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The Wind Bank and the Battery
Geoff Manaugh, 2 Mar 07

When it was announced at the beginning of January that Australian researchers had developed a kind of wind battery – an "electricity storage system that promises to transform the role of wind energy" – I immediately thought of a scene from Virgil's Aeneid.

There, we read about a place called "Aeolia, the weather-breeding isle," where all the winds of the world are stored:

Here in a vast cavern King Aeolus
Rules the contending winds and moaning gales
As warden of their prison. Round the walls
They chafe and bluster underground. The din
Makes a great mountain murmur overhead.
High on a citadel enthroned,
Scepter in hand, he molifies their fury,
Else they might flay the sea and sweep away
Land masses and deep sky through empty air.
In fear of this, Jupiter hid them away
In caverns of black night. He set above them
Granite of high mountains – and a king
Empowered at command to rein them in
Or let them go. (Book 1, 75-89)
In other words, King Aeolus, "high on a citadel enthroned," ruler of these "contending winds and moaning gales," serves as a kind of literary precedent for the new wind bank project in western Australia.

Less abstractly, New Scientist explains how a local utility company on King Island, Australia, has "installed a mammoth rechargeable battery which ensures that as little wind energy as possible goes to waste":

When the wind is strong, the wind farm's turbines generate more electricity than the islanders need. The battery is there to soak up the excess and pump it out again on days when the wind fades and the turbines' output falls. The battery installation has almost halved the quantity of fuel burnt by the diesel generators, saving not only money but also at least 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
The battery works through an ingenious system of chemical mixture and separation. It is thus referred to as a "flow battery":
In the lead-acid batteries most commonly used, the chemicals that store the energy remain inside the battery. The difference with the installation on King Island is that when wind power is plentiful the energy-rich chemicals are pumped out of the battery and into storage tanks, allowing fresh chemicals in to soak up more charge. To regenerate the electricity the flow is simply reversed.
This bit of news, however, arrived at the same time as another wind-based story, in which we learned that offshore oil rigs on the coast of Texas are being retrofitted to act as gigantic windmills.

In other words, there is a plan now to "mount conventional windmills on decommissioned oil platforms," and then to anchor those platforms at sea, like artificial islands, where the planet's winds are at their strongest.

Combining these stories, though, I can't help but picture a suitably mythic vision of gigantic flow batteries, standing on iron strutworks and gantried legs, like some sci-fi sea-city on the Texas horizon, dispensing power to all those who visit them: a modernday version of Aeolia, in other words, the weather-breeding isle.

In any case, all of this takes a turn inland when we add yet another article, published last month in Metropolis. Metropolis introduces us to a man named Mark Oberholzer, who has proposed "integrating turbines into the barriers between highway lanes," which would thus "harness the wind generated by passing cars to create energy."

By tapping into an otherwise overlooked urban energy source, Oberholzer's plan transforms a space of pollution, waste, and indulgence – i.e. the modern highway system – into a place of energetic productivity.

Better yet, his system capitalizes not on already existing wind patterns, such as those roaring across the ocean waters of the world, but on inland breezes generated by human activity. His highway-based turbines thus exhibit an interesting, if problematic, symmetry when it comes to human-centered climate change: these devices rely upon the passage of automobiles, even as they generate an electrical supply that doesn't itself burn fossil fuels.

Returning to the Classical theme with which this post started, there is one aspect to all of this that perhaps even Homer himself would like to hear. I'm referring to the Anemoi, Greek gods of wind, each associated with one of four cardinal directions. There was Boreas, the north wind; Eurus, the east wind; Notus, the south wind; and Zephyr, the west wind.

To these, though, Oberholzer's highway project would seem to add a new wind, and another direction: the wind of Man and Cities, those agitated inland breezes from our architectural world, where constant motion now generates its own unruly weather.

An even larger symmetry opens up here, then, when we realize that Oberholzer's inland winds of highways and boulevards might yet be stored, years from now, in wind batteries like those on King Island, Australia.

In other words, these new winds of modernity – urban weather – would be welcomed back into the embrace of King Aeolus, tying the knot, joining those older breezes locked deep inside the isle of Aeolia, where their energy will be stored for another day.

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Mark Oberholzer proposal, although interesting, seems somewhat inefficient - and even dangerous. There is a reason why guard rails and barriers have such a name. They stop auto's from incurring catastrophic damage when veering off lane ways. If you ever drive down a freeway and count the dings in them, you will notice just how effective they are! Having a hole in that barrier with turbines isn't going to fly with any highway safety board.

