The Bear Necessities

If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting.
Benjamin Franklin

When I was younger, my parents would read to me before I went to bed.  I would hear tales of adventure and science from Tom Swift, Jr. and tales of mystery from the Hardy Boys, and the fantastical from The Hobbit.  They would also read the Berenstain Bears to me.  If you’re unfamiliar with this series, it’s about a family of bears that face situations that are likely to be faced by children and parents.  The Bear family consists of Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Brother Bear, Sister Bear, and, since 2000, Honey Bear.  There have been more than 260 books in the series.  In the books, Brother and Sister bear learn many valuable lessons, like what happens when you watch too much TV (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV), eat to much junk food (The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junkfood) (hurmmm American public), or about earning and saving money (Wall Street)… I mean Trouble with Money.

The one that made a lasting impression on me was The Messy Room (da, da, daa).  In that book, Brother and Sister have a messy room and can never find anything (they even forget that they have some things) and their parents come up with an idea for storage.  Clearly labeled boxes stacked in the closet.  And then their room is clean (I’m still working on it myself, is it messy if I know what’s in all the piles?).

The current (that pun again) electrical infrastructure is like that messy room.

Wind Energy
Creative Commons License photo credit: l.bailey_beverley

The current electrical grid operates on a “use or lose” bias.  Meaning that only the amount of electricity needed at any given moment is on the grid.  If an energy source, like a wind turbine in West, Texas produces more electricity than the grid can use, it is bled off as waste.  If the amount of electricity needed increases, then short start up generators go online and once the demand is over they shut back down.  That strikes me as a very dumb grid.

One of the large hurtles in making a smarter grid is electrical storage.  We are all used to some forms of electrical storage.  We have alkaline batteries lying about our houses (except AA, I can never find any, but I’m sure they’re just over there…).  These work by producing electricity through the reaction of zinc and magnesium dioxide. They make up 80% of the batteries in the United States.  People have also gotten familiar with the lithium ion batteries which are found in most mp3 players and some phones. Lithium ion batteries are rechargeable, but through many recharges slowly loose the ability to hold a charge.  Lithium sodium batteries are in the works that can hold more energy and be a little less expensive.  One way to get batteries for your home is to get the old batteries from your hybrid car.

Chemical batteries are not the only way to store electricity.

Engine & Flywheel
Creative Commons License photo credit: Howard Dickins

Another way is to store the energy as compressed air.  The excess electricity is used to compress air, and when the electricity is needed the air is let out and turns a turbine.  Compressed air has been used for energy since the 1870s in Paris, London, and other cities. Another way to store electricity is the use of fly wheels.  The excess electricity is used to power up a rotor in a spinning motion.  When electricity is needed, the movement of the rotor is converted back into electricity. The new Gerald Ford class super aircraft carriers will make use of flywheels to help launch planes.  One of the main technical concerns is friction.  Too much friction and too much energy is lost. One of the most efficient ways to store up electrical power on the large scale is pumped water. The excess electricity is used to pump water up in a holding chamber or reservoir.  Then when electricity is needed, the water flows back down.

Electrical storage is also important for renewables.  Solar power can be unreliable.  Because of the rotation of the earth, solar power can be reliably unreliable.  Solar power can only be gathered when the sun is out.  Most of the time the sun is out, I’m at work.  There are usually only a few days a week when I get to see the sun.  Therefore, most of my electrical needs happen when solar power is not an option.  If I had a way to store it while I was at work, then I would use it when I got home. The same is true for wind.  Despite the United States being full of hot air, wind does not always blow.  Wind generated electricity can sometimes be too much for the electrical grid.  If the excess were stored, it could be used when there’s no wind a blowin’.

Small scale electrical storage would also help small scale renewables.

If I have a small scale solar panel, a small wind turbine, and a small water pump all tied up with some sort of electrical storage, I can take the electricity I gather in and only use it when I need it.  That way if the sun shines, the wind blows, or the rain falls while I’m away, I can come back and have Mother Nature power my computer.