GE's transportation department began a huge R&D effort in 2009 to develop nickel-salt batteries for a host of applications, with a plan to first put them in hybrid locomotives, but it looks like renewable energy power storage came calling first. GE is partnering with Arista Power to use its Durathon batteries to help integrate wind and solar power into the grid with smart grid technology.
Wind farms in Hawaii, Texas and Alaska have added battery storage to their operations, and while still not common practice, it does seem to be gaining some traction. The large-scale battery systems store power to be tapped later when the wind dies down. That stored power helps to smooth out the delivery of wind power to the grid, which, without a back-up, can be inconsistent. Battery storage for solar farms is a lot less common simply because of the added cost, but the benefits are the same as with a wind farm -- during the night and cloudy days, the back-up power allows a continual feed of power to the grid.
This new partnership will link GE's batteries and Arista's demand monitoring technology to renewable energy projects. This system could have applications both large and small. Utilities and wind farms could communicate to ease the delivery of wind power to the grid or private renewable energy installations like a solar array at a college or data center could use the technology to balance supply with facility demand, with the batteries providing back-up in either scenario. The battery power could also be tapped by facilities during peak power pricing to help lower electricity bills.
GE brings something new to this arena with its nickel-salt batteries, otherwise known as sodium nickel chloride batteries. Other companies that have developed batteries for grid power storage use lithium ion, which have to be scaled up quite large for this purpose, or sodium sulfur batteries, which run very hot and carry with them a fire risk. According to GE, its battery technology is smaller and lighter than the competition, resistant to extreme temperatures, recyclable, have a 20-year life span and don't require cooling and only minimal maintenance.
Beyond the benefits of the technology itself, having a big player like GE entering the world of large-scale battery storage could help open up the market and encourage more utilities and facilities to install renewable energy projects if they know there is a reliable back-up option.