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Compressed Air the Secret to Solar Energy Storage?

Energy storage is a major hurdle for solar and wind power. The irregularity of blowing wind and the inevitability of nightfall are preventing our two most-hyped renewable resources from becoming a base load source of electricity. Molten salts with a very high capacity for heat retention are the solution du jour, but a new compressed air energy storage system from Southwest Solar Technology could add an even better dish to that menu.

During the day, solar power is used to heat and compress air in an airtight chamber (via air captured from off-peak wind energy). When needed, that air exits through a turbine to create electricity. Compressed Air Energy Systems (CAES) are already in use in some conventional power plants, which use natural gas or coal to compress and heat air. But in addition to existing examples of how the technology works, Southwest Solar Technology sees several other advantages to CAES:

  • Power in numbers. Helps solar and wind technologies complement each other and create reliable baseload power (at night, the systems turn to wind power to generate energy).
  • Solves the storage problem for solar power, storing the energy in massive underground storehouses for on-demand use.
  • Affordable through the combination of efficient solar power and the purchase of cheap wind energy at night.
  • Low water usage is also key. “Wet” cooling solar thermal plants consume millions of gallons of water, compared to CAES plants that use very little.
  • A small footprint. Large solar thermal plants use up to 8 acres per megawatt of solar power generated, whereas compressed air systems would use only 2 acres per megawatt.

Southwest Solar’s ambitious plans for solar compressed air energy systems are not off the ground yet, but there is potential in a technology that promises to increase daytime power output of solar farms by 2.5 times and provide round-the-clock renewable power.

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