One of the main obstacles renewable energy development faces is "intermittency" -- the unreliability of many non-carbon power sources. The wind stops blowing, the water supply behind the dam lessens, or the sun goes behind a cloud, and suddenly the grid has less power -- a headache for the engineers.
A $2 million grant announced late last week by the California Energy Commission is intended to find possible solutions to the intermittency problem. Recipients of the funding are Satcon Technology, Renewable Energy Services (RES), A123 Systems, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).
The grantees cover the solar utility specturm. Satcon supplies inverters -- equipment that change photovoltaic cells' direct current output to the alternating current used on the grid -- for utility-scale solar projects. Renewable Energy Services contracts and installs large-scale solar installations for the military and other large buyers of solar power equipment. SMUD, the Sacramento area's electrical utility, is the sixth-largest customer-owned electrical utility in the U.S., serving nearly 500,000 customers over a 900 square-mile area.
The key to solving intermittency is finding a way to store energy, and that's where A123 Systems comes in. A123 is developing a line of lithium iron phosphate batteries that can operate at extreme temperatures without shortening their usable life -- a must for utility-scale grid storage, in which large racks of batteries and high-voltage electrical equipment can be expected to heat their containers quite a bit.
The grant is good news and good PR for A123. In December 2011 A123 announced a recall on some of its Karma batteries over possible coolant leaks. The battery company suffered further embarrassment in March when its products contributed to a problem with the much-touted electric car, the Fisker Karma. A Karma purchased by Consumer Reports broke down at the consumer magazine's testing grounds and had to be towed away by the dealer. The fault was traced to defective battery packs supplied by A123. A123's CEO David Vieau took responsibility for the failure in March, an admission that was probably good for A123's karma if not so much for Fisker's.
A123's batteries were also briefly suspected in a Texas house fire started by a garaged Fisker Karma; investigation determined that the batteries were not at fault. If this pilot intermittency study goes well for A123's utility-scale battery designs, it could be a much-needed PR shot in the arm for the firm. If not, at least they won't strand anyone by the side of the road.
The $2 million grant by the California Energy Commission is funded through the CEC's Public Interest Energy Research Program.