NY electric plant nearly grid-ready

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article originally gave a wrong date for the opening ceremony of the New York plant. It is July 12, not June 12.


TYNGSBOROUGH, Mass. – How does a company know that its industry is truly on the cutting edge? Here’s a hint: National regulations are being rewritten to accommodate it.

“We’re neither fish nor fowl, so market rules had to be expanded to recognize this new category,” said Gene Hunt, spokesman for Beacon Power.

The Tyngsborough-based company makes energy storage systems that use spinning flywheels, each a 2,800-pound cylinder made of composite material levitated by magnets, to capture and release large amounts of electricity very quickly. The company’s first industrial-grade plant, a 20-megawatt facility in New York state, will be in full operation later this month.

The facility provides what is known as frequency regulation to help the regional power grid operate better. This is a valuable service that is becoming more necessary as wind and solar power, with their variable outputs, connect to the grid.

Frequency regulation is traditionally done by various power-generating units, which get paid per-kilowatt rates set by utility regulators.

However, generators take longer to get up to speed than flywheel units and can’t absorb excess power.

“We respond in four seconds, and a generator responds in five minutes, yet we’re paid the same. Wouldn’t it be fair if we were paid more?” said Hunt.

Later this year, they may be.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has published a notice that it plans to institute a new “pay for performance” rule for energy storage for frequency regulation, which would compensate operators not just for the amount of power they put on the grid on command, as has long been the case, but also for the speed at which they do it.

Hunt says this could double or triple Beacon Power’s compensation for running the new plant, giving the still-growing company a boost.

Beacon Power is developing a similar grid-stabilizing power storage facility in eastern Pennsylvania that it hopes to have online in 2012. It is talking with other utilities, including some overseas (which would require switching from 60 hertz to 50 hertz, an added complication) about more facilities.

The plant in Stephentown, N.Y., near the Massachusetts line, should make sales easier.

“Now we can actually give (prospective clients) a tour,” Hunt said.

The company has about 75 employees in Tyngsborough who assemble the power-storage units, known as Smart Energy 25, from components manufactured elsewhere, and test them.

Hunt said the company has room in Tyngsborough to make 600 flywheels a year, which would be enough for three 20-megawatt facilities. If the company gets more than one order at a time, it will have to hire more people.

Storing energy on a spinning disk is an old idea – millennia old, if you count potters’ wheels. Beacon Power has been working to make it usable for the power grid for years; the New York plant was in the works when The Telegraph profiled the company back in 2008.

The facility in Stephentown uses 200 Smart Energy 25 modules spread over three acres to store and release up to 20 megawatts of electricity. That’s almost the output of the Lempster Mountain Wind Farm and roughly equivalent to several of the state’s biomass power plants.

The modules, roughly the size of a cylindrical garden shed, contain carbon-fiber flywheels that can spin so fast that the rim reaches Mach 2. That’s twice the speed of sound, or more than 1,520 mph.

The spinning disks store the energy from the electricity used to bring them up to speed. Because they’re operating in a near-vacuum, levitated by magnets, the energy can stay stored for hours until it’s needed again, when the flywheel shifts to generator mode and sends electricity back out into the grid.

Basically, each Smart Energy 25 unit is a really large battery. But it has so few moving parts that Beacon Power says it will last for decades without suffering from the slow decline in capacity that affects traditional batteries.

A ceremony marking the New York plant’s full integration into the grid is scheduled for July 12. The facility is already operating at 18 megawatts and should hit the full 20 megawatts this month.

Hunt says ramping up the operation ran into one unforeseen problem – high-voltage oscillation that occurred when it went from 12 to 14 megawatts. But changes to software and some resistors seems to have fixed this.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.