How the standard chairlift might revolutionize renewable power

How the humble chairlift could revolutionize renewable energy

What do you see while you think about a zero-carbon future? Electrical buses zipping by? Rolling hills coated with photo voltaic panels? Offshore wind farms towering over the ocean? If batteries are a part of your imaginative and prescient, good pondering. However there’s a promising, if whimsical, piece of the renewable power puzzle that is likely to be lacking out of your psychological image: the world of gravity power storage.

When the grid is dependent upon clear however sporadic pure assets like wind and the solar, we’re going to wish methods to seize any further power they produce so we will use it later. Lithium-ion batteries assist clear up that downside, however they’ve limitations. They degrade over time, they usually aren’t suited to retailer power for months-long intervals, like a seasonal stretch of grey skies or immobile air.

Enter gravity power storage. Producing electrical energy utilizing gravity is hardly a brand new idea — consider your basic hydropower plant, which captures the power of falling water through a turbine. However some hydropower methods don’t simply produce power. A “pumped-storage” hydroelectric plant attracts extra power from the grid and makes use of it to pump water again up into an elevated reservoir the place it might probably fall once more. When full, the higher reservoir is sort of a charged battery, able to be deployed for weeks or months at a time, relying on how a lot water it holds.

The US already makes use of pumped-storage hydropower. In actual fact, it at present accounts for 95 p.c of our utility-scale power storage. Nevertheless it’s robust so as to add a brand new pumped-storage venture to the grid — it requires constructing a dam and creating new reservoirs, that are costly and politically unpopular. Two-thirds of current pumped-storage hydropower vegetation have been constructed within the 1970s and 1980s. Just one new plant has come on-line prior to now fourteen years.

However who wants water when there are every kind of issues we will slide down a mountain or drop off a cliff? Actually, you should use virtually any materials for gravity power storage, so long as it’s heavy, low-cost, and you may work out how you can transport it up and down a steep slope.


This unbelievable illustration depicts a system referred to as “Mountain Gravity Power Storage” that was proposed within the journal Power final week. It includes a ski-lift-style cable that carries big bins of sand up and down a mountain. The sand will get saved in an unlimited vessel on the high, and when the grid wants further power, it’s despatched down the mountain, pulled by the drive of gravity, thereby powering an electrical generator. Relying on the quantity of sand, the peak of the mountain, and the velocity of the autumn, the authors estimate that it might probably generate electrical energy for wherever from 5 to 555 days.

As idiosyncratic as it might appear, this isn’t a brand new thought. Julian Hunt, the lead creator of the research and a postdoc on the Worldwide Institute for Utilized Techniques Evaluation, mentioned he was impressed by the same venture that Invoice Gates invested in again in 2012. “I don’t assume it truly labored out,” Hunt mentioned. “So I used to be looking for methods to make it viable and attempting to estimate the price of the venture.”

The Invoice Gates-funded enterprise was an organization referred to as Power Cache, and the mannequin was practically an identical. The corporate truly constructed a 50-kilowatt prototype again in 2012. It acquired so far as getting into discussions with grid operators, however by no means had an opportunity to show it might work at utility scale. Aaron Fyke, one of many founders of Power Cache, advised Grist they couldn’t discover the cash they wanted to maintain going.

However at this time, Fyke mentioned, insurance policies like 100 p.c clear power payments and power storage mandates in a number of states have made the marketplace for storage extra enticing to traders. And whereas there’s no ski-lift charging facility on the planet but, there are a number of different unconventional concepts which might be a lot nearer to turning into a actuality.

Engineers have patented methods that might make the most of the slopes of defunct coal mines — of which there are lots of of hundreds around the globe — to haul soil, coal mud, or different earth supplies to larger and decrease elevations. A number of corporations are growing options that contain dropping a heavy cylindrical weight into a giant gap within the floor. Close to the southern tip of Nevada, an organization referred to as Superior Rail Power Storage is at present constructing a practice to nowhere throughout 106 acres of public land that can transport heavy weights up and down a hill. It’s anticipated to be operational subsequent yr.

Then there’s Power Vault, a Jenga-like tower made from concrete bricks, perpetually being assembled and destroyed by 400-foot tall puppeteering cranes. When power is required, the cranes choose bricks to drop right down to the bottom. Fyke, who’s now an advisor for Power Vault, mentioned the system’s benefit is that it’s modular and may be positioned wherever — it doesn’t require a mountain slope or a pit within the floor. The corporate is planning to assemble two full-scale fashions in Italy and India.

The potential of gravity power storage is sort of limitless. So subsequent time you’re misplaced in thought, envisioning our inexperienced power future, don’t neglect to place some ski-lifts, ghost trains, and Jenga towers on the panorama, okay?

This story was initially printed by Grist with the headline How the standard chairlift might revolutionize renewable power on Nov 18, 2019.