In the last two years, 135 coal power plants in the US have shut down. Dozens more are due to be decommissioned. To Curtis VanWalleghem, CEO of the Canadian company Hydrostor, that sounds like a lot of batteries. Abandoned coal plants give Hydrostor cheap access to the industrial infrastructure, transmission lines, and water sources it wants to build giant air-compressed batteries for the grid.
Hydrostor is the most commercially advanced compressed-air energy storage (CAES) technology in the energy storage market. The technology squeezes large volumes of air into a small space using electricity during off-peak hours. When electricity demand goes back up, the pressurized air is released, and is forced through turbines, spinning them to generate up to hundreds of megawatts of electricity.
While simple in concept, the physics are tricky. The biggest challenge is efficiency. When air is compressed, it generates heat, but that heat dissipates. This means more than half the energy from conventional compressed-air storage systems is lost before it’s even released. Then, because turbines work best in warm air, natural gas is used to reheat it before it passes by the turbine blades. That makes it inefficient, and even uneconomical, in many cases. Locating a good site is also hard. Natural caverns that can contain highly-pressured air are rarely conveniently located near cities and other demand centers.
Hydrostor says it’s solving both problems with off-the-shelf technology, reports Greentech Media. It has adapted existing oil and gas compressors to pump air into tunnel shafts drilled in the ground (about 1,200 feet deep) instead of using natural caverns. Water in a reservoir connected to the shaft is displaced by the incoming air creating a constant, optimal pressure. Hydrostor also developed a system to capture heat lost during compression with a proprietary thermal storage system (rocks have been used in the past). The stored heat warms up the air as it is released, boosting the system efficiency 40-60% with no fuel needed, according to the company. A small structure on the surface manages the pumping with minimal noise or pollution.