The Beacon 10 Stirling – black, with a glowing blue light, and about the size of a large chest freezer – emits a constant low hum. And this one, in the basement of the Essex Resort & Spa, converts natural gas into electricity, enough electricity to power an average-sized home.
It’s just one of the technological innovations on offer at NRG Energy, a national company that is about to use Vermont as a testing ground for its products and services.
The New England Independent System Operator (or ISO) has a seemingly simple job: to keep the lights on, and the power running. But behind this goal are the many hurdles of operating the region’s electric grid. Through the peaks of summer air-conditioning and winter cold snaps, the system must remain always ready for spikes in demand.
Solar and wind power are intermittent, and if enough of them are powering the grid, some kind of storage will be necessary. And storage means batteries, right?
Not necessarily. In Seabrook New Hampshire, a start-up is doing it with compressed air.
It’s pretty easy to see how energy stored as compressed air works: When you let go of a full balloon, it flies all around the room because of the energy stored inside. So if you use electricity to run an air compressor, you basically just need to find a way to run that compressor backwards to get electricity again.
America’s blackout boom—our national electric grid is badly in need of an upgrade, as power outages are seemingly becoming the norm, especially with the onset of extreme heat and increasingly inclement weather. This has many people wondering why the power industry seems to be lagging behind when it comes to innovations to keep the lights on, and how politics plays a part in stagnating investment into renewable energy and smarter grid infrastructure.