FROM A CORNFIELD TO CLEAN ENERGY'S FUTURE

Flywheel technology stores, releases power when needed

BRIAN NEARING STAFF WRITER
Section: Business,  Page: D1

Date: Wednesday, July 13, 2011

STEPHENTOWN -- In what less than two years ago was a cornfield, a vision of a clean energy future is now up and running, where modern versions of the ancient concept of the flywheel both store and release electrical power from and to the grid.


The 20-megawatt plant, where 20 3,000-pound flywheels spin in buried concrete silos, is a way of temporarily storing electricity when the grid has excess, so power can be reintroduced when needed. Such technology could someday help integrate more power from wind and solar systems into the electrical grid.


Each 7-foot-tall flywheel, which can spin up to 16,000 times a minute, has a motor that spins it when the grid has excess power, a process called "absorbing" power. When demand increases and the grid needs power, the flywheels can be switched to turn an electrical generator -- a process known as "ejecting" power -- to feed power into nearby transmission lines for New York State Electric and Gas.


On Tuesday, officials gathered at the Beacon Power plant on Grange Hall Road to kick off the $50 million project, which has been in full operation since early June. The Tyngsboro, Mass.-based company built the plant in less than two years and started partial operation in early January.


The computer-controlled flywheels react to signals every six seconds from the New York State Independent System Operator, which controls the grid, to absorb or eject power. Up till now, such adjustments were solely done by turning fossil-fuel fired power plants on and off.


The Beacon plant covers about 10 percent of such adjustments, which will prevent release of up to 12,000 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide each year. That's equal to saving 20,000 barrels of oil, or taking about 2,000 cars off the road.


Flywheel plants also will help the grid take on more power from wind and solar sources, which are intermittent and variable, said Steven Whitley, ISO president and CEO. "We are going to need more electrical storage and fast response like Beacon," he said. "Energy storage is critical to our future."


The idea has drawn interest from an Irish wind power developer, Dublin-based Gaelectric Group, said company CEO Brendan McGrath. The company, which develops wind projects in Ireland and Montana, uses compressed air to store energy from wind farms, but sees flywheels as a better alternative.


"We see this as an enabling technology to allow wind energy to remain on the electrical grid," McGrath said.


Suspended in magnetic chambers, where air has been removed to eliminate friction, the flywheels can spin down for several days before stopping, said Gene Hunt, Beacon communications director. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which provided a $2 million grant, sees the project as "innovation at its finest," said President and CEO Frank Murray.


Stephentown Supervisor Larry Eckhardt said the town welcomed the project, which is only several hundred yards from town offices. "There was some contention initially, about whether it would make a lot of noise," he said. "But it does not. We are proud to be part of this."


Also, the U.S. Department of Energy used federal stimulus money to support the project with a $43 million loan guarantee.


Reach Brian Nearing at 454-5094 or bnearing@timesunion.com