|Image credit: Advanced Rail Energy Storage North America|
First, the headline numbers: ARES claims that their technology allows storage facilities of from 200 MWh of energy that can be delivered at a rate of 100 MW (i.e., it can run at full power for two hours) to 16-24 GWh that can be delivered at a rate of 2-3 GW (i.e., it can run at full power for eight hours). It's claimed to have a round trip efficiency of 80% (or 85%, depending on which interviewee you're listening to). The claimed ramp-up time is on the order of 8 seconds, dramatically better than any fossil fuel plant or pumped or stored hyrdro system, the only storage system to better that number is electrochemical (battery) storage. Finally, ARES says that the cost of an Advanced Rail Energy Storage facility is about 60% of that of an equivalent pumped hydro installation. All this sounds pretty good.
OK, what actually happens? During times of plentiful generation by intermittent generators or of low electrical prices if arbitrage is the name of the game, rail cars full of rocks are transported by rail up inclines via axle mounted motor generators on the cars. Unfortunately, their technical page has scant information regarding the specifics of the system, that information must be gleaned from other articles.
Nevertheless, we can see that ARES envisions three classes of system:
- Ancillary services: The system is used as a Limited Energy Storage Resource (LESR) for frequency stabilization, spinning reserves, VAR (volt ampere reactive) support, etc.
- Intermediate scale: The system is used for ancillary services as above, as well as for short duration storage to facilitate intermittent generation integration. Such a system is envisioned as capable of delivering 50 to 200 MW and having a two hour capacity.
- Grid scale storage as described above, with 200 MW to 3GW delivery for up to 16 hours.
While the system cannot compete with pumped hydro for systems requiring days of storage, it is far less complex to construct and appropriate siting is dramatically easier to locate, and should be far easier to shepherd through the myriad review and permitting processes. And many systems don't require several days of storage. William Peitzke, ARES Founder and Director of Technology Development is quoted as saying "Generally, the market for storage tends to be an 8 hour requirement and in fact a lot of the utilities we talk with really only require five to six hours of discharge.”
|Image credit: ARES|
The cars carry a mass consisting of concrete and rock, and utilize electric traction motors to lift the masses up inclines. The same motors then act as generators when descending. Complex, automated control systems enable quick adjustments to suit system requirements, and the system can have some cars ascending while others descend. Scale can be increased simply by adding more mass. Energy is received and delivered via electrified rails. The cars themselves are modified ore cars. ARES holds patents on the system, but the individual components and systems are mature technologies with no technological breakthroughs needed.
ARES has constructed a pilot system in Tehachapi at about 1:3.75 scale (see photo at right) but, according to various reports, in Pahrump, Nevada, the Valley Electric Association has agreed to work with ARES to implement a 50 MW system. The projected cost is $40M. The objective is actually to accomplish frequency stabilization for the California ISO (Independent System Operator, known as "Cal-ISO"). The planned system would use 34 cars on a 9.2 km track with approximately a 7% incline. The difference in elevation between the top and bottom will be approximately 640 meters. Each shuttle will transport a mass of 230 tons (209 tonnes). A quick calculation [(34 cars)*(209 tonnes)*(1000 kg/ton)*(9.8 m/s)*(640 meters)*(80%)/(3.6*10^9 joules/MWh)] shows that this system may be able to store and deliver a maximum of just under 10 MWh. However, this is an "Ancillary Services" installation and thus not designed for primary purpose of storage per se, but rather for the regulation goals mentioned above. Unfortunately, I'm not able to find recent information on progress to date. The Valley Electric Association web site is silent on ARES with the exception of a pdf magazine from October of 2014.
|Image credit: www.gearedsteam.com|
I'd not go so far as to say that rail energy storage is the silver bullet for solving the integration of intermittent renewables into the grid, but it certainly seems to have significant benefits and few drawbacks, assuming that it hasn't jumped the track.
Update: A great set of photos of the pilot project in Tehachapi can be found at gizmag.