How can a technology known to ancient potters and spinners help create a 21st-century smart energy grid? A company based in Massachusetts aims to...

How can a technology known to ancient potters and spinners help create a 21st-century smart energy grid? A company based in Massachusetts aims to demonstrate when it begins operating the world’s first grid-scale, flywheel-based energy storage plant in New York later this year.

Beacon Power Corporation is currently building the $69 million plant with the help of a just-closed $43 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Founded in 1997, Beacon Power was first focused on the market for backup power by the telecommunications industry. In 2004, though, it changed direction to develop grid energy storage systems after company officials met with the DOE and grid operator PJM Interconnection.

Once construction of its innovative plant in Stephentown, New York, is complete, Beacon Power expects to be able to provide up to 20 megawatts of energy capacity to the region’s electricity grid. The first four megawatts of capacity are set to come online earlier, however — by the end of this year.

Beacon Power’s system will uses fast-rotating rims made of a carbon-fibre composite material to store excess and renewably generated grid energy as kinetic energy that can be tapped when demand rises or power from wind or solar sources is unavailable. The rims spin on magnetic bearings in a vacuum to minimise energy loss from friction.

When in operation, the plant is expected to provide about 10 per cent of the state’s energy frequency regulation needs. That’s a need that’s likely to grow as New York brings online more intermittent clean-energy sources.

Flywheel-based energy regulation is not only cleaner than that typically provided by conventional fossil fuel plants, but it’s quicker too. It can ramp up or down 10 times more quickly to meet fluctuating energy demands. According to Beacon Power, the New York plant will be able to respond to changing power demands in under four seconds, and can output continuous maximum power for 15 minutes.

By reducing the need for fossil-fuel-based peak energy sources, the flywheel plant will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 82 per cent over its 20-year life, the company added.

“We believe that there is no better way to provide efficient, grid-scale frequency regulation than our flywheel systems,” said Bill Capp, president and CEO of Beacon Power.

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