Posted by: Jon on 2 Mar 07

Interesting article, but I have a mild suggestion: to be honest, it would be even more helpful to have less poetry and more details on the engineering behind this.

I like WorldChanging, not WorldPondering, if you know what I mean.

Posted by: Billy Bob Wild Boy on 2 Mar 07

The energy in the wind generated by passing automobiles is produced with gas in order to propel the car through the air. If a series of wind turbines were set up to extract this energy from the air, the automobile would have to burn more gas to travel at the same speed (since the pressure of the air being displaced would be increased by the presense of the wind turbines). This idea is like standing on a sailboat and blowing into the sail to make it go faster. Energy does not come for free. Remember what Newton said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - in this case the force of the car pushing on the air pushing on the turbine is balanced with the force of the turbine pushing on the air pushing on the car, and slowing it down!

Posted by: Will Sacks on 2 Mar 07

Billy Bob Wild Boy - There's a bit more engineering info in this chart, if you want to take a look.

Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 2 Mar 07

For those of you who can't access the New Scientist article (damn their subscriber's service!), the flow battery was a Vanadium flow battery designed by Maria Skyllas-Kazacos in the 1980's. Both VRB Power Systems and Pinnacle VRB are marketing them. There's description of the battery at Vanadium 5+ ions in liquid are converted by wind powered electricity to vanadium 2+ ions which can then be pumped into a reserve chamber (if electricity is needed later) while more vanadium 5+ is let into the system. And if your windmill generates more power than with which you know what to do, you can always add another storage tank of vanadium. And so on ad finitum. Vanadium is supposedly a "greener" metal than the more toxic lead and cadmium used in current storage batteries. And because you can add tanks, you can have tiny household batteries for a farm or larger power station sized batteries. Maybe they can replace current car batteries.

A letter from Erik Spek appeared in New Scientist three weeks later outlining three other forms of flow batteries which can store excess power. They are the nickel-cadmium battery in Alaska, over a hundred "sodium-sulphur systems" in Japan and a pilot sodium-nickel-chloride battery in Ontario, Canada.

Posted by: thatphil on 2 Mar 07

Will, not true in this case. The pressure exerted on the barriers as the cars pass will be the same whether they are pushing on solid barriers or ones that have wind turbines in the middle. The energy that would otherwise be wasted pushing on the solid barrier (where it is just absorbed) instead is converted into electricity. No extra fuel would be needed.

However, this idea will not "fly" as Jon said. Those solid concrete barriers need to be... solid concrete barriers. They are designed to absorb some of the impact due to their mass (mass that would be lost if you put a turbine in the middle) and then direct the rest of the energy upward (which also wouldn't happen if a turbine was where concrete should be). That's why they are shaped the way they are - lots of tests came up with that shape, which tends to keep the vehicle within the confines of the barrier instead of going through it or over it. Useful between opposing traffic where you don't want an 18-wheeler ending up facing oncoming traffic, and on high bridges where the fall would be just as tragic.

The turbine idea would work, though, if you had several feet of room between the barriers on each side of the road and installed helical turbines on top; they probably would have to be vertical. The movement in both directions would quickly bring it up to full speed.

Posted by: Doug on 2 Mar 07

Hi Geoff,

Great Article, the battery for wind generators could convince a lot of people who actually stops on the "intermittence" aspect.
Do you have an idea of the ratio of electricity returned back by the battery system ? 80 % would be really great :-D
Do you have numbers about the cost of the "wind generator + battery " system compared with the "wind generator only" system ?

Keep on the good work ;-)

Posted by: litteuldav on 2 Mar 07

reclaiming energy in the wake of cars is secondary. reducing the vehicle's weight, increasing engine efficiency, and recapturing energy lost in braking are more productive. trip coordination and systematic home delivery of goods is more productive. using modern cars to do any work at all is not good.

Posted by: hibiscus on 2 Mar 07

Makes me think about generating energy from...say...the turnstiles from the NYC subway...or all the other turnstiles in the world.

Actually, now that I think about it...seriously, if anyone wants to try this - let me know.

Could, at least, be a fun art piece.

Posted by: Erik Lindquist on 2 Mar 07

yes, 80%, according to this. which is not an expert site.

Posted by: hibiscus on 2 Mar 07

There is a place for the use of storage systems such as the flow batteries mentioned here to facilitate the use of variable sources such as wind into power systems. That place is when the penetration of such sources is very high and/or the alternatives to them are very expensive. For the foreseeable future that means isolated systems such as King Island. For the very large majority of wind power supplied (through large interconnected systems) storage is unnecessary and indeed can be a barrier: if the perception is that storage is required before wind can be allowed onto the system, this will impede deployment. This has happened in Japan, where a misplaced insistence on the need for storage by the Ministry Of Enterprise, Trade and Industry has hindered development - when the target they have is for a rather measly 1.35% of the country's power from wind by 2010.

