Cryogenic Energy Plant Will Put Renewable Power on Ice Until Needed

The world's largest cryogenic energy facility is being built in the U.K. to store renewable energy and help power a city.

I am standing outside on wet concrete in the virtual tour, craning my neck to see the top of a towering white insulated storage tank full of liquid air. This demonstration power storage plant could be the future of renewable energy, and it looks incredibly cool. Colder than -380 degrees Fahrenheit cool.

Highview Power Storage, a London-based power storage company, announced that it will build the world's largest cryogenic energy storage plant near Manchester. Once complete, the new GigaPlant should have enough capacity to help power a city for six hours, the company's CEO Gareth Brett told the BBC.

One of the biggest challenges with renewable energy sources like wind and solar remains having an efficient green way store excess power for times when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. Cryogenic energy storage, also called liquid air energy storage (LAES), has several advantages over batteries and pumped hydropower technologies.

The technology works by using electricity to cool air until it liquefies. That liquid air is stored in large insulated but unpressurized tanks. When electricity is needed again, the system exposes stored liquid air to ambient temperatures, which brings it back to a gaseous state. The resulting rapid re-gasification is harnessed to drive a turbine, generating electricity.

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In Britain, Highview Power Storage does this with three processes: a charging system, an energy store and power recovery. Their pilot plant was completed in 2011 and ran until 2014, when it was relocated to the University of Birmingham. That plant had a capacity of 350 kilowatts. In 2014, Highview and their project partners received funding to build a five-megawatt pre-commercial system that should be operational next year. Their new GigaPlant is designed to have a 200-megawatt capacity.

Cryogenic energy storage doesn't need toxic or rare materials. It doesn't have geographic constraints like pumped hydropower, which requires a location where the water can be sent uphill. LAES also scales up without being insanely costly, a common drawback of battery storage. "Anywhere that needs large-scale long-duration storage - that might be to help integrate an offshore wind farm - a system like ours can help achieve that," Brett explained to the BBC.

"LAES systems use off-the-shelf components with long lifetimes, resulting in low technology risk," the Washington, DC-based Energy Storage Association noted online.

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There's no timeline yet for the GigaPlant, but Highview's plans call for four enormous liquefiers, two liquid air tanks each able to hold more than 7,700 tons, high-grade cold storage, heat storage and eight 25-megawatt turbines.

Until the GigaPlant actually comes together, you can still take a virtual tour of the 2011 pilot plant. A brief video describes how that plant even put waste heat from a neighboring power station to use in producing electricity. Did you feel that, too? Goosebumps.

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