It makes trees sway, forms waves on water and drives wind turbines.
For the most part, people do not think of air as a storage medium.
Ask a mechanic, painter or a trucker — they are very familiar with doing useful work using air pressure, but to the average person air is something we breathe, fly through or just complain about.
In the never-ending quest for reliable energy storage mediums, inventive minds have conceived a technology that uses air to store electrical power.
Compressed air provides the motive force for air wrenches, paint guns and air brake actuators.
Building on this concept, companies around the world are compressing air in large volumes, either in tanks, bags or in huge underground storage caverns.
This compressed air energy storage (CAES) system provides a means for supplementing electrical output during peak periods of demand or of modulating alternate energy output.
Canada’s electrical grid relies on additional generation capabilities during those times of day when demand peaks.
With a CAES system, energy that is stored during periods of low demand would be utilized and released back into the grid without the need for additional fuel to be consumed by cycling the power plant back on line.
Alternate types of electrical energy generation, which only produce at Mother Nature’s whim, benefit from compressed energy storage releasing power when needed to provide around-the-clock and peak-period power generation.
Storage facilities, based on the design requirements of the customer, can range from a collection of high-pressure tanks, underground caverns or porous rock reservoirs, to large “plastic bags” tethered to the floor of oceans or lakes; all specifically developed for CAES applications.
As much as this approach seems like an advent of the modern era, in fact compressed air energy storage systems have been around for well over 140 years.
Systems have been in place in Paris, Dresden and Buenos Aries, since the 1870s.
Paris had a 2.2 MW system in place in 1896 for running motors in light and heavy industry.
The first utility-scaled system using a salt dome cavern was built in Huntorf, Germany, in 1978 with a generation capability of some 290 megawatts.
It has since been expanded to include the cyclic output of a wind farm.
Subsequently, from that time, there have been more plants built in Germany, Texas, California, New York and Alabama.
In the U.K. and Canada, companies are working on creating more efficient equipment and developing technologies for novel compressed air storage systems making the technology available to a wider variety of end users.
Modern advances and materials are making CAES rival battery banks in efficiencies, and they surpass batteries with an obvious low environmental impact.
It may have taken more than 100 years to develop the scale we now see, but the air we breathe is being harvested as a storage medium for energy that is environmentally benign, can greatly augment our efforts to reduce hydrocarbon consumption, and minimizes our carbon footprint.
Lorne Oja is an energy consultant, power engineer and a partner in a company that installs solar panels, wind turbines and energy control products in Central Alberta. He built his first off-grid home in 2003. His column appears every second Friday in the Advocate. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.