May 2008

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Pumped storage has pretty much exactly the same issues as hydroelectric; the facilities required are huge, and vastly eco-unfriendly. Most of all, you have to have exactly the right geography to implement it. Much like standard dams, where it can be used it has.
Batteries are years away from being any kind of useful for high energy applications; low energy density, short life, hazardous chemicals...
I'm kind of scratching my head that only one person here mentioned hydrogen. Electricity (from solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, etc) + Water = hydrogen
Hydrogen can be combusted in a thermal cycle engine or recombined in a fuel cell for electricity on demand.

Mark Thorson

There's lots of those pump/
generator systems throughout
the world. They're called
pumped-storage plants.

They could be used to power
cars if we retrofitted all of
the roads with power rails
and replaced our cars with
something like slot cars.

That solves the battery
problem for the all-electric
vehicle. In fact, the cars
would be very green because
they wouldn't be carrying the
weight of batteries or a fuel

They could be run on low
voltage, so people wouldn't
be fried if they stepped on
the rails. And microcomputer
chips could record who used
how much electricity for
billing purposes.

The cops could have the only
vehicles that used gas, and
control over the switch for
the power rails, so they
could chase down and catch
O.J. Simpson if he kills
any more blondes.


Ah, but what if the flag lapel pin is a solar collector? Huh, ever thought of that? That is why we need our politicians absolutely covered in flag lapel pins; to keep the government working at night!


Yeah, water's probably the better way to go, just because it's more stable and your machinery only has to process a little at a time, instead of lifting a giant block up and down. If the cable on your block snaps, then you get the kinetic equivalent of a short circuit -- a mini-earthquake and your energy for the day gone.

Kent McManigal

I have always envisioned some kind of an "energy sponge" that absorbs all types of energy from the environment and converts it into useable form. Think "solar panels" that collect all spectra of EM radiation, even in the "dark".

Ascii King

There was an interesting suggestion for improvement to the system on the forum you linked to. Instead of using a concrete block, use a large magnet and when you drop it through a coil of wire to generate additional electricity.

Dave Wheeler

What if you looked at it from a global perspective...
If all solar cells were tied into the global power grid, then that would mean the sun would always be shining! The parts of the world that are dark could "borrow" energy from the parts in the sun and "pay them back" the next day with excess production!

Yeah, I know... unrealistic politically, but perhaps we need a global solar power organization to make it happen.

Just a thought,



If energy becomes cheap, we will just use more of it. All your solar energy will get used during the day, then coal will be burned all night.

When the price of oil starts to really spike (like $300 per barrel) people will buy electric cars and companies will scramble to build/sell solar panels and windmills. Governments will scramble to build nuclear power plants as fast as they can driving the price of uranium up as well.

Only when we start to seriously realize the earth has limited natural resources (prices soar because they are noticeably depleted) will batteries be produced en-mass for grid power storage of solar/wind power.

Batteries in general are expensive and inefficient, and the amount of power that needs to be stored is huge.

It is WAY more efficient to have everyone travel on mass transit using solar power as its collected, then to have people store the power and put it into their cars overnight.

If we don't prepare enough, when the shit hits the fan I expect high-speed electric subway type trains will simple take over the roadways. It won't be worth building expensive tunnels to save the roads when hardly anyone can afford to drive anyways.

If you think we will have cheap solar panels, batteries and electric cars all ready when fuel resource prices spike, you obviously haven't met all the people who cannot afford to drive/own cars already.

The earths population is massive, increasing and probably unsustainable. Food prices have already started rising. Everyone still has their heads in the sand.

Cole Brodine

The Hydroelectric gravity system that others have mentioned here is a well established way of saving electricity that is usually generated during the night for much less cost and then reused during the day. As a good economist, I'm sure Scott notes that the huge loss in effiency is made up for by the greatly increased price of electricity during the day.

Excel Energy is working on a really neat energy storage system that I saw a presentation on (I am an Electrical Engineering work for a power utility). They use Wind Power to generate electricty on the grid when they need it, and when they don't they use the same wind power to create Hydrogen. They then save the hydrogen and burn it in large generators when electricity is needed and the wind isn't blowing. It's a completely "green" way of storing energy, since the hydrogen is made from Water and when it is "burned" in the fuel cell the only output is water. This system could easily be applied to Solar Power also.

For now, I don't think you'll have to worry near as much about storing Solar power for use during the night. The largest amount of electricty usage is during the days, especially when it is hot. That also happens to be the best time for Solar to generate. During the night, we have plenty of "base load" from existing Nuclear Plants or Hydro Plants (And low cost Coal plants too, but I think the focus here is on "Green" generation). The wind also tends to blow quite a bit more during the night, so wind power is more viable then too.

