There’s Wind In Texas, Sometimes.

Texas is numero uno when it comes to wind power generation. The Lone Star state has installed wind power close to 5,000 megawatts which translates to enough electricity to power a million homes. The huge turbines, scattered across wide open spaces, conjure up more progressive feelings compared to those generated at the sight of oil rigs or smoke stacks; they are feelings of a changing world, a cleaner world.

Because of the increased demand for wind power installation, the economies of some small locales in Texas are growing and welcoming the change. But this changing tide in the energy industry isn’t without some bumps in the road. Recently, when an unanticipated cold front killed 80% of the wind power in Texas, electricity for some offices and factories had to be cut.

This is the most obvious problem with renewable energy sources like the wind and the sun. But what if there was a way to store energy when there is a surplus and kick it back out when there is a lag in production or increased demand. I recently learned about a company called Beacon Power that developed a gnarly flywheel energy storage system. The technology seems pretty simple and has probably been around for sometime but I haven’t seen much of it being utilized with renewable energyβ€”where it would be most valuable.

Essentially, what makes the storage capabilities of a flywheel system sustainable is the ability to store energy in kinetic form as opposed to chemical. A wheel spins on a shaft holding energy that can be used when power is lost. An electronics module allocates energy to the motor to drive the flywheel and when power is lost, this motor becomes a generator and sends compatible energy to the grid. Beacon flywheels are specifically designed to withstand extreme rotation speeds that allow for the storage of large quantities of energy. They have a process called Smart Energy Matrix, that is a system on interconnected higher-power flywheels for specific use with utility grade operations.

As renewable energy is further and further embraced, we will likely see more on energy storage systems like the flywheel.

Below is a short CBS special about wind farming in Texas. Enjoy:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/RFPj9frhKuo" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
sources: ny times, wall street, houston chronicle

Image credit: roxannejomitchell at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Kiashu

    It’s worth mentioning that the electricity shortage in Texas was more to do with a jump in demand and failure of other sources than a drop from wind.

    For example, see this article,

    “the state’s grid operators say a problem they could normally handle was complicated when a number of traditional power plant operators failed to provide the amount of electricity to the grid as promised […]

    “That same day in South Florida, a problem at an electric substation caused nuclear and natural gas-fired power generators near Miami to trip off temporarily, leading to blackouts for about 584,000 customers.”

    While energy storage technology is certainly to be welcomed, what’s more important is redundancy in systems, and good demand and supply management. A year or two back here in Victoria, Australia, we had bushfires – one line from NSW to Vic went down, and though it only carried 5% of the state’s load, cascading failures caused by lack of redundancy led to 2/3 the state being without power for 48 hours.

    A few years back in Auckland, there were four main power lines going into the city. These were old and poorly-maintained, so one of them went down. They sent the same total power through the other three, of course one overheated and went down, and so on – until the CBD was without power for a couple of weeks.

    Melbourne and Auckland are far from the only cities ever to suffer such problems.

    Whether the supply overall is intermittent or not has more to do with management and spending on infrastructure than to do with whether it’s wind or coal or whatever we’re getting our power from.

  2. weatherholtz


    Yes, I agree that contingency plans are very important when it comes to using renewable energy. No matter what the energy source, improper or careless management will always cause problems.

  3. Bobby B.

    Looks like technology similar to the Toyota Prius’ hybrid drive. That being an electric motor when driving and an electric generator when coasting.

    It is a “gnarly” concept in this application, however, flywheel tech is centuries old. Since the flywheel is typically a large spinning mass, the thing would probably have to reach operating speed slowly which requires considerable energy, however, maintaining rotation is easy. How long it would continue to output energy when in generator mode would depend upon demand (or load). A high load is comparable to slamming the brakes on a vehicle. If you watch their informational video, it looks like they are marketing it as a line conditioner to smooth out the demand curve; not a backup system. Instead of the utility company’s generators having to respond to spikes throughout the day, the flywheels flatten the spikes. That’s not a bad idea as it keeps the generator more or less running at optimum speed, which translates into less maintenance.

    I think that a smaller version for residential service would also be marketable. During an extended power outage, it would be nice to run a few lights and the microwave without needing a gasoline engine driven generator. Just wire one of these up through a relay to backfeed part of the house when the lights go out.

  4. Kyle Weatherholtz


    Beacon power explains the difference from traditional flywheel tech in this way:

    “What’s the difference between a typical flywheel and a Beacon flywheel?
    The principle is the same, but little else. Beacon flywheels are made of carbon and fiberglass composites to withstand the very high speed of rotation. They do much more than simply provide “power smoothing”; Beacon flywheels store a lot of energy. To accomplish this they spin at up to 22,500 revolutions per minute. To better maintain this high-speed rotation, a vacuum system is used to reduce wind resistance and friction. Also, a high-speed magnetic lift system is employed to virtually eliminate friction and allow for long, maintenance-free operation. Beacon flywheels also have sophisticated electronics to control and convert the power from the flywheel to the voltage and current required by customers.”

    I agree it would be nice to have a smaller version for residential power outages.

  5. Tom Konrad

    When looking at energy storage technologies, Beacon’s is more appropriate for power regulation (smoothing over short term spikes and sags) than it is for long term energy storage. For long term storage, look to pumped hydropower, compressed air energy storage (CAES) and flow batteries souch as those from VRB Power or other utility scale batteries like the Sodium-sulfur ones currently being explored by AES and Xcel Energy.

    I think that Beacon’s technology may turn out to be more useful in the short term, but not in the way you describe in the article.

    (Note I and my clients own several of the stocks mentioned here: BCON, VRBPF, XEL)

  6. Kyle Weatherholtz


    Thanks for the suggestions on long-term storage. I do understand that the flywheel technology is more applicable for short term storage.

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