Compressed-Air Startup to Inflate Utility Power Generation

When it comes to renewable energy, there’s the valid question: “But what do you do when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow?” A new joint venture, launched with $20 million, thinks it has an answer – compressed air. Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., owner of New Jersey’s largest utility, has formed Energy Storage and Power with inventor Michael Nakhamkin which will develop and market compressed-air energy storage systems. PSEG will spend $20 million over the venture’s first three years, with the option to invest more should customers start picking up projects, PSEG tells us.

The idea of compressed-air energy storage isn’t new, but cheap and plentiful energy has precluded much research. The low-tech explanation goes like this: excess energy from a power plant is used to run air compressors, which pump air into an underground cave, where it is stored under pressure. When released, the air powers a turbine, creating electricity. The initial energy used to force the air underground can come from wind, solar, nuclear or any source.

The technology could also help utilities meet their peak demand by collecting energy from wind farms, which generate most of their power at night, or by storing excess energy from nuclear plants, which are hard to power up and down. Energy Storage and Power plans to market and license its technology to electric utility companies, independent power producers, wind developers and transmission owners. The company hopes to start deploying its technology within 5 to 10 years.

An earlier version of Nakhamkin’s design is already in use at a 110-megawatt natural gas power plant in Alabama, showing that the technology is viable. And Energy Storage and Power isn’t alone. The Department of Energy, Sandia National Labs, and several Midwestern utilities are already at work designing a compressed air storage system for a plant in Iowa scheduled for completion by 2012.

Images courtesy of Energy Storage and Power.