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Liquid Air Energy StorageThe development of energy storage technology is going to be one of the defining features of the 21st century’s energy landscape. It will allow nations to decarbonise their economies by integrating renewable energy into their grids, reduce peak power demand and make all forms of power generation more efficient.

It is going to be a huge market and it is going to render the utilities business unrecognizable within a few decades.

Up to now, battery technology has been grabbing the headlines, even though 99% of the world’s energy storage capacity is currently in the form of pumped hydro-electric power. There is a good reason for this – thanks to the spread of electric vehicles, the amount of battery capacity is increasing rapidly and costs are starting to come down, making the technology increasingly viable.

Meanwhile, most of the places that are suited to pumped hydro already have it, new facilities are not cheap and there are geographical limitations to where you can put them – more than three quarters of Europe’s pumped storage capacity sits in just eight countries.

But batteries are far from being the only new energy storage technology out there and one of the more obscure and unlikely initiatives has just received a massive vote of confidence from GE.

A tiny UK company called Highview Power stores energy by using cheap, off-peak energy to cool air to -196°C using a conventional industrial refrigeration plant, turning 700 litres of ambient air into a litre of “liquid air” that can be stored in a simple insulated tank. When you need the energy, you simply open the tap, the liquid air turns back into a gas, expands in volume, drives a turbine and creates electricity. If you add heat when you release the gas, you make the process more efficient.

Highview says liquid air energy storage (LAES) has advantages over other emerging storage technologies in that it uses well-established technologies and doesn’t require any inputs such as the lithium that batteries need – the most exotic material involved in the process is stainless steel, the company says, while the extra heat can come from the process of cooling the air or from the waste heat of other industrial processes, including power stations. It is not geographically constrained like pumped hydro, it is long-lasting unlike many battery technologies and there is an existing global industrial gases infrastructure it can tap into. And unlike for a gas such as hydrogen, the storage tanks do not have to be specially reinforced or highly pressurised.

Energy storage technologies allow you to get the most out of renewable energy resources such as wind, which often produces more power than is needed at night that at the moment just goes to waste. But they can also make conventional plant more efficient, too, while captured waste heat can be used to provide heat and hot water for homes and offices. According to the International Energy Agency, “to support electricity sector decarbonisation, an estimated 310 GW of additional grid-connected electricity storage capacity would be needed in the United States, Europe, China and India. Significant thermal energy storage and off-grid electricity storage potential also exists.”

“There is space for all the different technologies – they often work on different time-scales. There could even be hybrid projects where you see liquid air alongside batteries or flywheels.”

With both Germany and Japan having introduced support schemes for energy storage, as have both New York and California, one thing is for certain –  energy storage as a central part of the power system is coming your way – and it’s closer than you think.

-culled from forbes.com

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