Smoothing the Peaks: How Wind Power is Made Less Choppy

Posted on February 23, 2011 by Courtney

Please welcome today’s guest poster, Adana.

Image credit: Herbert Proepper/AP

Energy independence has long been a necessity, not an eco-lifestyle choice, for many communities scattered across the continental U.S. Frontiers are what have made America the country it is today, and for many Americans, living on that boundless margin is what defines the American way of life. But just because you’re living the life of the frontiers doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t enjoy the civilized benefits of a fully electrified lifestyle. That’s why harnessing the winds has been a preoccupation of many Americans for decades, well before sustainable energy started looming on the horizon.

For those living off-grid, the solution to a smoothly corralled voltage came courtesy of a solid chunk of lead batteries — once a little imagination got together with the automobile battery and the windmill. That long history of wind power makes the old idea, that wind power can never amount to a serious energy alternative, somewhat toothless. The wind may be fickle, but the steady harnessing of it for the homestead is, in fact, old news.

However, the advantages of getting a little wind in your life is now real big news, for those wanting to reduce their impact on the world around them. With the conscientious casting around for ways to cut back on their carbon emissions, home-generated wind power offers a comparatively simple way to jump-start the process. And unlike solar power, you don’t have to live under a Californian sun to get your own renewable revolution kick-started. 

In order to see how you can get carbon-free electricity, we need to get into the nitty-gritty of the electrical system. A home-generated wind-power installation starts with a small scale wind turbine, lofted high on a tower, or even on the roof of your house. This is connected to a control box, which has the important job of regulating the power generated by the turbine. It needs to carefully feed to the next element in the system — the battery bank.

The most common setup of batteries, until recently, has been the “deep-cycle battery bank.” This consists of an array of lead-acid batteries, the number of which is matched nicely to bridge any low-power days, caused by a lack of wind. Of course, such batteries must be fed DC, and at the right charge rate — whereas the typical household circuit needs to be supplied with 120V AC current.

There are, however, some serious drawbacks to using the standard lead-acid battery packs in these setups. Such industrial-strength batteries are heavy, and can require significant maintenance. If they are of the unsealed variety, the water levels can drop, which increases acidity, and knocks back performance. Besides that, the safe disposal of these batteries is a big concern. Lead and cadmium are severely toxic, and improper disposal has resulted in numerous incidences of pollution. So, if babysitting toxic batteries doesn’t sound like the greenest of paths to follow, are there better alternatives?

Fortunately, yes. Lithium batteries have a better energy density, longer life cycle, a greater capacity to charge and drain, as well a virtual absence of maintenance issues. And recent developments in lithium battery technology have been frenetic, with its dominance in the market in mobile devices. More recently, its potential for use in electric vehicles, such as the Tesla sports car, has come to the forefront, and pushed the envelope further. Now, its suitability for home-power storage has been revolutionized, with a big move into lithium by suppliers of wind power to the grid.

The massive wind farms testing the breeze in Texas and Oklahoma need their own power storage, if they are to be serious contenders to replace coal and gas-fired power stations. That has resulted in a massive investment, in the last few years, into battery storage solutions. These same batteries are now being pushed as the new, environmentally-sound replacement for lead-acid batteries. The cost is still an issue, but a rapidly diminishing one, as the economies of scale are bought to bear.

This article is a guest post from Adana, a stay-at-home mom with 3 cute kids (Jamie, Pablo, Guerrero) who writes on the topic of air mattresses.

3 Comments +

  1. What do you think about the molten batteries they are experimenting with at MIT to handle the energy storage? I’ve always thought the temperature requirements makes them a non-viable alternative. I’m presuming you left them out over similar concerns?

    February 23rd, 2011 at 10:04 am
    Comment by Jamison
  2. I’m gonna go ahead and say that I’m probably never installing anything in my home that’s described as “molten.”

    I’ve always been curious about battery options for home energy production, since that is definitely the crux of the matter regardless of the energy source. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun does’t always shine. Running all of your appliances off of a bank of batteries would really make you pay attention to energy usage too, huh? Trying to decide between a hot shower and an hour of TV would be an interesting dilemma.

    February 23rd, 2011 at 2:49 pm
    Comment by mickey
  3. Now, now Mickey, it’s only something running around at about 1300 degree F in your basement. You can hurt yourself on your hot water heater, same principal basically. ;p The advantage is that it can store twenty times as much energy as traditional Lithium Ion batteries. And it was never really intended for home use.

    I think that home’s will go the opposite route, instead of depending on batteries so much instead they will head towards Micro-CHP setups instead. Combined with geothermal systems, it would be extremely impressive. And bio-gas, which is a topic for another day.

    February 24th, 2011 at 9:04 am
    Comment by Jamison

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If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It

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According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.


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