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Monday, August 25, 2014

Any company that spins big heavy stuff, floating inside a vacuum, is OK by me

David Brooks

Producing electricity used to be a pretty boring operation. Huge, expensive, vital – but kind of dull.

Not any more, not since renewable technologies and environmental concerns started upending the old utility model. Case in point: The reborn Beacon Power company in Tyngsborough, just south of the Hudson line. ...

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Producing electricity used to be a pretty boring operation. Huge, expensive, vital – but kind of dull.

Not any more, not since renewable technologies and environmental concerns started upending the old utility model. Case in point: The reborn Beacon Power company in Tyngsborough, just south of the Hudson line.

Beacon Power died a fiery financial death in 2011 while trying to commercialize the idea of making carbon-fiber flywheels spin really fast while floating in a vacuum, but it’s back to life now, bigger than ever, with two utility-scale plants using its crazy-sounding technology.

Fun!

Now, I have to admit that the rebirth is due to pretty dull reasons rather than something fun like, say, making the flywheels spin in five-dimensional space. One of those is time.

“The technology has been very good for a long time. ... What has really changed in the last couple of years is that we built up a much longer operating track record,” said CEO Barry Brits in a telephone interview Tuesday.

The other reasons are money – a new owner, Rockland Capital, turned it into an LLC and has invested millions – and federal regulations that made frequency regulation more valuable as the power grid tries to adjust to the new reality. Ho hum.

Happily, Beacon Power’s non-boring stuff remains non-boring.

I first visited Beacon Power in 2008 at its plant on Route 3A, where it does most assembly and manufacturing of those giant flywheel units.

Those units are cylindrical cabinets about the size of a porta-potty (not an image that the company embraces, I think).

Inside, carbon fiber flywheels weighing hundreds of pounds spin on a vertical axis at speeds up to 16,000 revolutions per minute, suspended by magnetic bearings in a vacuum.

The flywheels store energy: electricity flows into the cabinet to get them spinning, and the wheel’s impetus can generate the electricity back out on command.

This isn’t original. Using heavy disks to store energy, although not always in the form of electricity, is a very old idea: think of a potter’s wheel.

What Beacon Power’s founders did was goose the idea with composite carbon fiber – which is heavy, and thus can store a lot of energy, but very strong, so it’s less likely to fly apart at high revolutions – and modern electronics, allowing near-instantaneous charging and discharging.

These units don’t perform long-term energy storage, like your car’s battery or a dammed hydropower lake. They are designed to absorb and provide short bursts of electricity (“fast ramping rates” in power lingo) to keep the grid running smoothly, increasingly necessary due to the complexities of renewable energy as compared to fossil-fuel plants.

“Energy storage devices is a very interesting and exciting technology, but it’s really the interface between that device and the power grid or the system that makes the significant difference from a customer point of view,” he said. “We’re developing the power control module that interfaces between those two and makes it easier to integrate the storage technology.”

Most importantly, these units are modular. They can be hooked together to create facilities of almost any size, from 100 kilowatts for a single company to megawatts (1,000 kilowatts) for utilities.

The firm’s initial plant in Stephentown, N.Y., and the just-opened plant in Hazel Township, Pa., each has 200 flywheel units, providing 20 megawatts of frequency regulation. The company’s plan is to have a 40-MW plant by 2015.

Modularity also increases reliability, Brits said.

“When one comes down another can come up. There’s a lot of redundancy and excess capacity built in, so we get 24/7 reliability,” he said.

Beacon Power is also part of the debate about federal support for alternative energy. It received $43 million Department of Energy loan in 2010 to build its New York plant but still went bankrupt. Since rebirth, the federal loan was written down from the unpaid $39 million to $25 million and seems likely to be repaid as the technology meets the marketplace.

“In the past it’s really been the technology trying to push and say we’re here, we’re ready, with some regulatory push. What’s happening now is we’re seeing real demand needs, and customers needing and wanting this kind of technology,” said Brits.

Part of that need involves microgrids, islands of power within the grid. Beacon Power says it can help adjust as needed if, say, a hurricane knocks out everybody’s electricity. The firm is also looking outside the U.S., to parts of the words where the power grid is less stable and so frequency regulation is more needed.

Beacon Power has about 65 people working in Tyngsborough, where it still has room to grow.

“At least half are still R&D engineers. There’s also production engineering, design work, sales and marketing,” said Brits.

Good jobs, interesting work – also very non-boring.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).