LightSail’s Mission to Cut Costs of Compressed Air Energy Storage

by Katy Schaefer

LightSail, an energy storage company based out of Berkeley California, is attempting to change the way we approach energy conservation. Not only is the method dramatically more efficient, but the costs that have the potential to be cut is game changing. Lightsail’s aim is to create a more economical storage system through compressing air to create heat energy, which before was just wasted energy. It seems that there is something to their system, as some of the country’s most prominent tech billionaires have backed the plan. Unfortunately LightSail and its leader, Danielle Fong, the 27 year old co-founder and chief scientist, are not releasing the details of the plan just yet. However, here’s what we do know.

The first thing that stands out about her plan is a cost comparison between LightSail’s current battery technology and the version they are developing now. The most prominent feature of this is the significant drop in capital costs. Fong would not reveal the details of how they had reduced costs to dramatically when she was asked about it at an event hosted by The Atlantic magazine in San Francisco. What she did say was “One way to think about how we’re storing power — storing energy — in compressed air with the water spray is that we’re storing both pressure, and we’re storing heat. We can change those proportions.” Although Fong declined to give more detail as to how changing those proportions could change the cost so dramatically, she did point to a 2x cost decrease in carbon fiber costs and improvements in the economics of of the engines that convert compressed air to electrical energy.

We also know that despite the cryptic answers, there are those who believe in the system. LightSail has raised more than $42 million from the likes of Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, and Innovacorp to name a few. It seems that what sets this system apart form the rest of the worlds leaders, and why so many of these energy giants find it worth investing in, is the fact that this system doesn’t rely on underground caverns as a storage medium. In fact, it is the only compressed air energy system (CAES) that doesnt. The only competitor LightSail had was Sustainx, but they abandoned their plans for an above ground CAES startup when they merged with General Compression, a startup using underground caverns.

So how is LightSail making aboveground storage possible? They are claiming that it’s all in the tanks. The ones they have been using are made out of spun carbon fiber while most other companies continue to use traditional steel tanks. They also claim that they have come up with a way to not only capture, but store mechanical and thermal energy by injecting a cool water mist into the compression chamber as the air is compressed, thereby capturing the heat that is generated as air is compressed. When the pressurized air is released into the system again, the heated water is re-infused into it, allowing the heated air to return more energy.

We also know that Fong’s design has real competition. It places itself in contrast to all other battery designs “including lithium-ion, advanced lead-acid, sodium sulfur, aqueous zinc and flow batteries. Companies ranging from Tesla to AES Energy Storage are seeking to prove cost-effectiveness for applications ranging from short-duration grid frequency regulation and building demand management, to multi-hour energy shifting to support a more renewables-rich energy system.” Unfortunately, due to a small number of layoffs, the company missed its official commercial launch time. Additionally, we know that Fong’s design has real competition. It places itself in contrast to all other battery designs “including lithium-ion, advanced lead-acid, sodium sulfur, aqueous zinc and flow batteries. Companies ranging from Tesla to AES Energy Storage are seeking to prove cost-effectiveness for applications ranging from short-duration grid frequency regulation and building demand management, to multi-hour energy shifting to support a more renewables-rich energy system.” Unfortunately, due to a small number of layoffs, the company missed its official commercial launch time.

On the other hand, one could think of these companies as working together towards a common goal. They are all working at making renewable energy and energy storage more feasible on a large scale. If the world is going to move away from fossil fuels and fossil fuel powered power plants it will need to happen in the next decade and a half, and in order to do that, we will need all the energy originality we can get.

 

LINKS: http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/LightSails-Secret-Plan-to-Slash-the-Costs-of-Compressed-Air-Energy-Storage

http://www.lightsail.com/

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