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TEHACHAPI, CA - It's the story of the little train that could....one day provide a jolt to California's renewable energy industry.
One major drawback to wind and solar energy, is that it's not available on a 24-7 basis. You're at the mercy of the wind and the sun.
But, what if you could store wind and solar power in a rail yard and use the power of gravity to unleash it when needed? That concept has now been proven on a set of tracks in the Tehachapi mountains.
That's where we found a remotely controlled rail car, carrying a four-ton concrete pad, quietly uphill. The electric motors inside the vehicle turning the wheels, are powered by a diesel generator. It's using electricity to go uphill, but when it comes back down, the motors become generators themselves and the vehicle produces electricity.
According to energy entrepreneur Bill Peitzke, an induction motor and generator are the same physical piece of equipment operated in reverse. When you apply power to it, it's a motor. If you turn it against the load, it can be a generator.
This is the proving ground for a new technology called Advanced Rail Energy Storage or "ARES."
Developed over the last three years by Bill Peitzke and engineer Matt Brown, ARES is designed to fulfill a crucial role in the renewable energy industry: energy storage, enabling green energy to be grid ready, even when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining.
"These sources are all very intermittent and need a component of storage to allow the grid to operate more reliably," Peitzke said.
For centuries, the best way to store energy and then produce it has been hydro-electric power plants, using the power of falling water and gravity.
But, for environmental and other reasons the west's appetite for new hydro-power projects has declined.
But, what if you used gravity to pull heavy loads down a railroad track to return stored electricity to the power grid?
Peitzke and Brown have integrated locomotive and other technologies to create rail energy storage. This pilot project in Tehachapi has been peer reviewed. The technology developed by Peitzke and Brown was recently patented by the U.S. government. They say ARES could unlock the full potential of green power.
"People have called it the holy grail and they've been searching for it for decades, and now we think we've found it," said engineer Matt Brown.
Here's how a utility-scale ARES project would work. Multiple railroad tracks, stretching some four miles uphill. During periods where excess energy from a wind farm or solar power facility is available, a fleet of traction-drive shuttle trains, operating on a closed rail network, transport concrete boxes full of rock...230 tons each....uphill, against the force of gravity, to a storage yard, climbing some 3,000 feet in elevation.
The boxes are off loaded and the rail cars return to the bottom of the hill. When the winds are calm or the sun isn't shining, but there's still demand for electricity, the process is reversed. The shuttle trains, pulled by the force of gravity, return the boxes to the lower storage yard, their motors operating as generators, creating electricity which is transmitted from the railroad tracks to the power grid.
"We don't create electricity. We store electricity, actually we use more electricity than we store. We're like a battery. We return about 85 percent of the energy we're given to store, but it's the most efficient way to store energy in the world."
With zero emissions and a relatively small environmental footprint, Peitzke says energy storage facilities could help to further wean the world from fossil fuels.
"Being able to deploy efficient, cost effective grid-scale storage technology that doesn't rely on water and has multiple siting opportunities, a less complicated permitting and regulatory review process is really the holy grail because it allows for everything that comes after it," Peitzke said.
So, what are industry insiders saying about ARES?
We reached out to wind power pioneer, Jim Dehlsen who founded Zond Corporation in 1980 and built some of the first wind turbines in Kern County. He says the rail-based energy storage concept is right on track in making renewable energy more reliable and less intermittent, stabilizing the power grid and reducing the chances for cascading events that lead to blackouts.
"I think they've done an excellent job. The engineering is very good. They've got a patent and that's what investors like to see. There's really no "black box" involved. It's more thinking about things that are out there now and putting it together in an intelligent way and being able to deploy fairly quickly. That's the genius in this deal," said Dehlsen.
Peitzke and Brown have won over other industry insiders. In fact, they've begun the permitting process to build their first grid-scale 50-megawatt energy storage facility in Nye County, Nevada.
Conceivably, energy storage systems could become force multipliers for wind and solar power plants, expanding their generating capacity across the southwestern U.S.