Temporal Power brings new spin to flywheel energy storage

A Burlington, Ontario-based startup called Temporal Power is the focus of my Clean Break column in today’s Toronto Star. Temporal has designed a stationary flywheel energy storage system that it claims can dramatically outperform the next-best system on the market, which you might say comes from Mass.-based Beacon Power. The company has filed patents on the system but they have yet to become public — likely in a few months. Until then, the company is keeping quiet about how it achieves its claimed performance, and I don’t blame them given the competitive pressures. The story behind how the company came about, however, is interesting. And if Temporal can convincingly demonstrate what it claims, it could prove a breakthrough for economical grid-scale energy storage.

For a good primer and innovation update on flywheel energy storage systems, check out this recent story in the Washington Post. My column also explains the basics of how the systems work and the challenges of making them efficient and economical.

So what does Temporal claim? The company says it has designed a system with zero parasitic losses and extremely low friction using relatively simple and easily available components. It uses permanent magnets, not electromagnets, but the overall integration of components is largely a mystery — for now. It claims its flywheel will lose less than 5 per cent of its energy after up to 10 hours of spinning, making it ideal for storing energy from a wind farm in the evening and dispatching it hours later when the power is needed. This is a departure for flywheel systems, which are typically used for short-term energy backup and services such as grid regulation.

The company plans to standardize on 50-kilowatt-hour units, double the size of the main Beacon model, and these systems could be grouped together to achieve a larger scale of energy storage. It already has a working 20-kilowatt-hour prototype. Its first demonstration is likely to be a 10-flywheel project deployed in Hydro One’s distribution network, where the technology will absorb fluctuations from nearby wind turbines in an area of the grid that has strained capacity. The project is partially funded by a grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

I’ve already received a couple of e-mails from skeptics who say flywheels have been researched for years and what Temporal is claiming can’t possibly be done, at least not economically and reliably. I always get a kick out of these knee-jerk, borderline arrogant reactions, usually by engineers who think they’re smarter than everyone else and that anything new can’t be true because, if it was, it would have already been done. I like to keep an open mind. No doubt, others will question the fact Temporal isn’t explaining in detail how it can do what it claims, but really folks, why would it reveal its secret sauce at this point? Why would it risk erasing a competitive edge prematurely?

 Anyway, skepticism is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t degenerate into outright uninformed dismissal.

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