Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Hydrostor has created an interesting innovation in energy storage. The energy is stored as compressed air, in giant underwater balloons.
Hydrostor’s system works in several steps. Electricity is run through a compressor and converted into compressed air. This compressed air is then sent underwater.
“There, we have a whole series of what are effectively balloons, that fill… like lungs under a lake,” he added.
“They fill with air, and when they’re full you stop charging the system and it can sit there indefinitely. When you want power back, again, a valve opens … air comes rushing out, we run through a low pressure turbine called a turbo expander, and that reproduces power back to the grid.”
Energy storage is becoming increasingly important. In the United States, the Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability states that the development of technology to store electricity so it’s available on whenever it’s needed would be a “major breakthrough in electricity distribution.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of storing energy with compressed air. Hydrostor’s innovation is to reduce the cost, by using water pressure to maintain the storage compression, without the need to create high strength pressure containers.
Using water to supply the pressure to collapse the balloons might also improve the efficiency of energy retrieval. By storing the air underwater, and using the water pressure to collapse the balloon, the air would be retrieved at a near constant pressure, until the balloon was empty. Hydrostor claim an efficiency of 60 – 80%.
Hydrostor seem to be aiming at grid stabilisation rather than storing multiple days worth of grid supply, so it seems unlikely this proposal, as it stands, will fully solve the renewable intermittency issue.
Could compressed air storage be scaled up enough to solve intermittency? Even if you had enough renewable capacity to cover 100% of grid requirements, on average, if you wanted to go further than Hydrostor’s current plans, to completely eliminate the need for backup gas turbines for renewables, you would need to store enough energy to maintain full grid supply for at least a day, more likely several days.
My concern is energy stored as compressed air could, in principle at least, be released all at once, in the event of a storage system failure.
Imagine you wanted to store one day worth of energy to supply a major city, in case the wind didn’t blow that day – enough energy to maintain a 1 gigawatt supply to the grid.
To maintain a 1Gw supply of energy for one day, your storage solution would need to store;
1Gw x 1 day
= 1000,000,000 W x 86400 seconds
= 86,400,000,000,000 Joules of energy
= 86.4 TJ.
This amount of energy is the same magnitude as the energy released by Little Boy, the nuclear bomb which destroyed Hiroshima (63 TJ). An abrupt release of 84TJ of energy next to a populated area would cause serious damage.
How would such a release of energy manifest? During the Lake Nyos disaster, when 100,000 tons of volcanic CO2 at the bottom of Lake Nyos was abruptly released, the rising gas created a 25m Tsunami which did extensive damage to the thankfully mostly uninhabited shoreline.
In the case of Lake Nyos, the Tsunami damage was secondary compared to the lethal effect of normal air being displaced over a large geographic area, by an asphyxiating cloud of concentrated CO2. But a large Tsunami smashing into a densely populated coastal city, adjacent to the storage facility, could still cause serious loss of life, even if the gas bubble which created the Tsunami was breathable air.
Risk concerns aside, in my opinion Hydrostor’s solution is still a very interesting innovation. Storing energy underwater, utilising the natural pressure of the water, should substantially reduce the cost of creating storage “balloons”, compared to other schemes for using air pressure for energy storage, by dramatically reducing the required strength and potentially the cost of the materials used to construct the pressure containers.