How a Columbia Falls company is storing wind for a windless day

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Behind this door at Zinc Air Inc. of Columbia Falls they’re working on an energy storage battery to be used on an industrial scale.

It’s not that energy generated through wind turbines, from dams, or solar panels can’t be stored. According to the president of Zinc Air Inc. it can, but it costs a lot to do so.

“We store everything from water to food, and the one thing we haven’t been able to do is effectively, or cost effectively store electricity,” said Craig Wilkins,” so essentially we’re stuck in a paradigm where we are generating electricity based on the current demand, and if we can use or we can use storage, we can be more efficient in our generation and distribution of electricity.”

Zinc Air Inc. has been developing a battery that would work to store energy on an industrial scale, and not be cost prohibitive.

General Manager for Flathead Electric Co-op Ken Sugden said the Co-op gets the vast majority of its power from the Bonneville Power Administration, but is also expanding its sources to include other forms of energy.

Sugden said many states require electric companies to have renewable energy sources in their portfolio, including Montana. He says solar, for example produces energy when the sun is shining, but demand doesn’t drop off when the sun sets, “people are still cooking dinner and taking showers and watching TV,” Sugden said.

In an earlier interview Flathead Electric’s Assistant General Manager Mark Johnson talked about capacity constraints. He said with combined wind and hydro there’s plenty of energy out there, but supply will rise and fall and he said they can’t store it to save for a dry, windless day.

Sugden said the batteries could solve a lot of these capacity issues.

“In the utility business, we have to match the resource with the load every 4 seconds and that’s hard to do when you have variable energy projects like wind or solar. The ramping up and down of their output really causes havoc with our system,” Sugden said.

President of Zinc Air Inc. Craig Wilkins said the key ingredients they're using for their energy stoag

President of Zinc Air Inc. Craig Wilkins said the key ingredients they’re using for their energy storage batteries are zinc, zinc oxide, and iron salt.

The main ingredients they’re using are zinc, zinc oxide, and reduced and oxidized iron salt.

“We won’t put off any toxic fumes, people won’t have to come out in their hazmat; essentially, they call this ‘sewerable’, our chemistry is sewerable so if you broke secondary containment you literally could dilute it into the groundwater,” Wilkins said.

Zinc Air is partnering with Flathead Electric for a demonstration. Wilkins said they’re installing a battery system at the Co-op headquarters that will run 45 kilowatts for 2 ½ hours. To put that in perspective, he said a typical household uses between 1 and 3 kilowatts.

The battery is the size of a 20-foot shipping container and Wilkins says costs about $2.5 million per Megawatt.

The demonstration at Flathead Electric will start in August and run for a year.

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