Large-scale storage of wind energy using compressed nitrogen and old pipelines… Could it work?

I just got back from a trip last week to Edmonton, Alberta, where I visited a startup called Lancaster Wind. I’ve been following this company for over a year now, but only recently has its founder and CEO — Dave McConnell — started talking about his approach to storing huge amounts of energy in the same pipelines used to carry oil and natural gas. You can read about it in my Clean Break column today, as well as in two stories recently written in the Edmonton Journal, here and here.

The basic idea is that specially designed hydraulic wind turbines are used to compress nitrogen into existing gas or oil pipeline infrastructure, some of it unused throughout North America. Several hundred, even thousand, kilometres of pipeline could be filled with nitrogen and kept under pressure, in effect becoming a kind of massive nitrogen battery for wind. When electricity needs to be generated anywhere along the pipeline, the nitrogen gas is released and expands to turn a turbine that generates electricity. Wind, under this setup, suddenly becomes dispatchable and has baseload characteristics. Also, the pipeline eliminates the need for transmission lines.

There’s still much to learn about Lancaster’s approach, but it’s an intriguing idea that in my mind is worth investigating. Some questions: Can these pipelines handle the expansion/compression cycles over time? How efficient would the process be? Can such a small company pull off such an ambitious feat? How does it compete with other options, such as compressed-air cavern storage or pumped storage or even flow batteries?

Stay tuned…

3 thoughts on “Large-scale storage of wind energy using compressed nitrogen and old pipelines… Could it work?”

  1. In order to create this huge energy buffer capacity, all those “gas and oil pipe line (..) some of it unused” must be retrofitted and re-certified gor nitrogen. Just an administrative glitch yet fundamental for the safety of the whole entreprise. Now imagine the cost. Valves and fittings replacement, piping status assessment (thousands of miles ?), mechanical retrofit regarding all gas/oil operating standards to nitrogen operating standards, controls (sequences of operation and monitoring must be replaced 100%), training/replacement of the maint. personnel. All the above integrated to a minimum (we have different owners, different standards jurisdictions, different by-laws … so on) in order to operate like a grid. This is like a Marshall Plan for unused oil and gas pipelines in North A. Technically, can be done. Logistically, its a nightmare.

  2. Not surprisingly there is no mention any drawbacks at all.
    Like, when air or any gas is compressed it’s temperature rises. During the storage interval this heat is lost while radiating into it’s enviorement. When the compressed gas is depressurized to utilize it’s store energy power it’s temperature drops, round trip efficiency are about 70%.
    Also if nitrogen is to be use instead plain air, energy is lost to acquire it and provisions must be made to store the unpressureized in great volume to minumize further losses if it’s not stored after use.
    Then there’s is the “several hundred, even thousand, kilometres of pipeline” that have to be 100% leak free. Any leak would be another energy loss.

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