The problem, repeatedly stated, with the renewable energy revolution is that energy production from wind and solar does not meet the demand curves of the energy grid. The corollary to that is that there are no battery technologies evolved enough to store and release power in a timely manner. Really?
Um-m-m, except for Planet Earth, which has been successfully capturing solar energy and releasing it for about the past 3 billion years. It's called photosynthesis....
And the tirck is to emulate Momma Earth's methods and then do them more quickly....
In addition to the huge amounts of energy stored in biomass by photosynthesis, the Earth also stores large amounts of energy in evaporated water in the atmosphere, in the water temperature of the oceans, in the movement of the tides, in water that is upland and has not made its way downhill to the ocean, in the wind, in the carbon- and microbes in the soil and in the underground temperature of the Earth itself. So the batteries are already there, we just need to step back and adopt a biomimicry perspective to figure out how to help Earth safely store more energy for us--and how to safely (and sustainably) extract that energy when we need it. What might that look like? Well, this bio-integrated energy storage and extraction system has many faces since, as Buckminster Fuller once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Here’s what they're doing at a newly developing solution, The Green Power House [TM], that had its dedication just yesterday in Columbia Falls, Montana. It is using "stacked" renewable energy technologies to create a self-energized, organic soil amendment/fertilizer factory. The event was even attended by Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer, (who's one of the most technically sophisticated politicians in the country). Here's the news report on Brian Schweitzer's visit from Kalispell television station KAJ...
The Green Power House's ability to serve as a battery/solar energy storage system requires that we "think different" about batteries and energy storage. Usually government entities define energy production as the ability to produce electricity for transmission through the electrical grid. However, a better battery definition, and a better energy storage definition, would be that any process or medium that retains BTUs in a form for later release has battery-like (energy storage) properties. With this broader perspective, we're able to focus on how Earth stores energy and how we can efficiently and sustainably use that energy, instead of just focusing on how hybrid autos, laptop computers and flashlights use a particular energy storage form, called a lithium ion battery, to produce propulsion, to spin up a hard drive or to make light.
The Green Power House [TM] is powered using Earth's natural, renewable energy processes--solar energy, wood combustion/pyrolysis, bacterial decomposition, algae growth and biomass growth (wood and plants)--and, there are very few emissions, since almost all gases and heat produced by its energy production are run back through the algae ponds to produce more nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria and other carbon dioxide-fixing strains of algae.
By harvesting these photosynthetically-derived biomass and algae products, and then running those materials through a series of industrial processes, the Green Power House (GPH) can produce 1) its own heat from the solar and pyrolysis processes, 2) enough biogases from the biodigestion and pyrolysis processes to produce its own electricity, 3) large amounts of nitrogen- and carbon-rich algae, 4) a bit of diesel fuel bio-oil from pyrolysis, 5) fresh water, and 6) large amounts of nature's carbon sponge (biochar). It then uses anaerobic biodigestion (bacterial fermentation) to digest its algae, along with residual woody and agricultural biomass products, and then breaks them down into a rich, dirt-like soil amendment or liquid soil drench, that 1) helps rejuvenate carbon deficient soils, 2) helps regenerate soil microbial growth, and 3) helps to store water and minerals in a biomatrix for future plant growth demands--and, ultimately, 4) produces better soil that grows more biomass to help power the planet.
And how is this a battery technology? In several ways:
First, the GPH produces soil amendments that can reduce fertilizer use. Nitrogenous fertilizer (also called anhydrous ammonia) is traditionally made by an extraction process called the Haber-Bosch Process. The Haber-Bosch Process burns natural gas to extract nitrogen from the air. However, every time you produce a ton of anhydrous ammonia, you burn enough natural gas to produce about 1.8 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide. So traditional fertilizer production requires a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste gases.
On the other hand, the Green Power House (GPH) production process requires no fossil fuel energy to produce its nitrogen/carbon concentrate. (The GPH also captures and sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide when photosynthesis converts it into the carbon that makes up much of the algae, wood and plant material used in the process.) This means the GPH uses less expensive energy to produce the fertilizer that farms need to optimize plant growth. In turn, that means that there’s a net reduction in energy costs to produce the 1) fertilizer that enhances the vitality of the 2) soil that then produces the 3) increased biomass that can then serve as the next generation of 4) fuel and plant material for the Green Power House.
Also, by using solar to produce atmospheric nitrogen-fixing blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), you extract carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the air with very little energy use, while reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and converting it back in soil carbon. (We also use other local algae strains to gooble up excess carbon dioxide.) Then, when you apply this organic concentrate of nitrogen and organic soil carbon to the soil, the soil leaches far less nitrogen oxide back into the atmosphere than it would if fed traditional fertilizer. Traditional (anhydrous ammonia) nitrogen fertilizer leaks about 80% its nitrogen back into the atmosphere and into the water table as nitrogen oxides (NOx). This creates big problems, because NOx gases are very strong greenhouse gases, and, also, when the nitrogen fertilizer leaches into the water table, it contributes mightily to ocean dead zones. This occurs because the nitrogen causes (ironically) excess algae blooms in streams, lakes and the ocean. Those excess blooms then die and take all the oxygen out of the water as they sink to the bottom and decompose.
