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Liquid Air Energy Storage (LAES)

A "Cool" Battery Alternative

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted March 25, 2014

Ever heard of Liquid Air Energy Storage? A small UK company called Highview Power Storage has got its hands all over it, and they have their sights set on the states. Liquid air valve - CERN

Highview just signed a global licensing and technology agreement with GE’s (NYSE:GE) Oil and Gas unit, so it's time to look into the technology.

It's relatively easy to understand. It uses cheap, off-peak energy to cool air to -320.8 degrees Fahrenheit in an industrial refrigeration plant, turning roughly 185 gallons of ambient air into about 0.26 gallons of liquid air that is then stored in an insulation tank. That way, the energy is readily available when needed.

To use it, simply open the tap – the liquid turns back into a gas, expands in volume, and drives a turbine that creates electricity. If you add heat, the process becomes even more efficient.

It may not seem like much on paper, but this process helps get the most out of renewable resources like wind, which often is wasted when it produces more power than is needed at any given time. That wasted energy has been the one major flaw in wind power, and now, with LAES, we’re looking at a real viable solution.

It can make an industrial plant more efficient, too. If the electricity sector truly is going to cut carbon emissions on a scale that it says it wants to, we’re going to have to see an estimated 310 GW of additional grid-connected electricity storage capacity in the U.S., Europe, China and India. LAES could be a big part in making that happen.

Looking at the big picture, energy storage in general is going to take off as the landscape continues to evolve. More economies around the world are starting to adopt renewable energy into their grids, and utilities are going to see major transformations in the years to come.

Battery power and its new storage technologies and advancements have been grabbing a lot of the headlines, but even as batteries become more reliable and costs come down, there is still plenty of room for other technologies – one being LAES – especially when you’ve got the confidence of GE on your side.

Storage-wise

GE sees the potential in both technologies. It already uses battery storage alongside some of its wind turbines that can store power when wind speed increases quickly and the grid can’t absorb the power all at once. The power is then stored to be used when the wind isn’t blowing.

Highview designs and develops large-scale energy storage solutions for utility and power systems using liquid air as its medium. One of its LAES plants, according to the company website, can deliver around 5MW/15MWh and as much as 50MW/200MWh to service energy storage needs.

Highview contends that LAES has advantages over other emerging storage technologies. Unlike batteries, it doesn’t require any inputs like lithium, and its most expensive material is stainless steel. It also is long-lasting compared to battery technologies, and unlike pumped hydro, it has no geographical constraints. Perhaps its best asset though, is that it can tap into an already abundant infrastructure of the gas industry.

The UK is banking on Highview, just signing on for a £8 million grant from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to build a 5MW demonstration plant at one of its landfill gas facilities. Now GE is on board, as well, looking into ways it can incorporate LAES into its gas turbines and gas engines.

GE wants to increase the productivity at its peaker power plants – those that are only used at times of peak demand. They are generally less efficient than say, baseload plants, that produce continuous power and they also waste a lot of heat.

Highview would bottle up stored energy and would respond quickly to surges in demand, cutting start-up times from 10-20 minutes to between 2 and 5 minutes, according to Forbes. “It’s like a turbo-charged ramp-up time because our system provides power while the peaker plant warms up,” says Matthew Barnett, head of business development at Highview.

These plants will simultaneously become more efficient because they will be using the gas-fueled plant’s wasted heat in its LAES processes. Down the road, the same LAES technology can be retrofitted into different types of plants, making them more efficient too. That is where the market will really start to open up.

Not Today, but Tomorrow

Batteries are without question the leaders of the storage market right now. Still, you can’t deny the appeal that Highview and its LAES technology has to offer. There is plenty of space for both technologies as energy storage grows, and most likely, we’ll eventually see the two working side by side.

Energy storage is quickly becoming the game changer in efficient power systems, and now that states like New York and California have shown interest in support, it’s just a matter of time before your home state is going to support it. It’s going to happen sooner than later, and alternative storage systems like LAES will have their turn to shine.

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