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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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This Development Could Revolutionize Renewable Energy

One of the major problems with green energy is the inability to control when that energy is generated. Conventional fossil fuels like oil and natural gas can be burned in variable amounts based on the demand for electrical power. Green energy sources like solar and wind are limited to generating energy when specific conditions are met.

This has been one of the biggest problems with green energy and a major problem with the argument for environmental benefits from electric vehicles. Energy that is generated from solar power during the day has to either be used as it is generated or stored until it is needed. That’s been a big problem since most methods of energy storage are severely flawed. But Europe appears to be poised to offer an alternative solution that could pave the way for greater use of green energy in the future. Related: DOE Just Produced A Multi-Trillion Dollar Headache For Congress

An Irish company is in the process of building one of the largest energy storage facilities ever, and it is doing it with an alternative form of energy storage that has never been tried on this scale before. Schwungrad Energie is building a 20MW flywheel energy storage system which should help to even out the energy usage needs across all of Ireland.

In a flywheel system, energy (say from solar and wind sources) is used to spin a giant wheel faster and faster as more and more energy is generated. That wheel continues spinning until energy is needed at which point the spinning wheel is used to power electrical generators. The major problem with storing energy in a kinetic form is that friction slowly siphons off the power making it hard to conserve energy for any length of time. The big innovation in the Irish project is that the flywheel is housed inside a giant vacuum-sealed container with the wheel itself supported by magnets. This reduces the friction considerably and should enable the system to store energy with roughly 85-90% efficiency according to the company. Related: Solar Could Be UK's Biggest Loser This Year

The project is relatively small in terms of its economic impact and it will only create a few dozen jobs, but it is a unique approach to a problem that adds substantially to energy costs in all national energy grids. The US approach to this problem has been primarily based on hydroelectric storage, but this is not as efficient as new technologies like the flywheel system.

Overall storage costs represent about 30-40% of total costs for an electrical grid system according to the US DOE, so if the flywheel system can improve on existing systems by say 25%, then it would lower overall electrical costs by about 10%. Pumped hydro is the most cost effective form of storage right now, but if the Irish flywheel can be used to offer levelized energy storage for less than $0.10 a Kwh then it would be a game changer. Related: Have Natural Gas Prices Bottomed?

In the electrical grid energy storage space, ABB and AES Energy Storage, a division of AES Corp are the two biggest players. ABB is a $50B market cap European company with some similarities to General Electric in the US. The company is an industrial powerhouse around the world, but the on-going European troubles in Greece and elsewhere have seriously crimped growth. If the Irish project takes off and Europe decides to upgrades it electrical grid as a result, ABB would be a major beneficiary. $10B AES Corp is in a similar situation. The utility and energy storage company is a more pure-play on any innovations that fundamentally change the future of electrical generation and storage, but it lacks the scale and reach of ABB. In both cases though, company executives are likely watching the Irish project with keen interest.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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