A second battery-like benefit of the GPH, is that, since it is self-powered and self-heated, it allows greenhouse operations to be situated in cooler climates much closer to the urban areas that need their food and fertilizer outputs, with far less fossil fuel use for transportation--a classic negawatt effect. In other words, if you use less fossil fuel-produced electricity to run your greenhouse, you've freed up existing electrical capacity for other uses, and you've also reduced total traditional electricity demand on the power grid.
Third, you're saving energy, (holding battery charge), by creating a local fertilizer source that provides additional jobs and revenue for local farm and forestry operations. This reduces transportation and import costs for fertilizer and keeps more money circulating in the local economy.
The GPH process also offers strong hope to a forest products industry beat to death by wild swings in lumber prices. While some may disagree with lumber harvesting, there's no question the US has a huge and ever-growing problem with excess forest growth that will either lead to better forest vegetation harvest and control technologies, (while ideally preserving and enhancing much of the old-growth trees we love), or it will lead to larger and larger megafires that produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide and drive the global warming process ever upward.
Fourth, you're cleaning up brackish water, and conserving water in an agricultural setting. (The GPH gets almost all its water from the pyrolysis process when the wood in melted to biochar in an airless (anaerobic) firing chamber. As you conserve water, you reduce pumping and irrigation costs, you leave more water for more traditional agricultural applications, (and for fire fighting). In Montana they say that folks make friends over whiskey and fight over water, so helping farmers and ranchers to use their water more effectively is another way to produce more profit and to reduce energy consumption. In fact, it would probably be safe to say, that we'd be better off never building another solar or wind energy project without a water storage component, since water projects add incredible value, and since water pumping, storage and irrigation also provide an easy and profitable way to use excess kilowatts.
Beyond that, as indicated by the terrible drought most of the Southern and Midwestern US are experiencing this summer, the difference between a great crop season and a disastrous one can be a couple more opportunities to irrigate in July and August. Water is the key: the magical ingredient. Remember the old drink tablets from the 60s called Fizzies? Just pop 'em in water and you'd have a nice carbonated beverage? (Just dated myself there.) Well, Earth is pretty much a life Fizzie--just add water and stuff starts to grow, biomass accumulates, plant matter becomes available as a food source and as an energy source. Then, (like what an organic farmer can do with the output of the Green Power House), when you add more carbon and more nutrition, the growth capacity expands greatly again.
Another battery correlate is that energy is saved by the food grown in the GPH, (which has about a half acre of growing capacity within its 50-foot-high, 5000-square-foot interior). The greenhouse itself can be used for high-value boutique vegetables for local restaurants and grocery stores, and the greenhouse can also extend the traditional growing season by inexpensively producing late-winter starters and seedlings for the the next planting and growing season. So some food can be grown locally that otherwise would have to be flown or trucked in from thousands of miles away, especially in the winter. Also, since the fertilizer produced is organic and organic crops produce higher financial returns, each GPH is intended to have organic gardens surrounding it to leverage its soil amendments into high-value, organic summer crops.
A final battery-like advantage is that the hydrogen, methane and bio-oils may also be used for local transportation and, as such, will offset some transportation fuel energy costs—while also providing a guaranteed source of fuel to transport crops to market in the event of a transportation fuel crisis.
But beyond processes like the Green Power House, as soon as we Earthlings realize that the Earth is just one big solar collector and that photosynthesis and atmospheric and water movement and heating are its batteries, we can stop hyperventilating about whether we have enough lithium to run all the electric cars. What we have are places, (Earth's deserts, burned areas, denuded rainforests, and carbon-deficient soils), that can be returned to active, living forests and fields, using wind- and solar-driven water concentration technologies—and a good deal of the energy storage can simply be done by adding water: When you add more water to dry areas you can grow more biomass and biomass can be converted by the GPH into more heat, electricity and soil amendment to enhance plant growth. And this is as close as we'll get to the perpetual motion machine, since, as long as the sun continues to shine, the process is replicable and renewable and can create more and more biomass. (I'd add that all the forms of water desalinization, purification, ambient atmospheric water extraction, pumping and storage are great ways to use excess electricity from solar and wind projects, and each has different applications that can produce and store energy for future use.)
The broader vision and detailed numerical analysis of a renewable energy economy has been analyzed for years by the Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawkin of Natural Capital Solutions.
In fact, as Hunter Lovins points out, reducing one annual Megawatt of electricity usage will create over $2.2 Million dollars of economic benefit and 22 new jobs.
The net effect of rethinking how we use our technology to interface with Earth's battery is staggering. Amory Lovins pointed out in a recent TED talk that, when you "combine the electricity and oil revolutions, both driven by modern efficiency,.... you get the really big story: reinventing fire, where business enabled and sped by smart policies in mindful markets can lead the United States completely off oil and coal by 2050, saving 5 trillion dollars, growing the economy 2.6-fold, strengthening our national security, oh, and by the way, by getting rid of the oil and coal, and reducing the fossil carbon emissions by 82 to 86 percent.
(BTW, the Green Power House was able to create its marvelous carbon factory because they received $$ from President Obama's Recovery Act and from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, so there's a good "Recovery Act creates real jobs story!")
[Author’s note. As may have already become evident, I love what they're doing in Columbia Falls, and I am an investor in the Green Power House because I think it’s the best renewable energy technology I’ve personally seen in 40 years of alternative energy work. For more information, send me a message on DKOS or look us up on Facebook. Just search the phrase Algae Aqua.]