Batteries for Electric Utility Support

In Springfield Missouri, the local utility (Cities Utilities) and a battery manufacturer (NorthStar) are demonstrating how battery storage can help reinforce and extend the life of a substation in a growing area of the city. They are joining a movement in the utility industry to use batteries to defer costly system reinforcements.

The 1,140 installed 12-volt lead acid batteries will help smooth the substation’s load as the weather heats up, and allow it to postpone or perhaps eliminate the need for costly upgrades in an area where commercial and residential electric load growth is growing. NorthStar sells lead acid batteries around the world, largely for use in vehicles, cellphone towers and backup power systems.

This is NorthStar’s first foray into the utility energy storage market, confident the project will demonstrate that its batteries can play a role in managing the electric grid. This utility-business partnership has the support of clean energy advocates.

Batteries can be a very viable alternative to traditional reinforcements to utility substations, which often can involve additional distribution infrastructure or perhaps local generation. Batteries are relatively cheap, modular and can be deployed in months; and if necessary, even moved.

Tom cradles his legendary Nickel-Iron storage battery

Tom cradles his legendary Nickel-Iron storage battery


The utility/manufacturer team will closely monitor the $1 million, 1.1 MW battery system, especially as increasing summer temperatures impact the local grid served by the substation. Charging and discharging the batteries in a balanced manner is important to monitor and assess as well.

Why choose lead acid batteries? While lithium batteries are much lighter, can charge more quickly and generally have longer lifespans than lead batteries, they also require cobalt, a mineral with an escalating price and potential supply challenges in the future. And the lead in nearly all batteries is recycled. Recycling systems don’t yet exist for lithium batteries.

Can you envision Thomas Edison smiling down on all this, so visionary in his development of battery systems way back in the early 1900s! And don’t forget, our modern electric utility system stems directly back to old Tom and his central station concept and electric distribution system demo in New York City in 1882.

Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison Admires Molten Carbonate Fuel Cells as a “Killer App”

Fuel cells are both fascinating and highly promising. Edison actually tried his inventive hand at very early fuel cell technology— see a previous blog we published at www.edisonmuckers.org/fuel-cells-with-a-thomas-edison-connection/. Nationally, we first learned about fuel cells during the U.S. space missions of the 1960s where they were used in the Apollo moon landing vehicles [remember: “Houston we have a problem!”]. Today they are being touted as possible clean energy sources for our oil-addicted, and terribly polluting, internal combustion engines.

One of the special fuel cell technologies, known as molten carbonate fuel cells, is especially promising. Operating at high temperatures, this fuel cell can be used to recycle/capture carbon dioxide from power plants, and while doing so, generate clean electricity as well to supplement the output of the power plant it is attached to. Think of it as a gateway to carbon dioxide [and thus carbon itself] sequestration.

How a molten carbonate fuel cell works

How a molten carbonate fuel cell works

Think of a large coal-fired power plant or perhaps a natural gas-fired hybrid power plant that is producing electricity, and also pumping out carbon dioxide. What if it is possible to attach a piece of equipment to these power plants that literally filters out the carbon dioxide, stores it; and allows that carbon rich air stream to be used for the fuel cell to generate its own clean electrical power? People would salute that don’t you think-after all it’s a win-win for the earth’s air quality.

Carbon dioxide in the normal fuel cell’s operation is recycled because it plays an active part in the electrochemical process within the fuel cell. By breaking this recycling loop, the carbon dioxide can be concentrated, stored and used for other purposes; or perhaps injected into the ground. Fresh carbon dioxide would always be available as the operational fossil-fired power plant would generate it.

A molten carbonate fuel cell plant for use with an existing or new power plant

A molten carbonate fuel cell plant for use with an existing or new power plant

At the James M. Barry Electric Generating Station, operated by Southern Company, FuelCell Energy Inc. and ExxonMobil, working under Department of Energy agreements will host a test of fuel cell carbon capture technology. Typical existing carbon capture processes at power plants consume energy. This technology has the potential to increase electricity production, reduce costs and lead to a more economical method of large-scale carbon capture; and allow our nation to continue to use its vast coal and natural gas resources. Thomas Edison would applaud the fuel cell work done so far and anxiously await more progress!

Editor’s Deep Dive

Thomas Edison said, “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves …”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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Thomas Edison’s World Value

>Many people ask what was Edison’s value to the world. This is a popular question, especially among teachers and students.

Think first about what his four major inventions have done for our standards of living worldwide—recorded sound, motion pictures, electric light bulb and utility system, and R&D labs. Just these alone substantially changed our world. In 1996, Life magazine proclaimed him the “Man of the Millennium”. Let that sink in. That is the man of the last 1,000 years. Today is 2018. One-thousand years ago was 1018. What was the world and society like back then?

Thomas Edison’s legendary West Orange Labs where on 25 acres of land, 10,000 employees worked with the great inventor to change the world! Most of the buildings on the site were built using his special concrete.

Thomas Edison’s legendary West Orange Labs where on 25 acres of land, 10,000 employees worked with the great inventor to change the world! Most of the buildings on the site were built using his special concrete.

Thomas Edison died in 1931. His great inventions together represent 10% of the world’s gross national product; and since the world economy is about $60 trillion annually, Edison’s achievements today represent approximately $6 trillion worldwide. To further put this in perspective, the U.S. gross national product is about $20 trillion annually.

Consider what other economists have claimed about this man…..his achievements are probably responsible for one-fourth of all the current jobs on the planet. Since there now are about three billion jobs on planet Earth, that would mean 775,000,000 jobs are directly attributable to the genius of Edison and his system of turning raw ideas into marketable products. And there is the key….his system. Edison is the ultimate process guy, project manager extraordinaire, who reduces innovation to a series of simple steps, actually codifying the innovation process of the late 1800s into a technology-driven, team-based method of making new products. It does not matter which technology you chose to innovate upon, the steps are the same….a process for all time, as fresh today as at the inception of his invention factory (his early term for R&D labs).

Arguably the greatest building in the Thomas Edison pantheon, and to the world economy….the Edison invention factory….the first commercial R&D lab.

Arguably the greatest building in the Thomas Edison pantheon, and to the world economy….the Edison invention factory….the first commercial R&D lab.

This paradigm leads to commercial R&D Labs-which every major company in the world duplicates from Edison’s legendary West Orange Labs before he dies in 1931. It is copied at the federal level during World War II to counter the German U-boat threat; leads to the first national lab (U.S. Naval Research Lab), a model for the Manhattan Project during WWI and all the national labs that follow. Last year, the United States spent over $500 billion on research lab activity at all levels – private companies, academia, and federal labs.

In closing, consider how nationally the schools are revamping the middle school curricula to include studying what Thomas Edison did at West Orange. Students are investigating project design challenges using head and hands, and team-based activities to solve real-world problems. We call this curricula STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math; and it is sweeping the nation and world. Teachers know the value of STEM and they are coming in record numbers with their students to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park [TENHP] in West Orange to learn about it.

Inside the invention factory is what can be considered the “first maker-lab”, Edison’s heavy machine shop, where prototypes were made and later tested. Today our children through their STEM programs have maker labs to make their 3D prototypes.

Thomas Edison is as relevant to today as he was when he started changing the world. His principles for change are dynamic, and continue to inspire today and future generations of inventors and entrepreneurs. At TENHP we now reach out to schools around the world using advanced telecommunication techniques allowing students and teacher around the world to enjoy a guided tour of the invention factory from the comfort of their classrooms. Thomas Edison would love this!

Thomas Edison said, “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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