- Grid-Scale Rampable Intermittent Dispatchable Storage. It's no secret that the wind doesn't always blow or the sun always shine. While renewable technologies are great for shaving how much electricity people use at peak times, some way to store solar or wind generated electricity will be necessary for it to compete as "baseload" power with coal and nuclear. The truth is, for now, some of the best storage is still lead-acid batteries, a century-old technology that hasn't gotten many upgrades since in the 1970s.So, ARPA-E is looking for new solutions to this problem, and big ones. They want to be able to store and dispatch energy at the gigawatt scale -- that's the size of a nuclear reactor, not a laptop or car. The biggest recipient in this area was ABB Inc, which got $4.4 million to work on a novel system in which electricity would be stored in the magnetic field of a coiled wire.
- Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology. Electricity sent through the grid goes through all kinds of conversions and switches, step-ups and step-downs. The main way to send power long-distances is to raise its voltage, which is akin to increasing its "pressure" -- imagine sticking your thumb over half a garden hose's opening, and then you have to lower it again close to the point of use. Similar problems crop up within homes, too, as electric cars and gadgets make the electricity they receive into energy they can use. All those conversions cut down on the efficiency of our electric system, so this area of DOE interest aims to develop better switches and converters. The big winner here was HRL Laboratories, which is developing a better switch for enabling electric car chargers to hook up with the grid. They got more than $5 million.
- Building Energy Efficiency Through Innovative Thermodevices. This ARPA-E interest area is deceptively simple. They aim solely to find "new approaches and technologies for cooling buildings." While heating technologies can be remarkably efficient, the same is not true of cooling, and refrigerants are kind of nasty chemicals with serious potential as greenhouse gases. The DOE's biggest grant in this area went to the Advanced Materials Group, which is working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Texas A&M is working on a new membrane to dehumidify moist air. If the process works, it would dramatically increasing the efficiency of air conditioning. The DOE bet $3.2 million it might.
If the individual tasks that ARPA-E chose seem small, let that serve as a reminder about how many places in our nation's energy system need some work after decades without innovation. There is room for improvement nearly everywhere scientist and engineers look.
Image: A transformer. Credit: Vaxomatic/flickr.