I believe that the solution won't be in one kind of renewable energy generation, but in a large mix of them. That will be better anyway, since it will help diversify your generation portfolio and prevent large rises and falls in they amount of electricity generated (thereby creating much less need for storage)

One of the many Josh's on here

This has been done at the Raccoon Mountain Pumped-Storage Plant outside Chattanooga. They fill up the mountain-top lake from the river during low-energy-usage times, and then drain the lake to generate at peak times, selling the energy back to the grid.


Hi Scott,

It is good you expanded your discussion of how solar power will greatly reduce oil usage. From yesterday's posts lots of people missed the step that this amount of cheap electric power will make electric cars much more popular. With better batteries that will push oil off even more.

I do believe that the world is so dependant on oil that it will never go away. My gas powered boats will last a long time, and I will never go into blue water on electric alone. My cars will also last a long time. Some people will adopt new electric technology driving down oil prices and pollution and the rest will be happy with our old stuff at cheaper prices. The market will balance between the old and new. And, as you pointed out before, oil is fungible and will always be bought from the cheapest source, the middle east will still do well.

Thanks for the post,


Batteries like we put in our walkman...wait we don't use those any more...I mean batteries that we put in our kids' toys take more energy to produce as compared to the amount they hold. not to mention the waste when we toss them in the trash...

So we are already used to a system that is inefficient...
I don't see why inefficiency should be an issue, I am suprised that Wally hadn't thought of it....oh...that is right, he is the most cost efficient employee according to today's vid.


Make some hydrogen by day, burn it in your fuel cells by night?


While reading this post and comments I got to thinking to myself, for no apparent reason, what if:

What if we did create and begin to use many extremely efficient solar electric sites. Would collecting and storing significant amounts of solar energy stop global warming by taming the Sunrays before they chaotically whirl, twirl, and sing our dirt and air to an excited state of over-heated?


Hopefully the solar technology will take off, and the batteries will improve, to the point where they are cheap and viable for everyone. Houses powered off a solar power and wind power grid, or individuals with their own solar/wind combo. Cars that they plug in every night, with better batteries so they can last longer with no memory problems. With cheap energy, you could switch mass transit to run off the electrical grid, swap buses for trams and subways. Until such point that the batteries are able to power buses and transport trucks for long distances. I don't forsee a time when the batteries would be efficent enough to power jets and cargo ships on ocean bound trips, but I hope I am wrong.

Gee Scott, now that you are saving the environment and solving the world's crisis, why don't you blog about banning tobacco/cigarettes to save the health of Americans. After all, if the big oil companies and religious groups aren't already trying to find a way to kill you and make it look like an accident, you might as well encourage the tobacco companies to help them brainstorm.

Mr. Wampus

Regarding using compressed air as an energy source, there are several car companies with plans to make cars that run on compressed air and at least one company, Tata Motors in India plans to release a commercial vehicle sometime this year.

Here's a link with some info.


Exactly this idea is used in Real Life already:

Any form of potential energy will work; none is 100% efficient. Gravity's as good as any, though not very portable. That doesn't matter for home/national grid use.


Part of the problem with that is to capture any significant amount of energy you have to move something up very high, which takes a big ugly tower or a mountain or something like that that you may not have on hand.

You can do the same sort of thing more in more space friendly ways, like winding up a spiral spring. Or spinning up a flywheel. As a group, these could be called Kinetic batteries.


Part of the problem with that is to capture any sigifigant amount of energy you have to move something up very high, which takes a big ugly tower or a mountan or something like that that you may not have on hand.

You can do the same sort of thing more in more space friendly ways, like winding up a spiral spring. Or spinning up a flywheel. As a group, these could be called Kinetic batteries.


Aren't there people working right now on creating artificial crude oil and/or gasoline? Seems like that is the most practical. Instead of waiting for nature to take solar power and convert it over time to fossil fuels, find a way to take that same power and catalyze the process.


So maybe the answer is not to be a greedy self and share the electrisity generated by your solar panels with the bloke next door, and if he shares it with the next bloke and so on and so forth, and you take the idea to an international level, then hey its always sunny somewhere in the world.


There are many other ways to store kinetic energy - for example, a spring. Much work has been done on gas or hydraulic accumulators - again, same principle. At least for moving storage devices, the advantage of any of these alternatives vs. gravity is that gravity relies on mass: the more the mass, the more energy stored - however, then more energy is required to move it horizontally as well/


One way to use gravity to store energy is to pump water up to an upper reservoir (from a lower one) and then run it through the dam's turbines when you need it. Sound stupid? Its how they store the power from the Oconee nuclear plant in SC. I had to admit that I became a bit disappointed to learn that the nuclear reactor I lived next to was, in some sense, just a battery.

Chris Foulkes

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity is where it's all at...

Ian Edwards

There is a power station at Ben Cruacchen (spelling?) in Scotland that buys cheap electricity at off-peak times. They use the electricity to pump water up into a lake at the top of the mountain, and then release it during peak times when the electricity is worth more. The tour guide says it stores enough to boil every tea kettle in Scotland at once, and the station is kept in standby for half-time during big soccer games when there will be a spike in tea kettle use.

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