VRB Power selected for one of DOE “smart grid” projects

The U.S. Department of Energy detailed nine projects destined to get funding as part of a move to make the U.S. electricity grid more efficient. The department, which is allocating $50 million over five years to these projects, aims to reduce peak load electricity demand by at least 15 per cent by integrating renewable energy and distributed generation into the grid. The only Canadian company taking part in the nine projects is Vancouver-based flow-battery maker VRB Power, which has a compelling product but so far has been unable to gain any sales traction.

VRB will be working with Chevron Energy Solutions, Pacific Gas & Electric, SatCon Technology Corp., the University of Wisconsin, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, among others, on a three-year, $14 million project that will integrate solar energy, fuel cells, flow-battery storage and control systems in a way that significantly reduces peak load and improves power reliability at the Santa Rita Jail, in Alameda County.

Frankly, I don’t get it. Storage seems more important for wind, in the sense you can store the energy overnight when you don’t need it and dispatch it during the day. Solar is inherently beneficial during normal peak times, so I can’t immediately see how storage will reduce peak load — unless off-peak daytime solar is stored and dispatched during the highest peaks in the day. I suppose this helps reduce reliance on inefficient, dirty fossil-fuel superpeaking plants. Perhaps it can also smooth out solar output on cloudy days when the sun is obscured many times throughout an afternoon. Even so, I can’t see how using storage in this way would be as economical compared to coupling it with wind.

On another note, Ontario seems to finally be putting some thought into grid modernization and intelligence. The Independent Electricity System Operator recently announced the formation of a working group composed of several utilities, which plan to brainstorm on a smart grid vision for Ontario and come out with a white paper later this month that more or less provides a rough roadmap of where we need to go. It’s about time. For too long the industry here has equated smart meters with smart grid, not appreciating that intelligence has to be injected into the core AND the edge of the system.

One thought on “VRB Power selected for one of DOE “smart grid” projects”

  1. It appears to me that what they are doing is focusing on the losses in the feeder network – the low voltage lines (5-25 kV) that carry the power from the substation to the customers neighborhood – where the transformers drop the voltage for delivery. This part of the network is responsible for a large part of the network losses becasue voltages are relatively low and currents are high. Becasue the loss is proportional to the square of the current, one can reduce losses significantly by reducing peak load – on that feeder. So by storing energy near the end of the feeder during low load periods and putting it back at peak, total loss will be reduced.

    I remain suspicious that this is not as good as it looks becasue the loss in storage devices is generally a lot worse than line loss (Overall system loss is generally less than 15% and I know of no storage system other than big hydro plants that are 85% or better..) I think that a better strategy is to get rid of the peaks by filling the valleys – and using the off peak energy to displace gas at the same locations – at the end of the feeders. The % line loss decreases as load factor improves and is minimized at constant load.

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