The reason storage is not required is that wind power's variability can be managed through changes to the running of reserve dispatchable power plants, plus some investment in new reserve capacity as penetrations rise - up to at least the 20% level (and quite possibly considerably more). This truth is admirably (if lengthily) set out in the UK Energy Research Centre's report on this matter ( It will be a long time before penetration levels are high enough for storage to be anywhere near necessary.

Consideration of the economics of power storage also indicates why it will be a niche activity for some time. The storage system itself is expensive, so it has to generate considerable revenue to pay for itself. It also has to cover the losses in the charge/discharge cycle. The differential between the cost of buying the power going into the storage system and what you can sell it for therefore has to be significant: as a commodity, electricity is generally cheap, and the difference between times of power surplus and peak demands is not significant enough to cover losses and repay the investment. Also, unless wind penetration is very high, the times where there is a surplus that might need to be stored are actually pretty rare. So you'd be investing in an expensive piece of kit, which wouldn't be used very much, and when it was you wouldn't make much money. Cue ejection from the board meeting considering your investment plan.

As I said, isolated systems can benefit from storage, especially where you are displacing expensive diesel. These niches are significant enough for the development of the technology to take place, so when it might be generally necessary a few decades down the line, it's ready to go. Before then, it's important not to go overboard on it.

Posted by: Doctor Edge on 2 Mar 07

"Energy does not come for free. Remember what Newton said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - in this case the force of the car pushing on the air pushing on the turbine is balanced with the force of the turbine pushing on the air pushing on the car, and slowing it down!"

The turbine is not on the car. It is capturing waste energy that the car emits when it does work on the air around it. There is no free energy here--the car is still burning gas.

What this system represents is a possible way to increase the efficiency of a gasoline-burning car. There is still a net loss of energy. We're just capturing more of it before it bleeds away entirely into the environment.

Posted by: Bolo on 2 Mar 07

I thought Worldchanging was about cleverly designed New-Urbanist eco-cities that "discovered nega-barrels", not became hooked on mega-barrels. The idea of building batteries of wind-power relying on... THE CAR (cough, splutter, there, said it without passing out)... just fills me with alarm.

1. Peak oil is just about here
2. Nothing is ready to scale up to the same volumes as oil to keep those highways busy
3. Equals a wasted energy investment when we need to be incredibly efficient and careful with our energy investments!

With that warning, I thoroughly recommend oil platforms being converted from their former monstrous purposes into fantastic green energy sources. Now that's a clever — if ironic — energy investment!

I love the King Island wind farms and battery system — but remember there are some wind systems that don't need batteries. Go the Solar Updraft Tower!

:-) :-) :-)

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 2 Mar 07

This was said above:
The energy in the wind generated by passing automobiles is produced with gas in order to propel the car through the air. If a series of wind turbines were set up to extract this energy from the air, the automobile would have to burn more gas to travel at the same speed (since the pressure of the air being displaced would be increased by the presense of the wind turbines).

THis is only true if the turbines were designed incorrectly. If done properly, the wind would turn the turbine and exit vertically and not effect the laminar/pressure region of the moving vehicle.


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Posted by: robert veach on 2 Mar 07

Thanks, Robert - Though we don't normally accept advertisements such as that, good luck with the company and thanks for your thoughts.

And as far as generating electricity from the turnstiles of the New York subway goes - I'm in. Sounds awesome. Keep me posted!

Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 2 Mar 07

The only thing I don't like about wind turbines is that they pose a real threat to birds.

Posted by: Craig on 3 Mar 07

In response to the concern regarding windmills and birds, I know that one of the pioneering wind generator firms, Invenergy LLC, is working with nature groups in the design and placement of their generators.
Which is not to say that all such problems have been solved, but at least there is less of a disconnect between this energy producer and environmental groups than with say major coal-burning power plants and the American Lung Association, just for example.

This disconnection between involved parties is a huge impediment to change, obviously. It's understood that involved parties have dramatically different agendas, but maybe they sometimes have more things in common than they realize. Real initiative on this front may be as important as new technological green breakthroughs. It was good to see this dialogue with environmental groups by the firm buying out the Texas power plants.

And when you consider any energy source's environmental impact, you have to balance it against the other alternatives we have available. Coal? Nuclear? Wind? Turn off all the lights? Anyway...

Posted by: Steven Hult on 18 Mar 07



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