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Waste not, want not

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Junior Isles, Managing Editor

My mother would always say: “waste not, want not,” usually meaning ‘if you don’t waste your dinner now, you won’t be hungry later’. To this day, I hate wastefulness of any kind.

Electricity wastage and its impact on power generation and the environment, ended up being the subject of what started as a casual conversation at Power-Gen Europe in Helsinki.

Anthony Price, of Innogy Technology Ventures Ltd (part of National Power), and I were discussing energy storage, its benefits and the challenges of penetrating an industry which can be a strange mix of conservatism and dynamism.

We agreed there would always be a need for primary generation although there is a logical argument that many of the strategic small or mid-sized peaking plant could be replaced by storage in one form or another. There is certainly a case for this in the US, which has seen the addition of such plant to combat excessive peak demand. Other good examples of incorporating energy storage as part of system capacity planning can be found in China and Japan where pumped storage hydro plants are used to ensure large coal and nuclear plants are used efficiently.

Our conversation soon swung around to the possibility of energy storage forming part of a strategy to help reduce global emissions. For example, in a small generating system based on diesel generators, the real source of emissions is a result of the generators being run up and down over the course of the day. If these could be run at their most efficient operating point and the system modulated on a battery, for example, thousands of tons of diesel could be saved per year.

I am no “tree hugger” but we all have a responsibility to the environment and applications like these make a lot of sense.

There will be natural barriers, however, to the newer energy storage systems being developed by the likes of Innogy and American Superconductor. There will always be those who would rather go down the ‘safer’ road of adding conventional generating capacity.

A few years ago fuel cells faced similar problems, now there is no shortage of believers. Manufacturers are putting money behind them and utilities are making plans for how they will role them out when they are commercially available on a wide scale. Yet utilities have no such plans for newer fuel cell- or superconductor-based energy storage systems. Such systems could be placed at the customer, substation or power station.

Part of the problem is that the technology cuts across generation and transmission issues. As Mr Price pointed out: “The ‘Chinese Wall’ that regulators have put between generation and transmission [planners] make it difficult for someone offering an energy system to speak to the right person. But once you do get through, you can demonstrate that the technology offers both commercial and environmental advantages.”

Fuel cells, energy storage systems and other strategies to preserve our environment are all very well but the true problem is the mindset that most individuals in the West have when it comes to electricity usage. As my colleague pointed out, in the overall scheme of our lifestyles electricity is too cheap and is largely ignored in small quantities.

How often do you leave a mobile phone charger plugged into the wall and leave it switched on? It may be a small amount of power but it is, nevertheless, being wasted on simply warming a transformer. TV set-top boxes i.e. for digital or cable TV which constantly remain in standby mode are another example of wasted watts.

In an individual household, this total of, say, 50-100 watts may seem insignificant but when multiplied by 50 million people it is equivalent to a small power plant and all the environmental impacts that go with it.

Some weeks after our conversation I was reminded of how much I hate waste when a ‘fine’ for late payment of tax dropped through my door. The fine was

It prompted me to call Mr Price to recap on our conversation. This time, at the end of the conversation I looked at my desk and turned off the power which was was being wasted to ‘charge’ an already fully charged Palm Pilot. Mr Price made a lot of sense; so did my mother.