Renewables Are Not Such a Special Case
Our friends at CleanTechnica have a very interesting piece about coal and wind power storage. It reminds us that coal alone is not enough to generate base-load (always on) power; you also need billions and billions of dollars worth of railroads to keep the coal flowing to coal plants, with a coal train needed every 12 hours on average. Coal might be relatively cheap and energy-dense, but without the massive investments into distribution and storage over decades, it would never have become dominant. Renewable sources of energy are now at that stage...
Clean Energy Needs a New Kind of Distribution and Storage
Today the specifics are different, but the principle is the same: We need ways to distribute intermittent clean energy from where it is produced to where it will be used, and we need to be able to store it for later use when the sun doesn't shine or wind doesn't blow.
The global recession is not making things easy on the distribution side (building transport lines is expensive, as T. Boone Pickens found out), but the general trend is in the right direction with many companies and governments investing into new transport lines and a smart grid infrastructure.
Storage is trickier, and possibly even more expensive than distribution. Many proposals are on the table, such as combining wind power with hydro power (Norway is looking into this, for example), or storing energy by burying compressed air underground, or by creating hydrogen via electrolysis, or by storing it into the batteries of electric cars and plug-in hybrids. On the solar front, solar thermal can store heat (usually in the form of molten salts) to be used when the sun doesn't shine. Maybe breakthroughs in battery or hypercapacitor tech will also come to the rescue.
So yes, all of this will be very expensive. But we should remember that coal also once had a distribution and storage problem.
Photo: Wikipedia, CC
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