportunities the company’s Junelight lithium-ion systems are capable of targeting in future that are most interesting to Siemens.”

Energy Vault: Concrete ‘Legos’ to Store Energy from the Grid

Last November, Energy Vault, a California/Switzerland startup, announced a creative system of storing energy using big cranes and blocks of concrete. Their approach to the energy balancing act is simplistically clever. A construction-style crane stacks concrete blocks during the time of day when power from the grid is the most abundant and cheap; then it drops these blocks down to produce electricity when it is needed. Their system creates Lego-like towers of concrete blocks, which continually expand or shrink to balance the grid.

Energy Vault’s description of the problem demonstrates how they were inspired by traditional hydropower. “The Energy Vault solution utilizes the same fundamentals of physics and kinetic energy as pumped hydro but replaces the water with custom made cylindrical blocks utilizing an extremely innovative use of low-cost materials.” The World Economic Forum has playfully called their solution a “concrete plan” and described the company’s system as follows:

“A 120-meter (nearly 400-foot) tall, six-armed crane stands in the middle. In the discharged state, concrete cylinders weighing 35 metric tons each are neatly stacked around the crane far below the crane arms. When there is excess solar or wind power, a computer algorithm directs one or more crane arms to locate a concrete block, with the help of a camera attached to the crane arm’s trolley.”

Once a critical mass of concrete blocks is manufactured for a specific site, that is all that’s needed. Energy Vault uses electricity to stack the concrete blocks and generates electricity by dropping them. With this simple approach, there’s no need to divert a river; in fact, this hydro-inspired system can work in the middle of a desert. In their article, The World Economic Forum explained how the company’s founders even “developed a machine that can mix substances that cities often pay to get rid of, such as gravel or building waste, along with cement to create low-cost concrete blocks,” resulting in a cost savings of more than 80% over just using concrete for the blocks.

Calling all Entrepreneurs

The need for a balancing act between variable energy supply and demand makes continued innovation in the area of energy storage necessary to ensure that the world’s energy transition does not hit a bottleneck. Like the myriad clean energy solutions of the future, storage solutions will be a mix of different systems and methods that work optimally across different environments and circumstances. Creative solutions are beginning to sprout everywhere.


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