What they do: LightSail develops a new efficient way to store power during off peak hours using compressed air. In the past compressing air for energy storage and cycling wasted a lot of heat energy. LightSail’s innovation is a method to capture this heat and regenerate useful energy from it.
Why it's a big deal: Power storage is key to the future of sustainable power. For decades power companies have used water cycling to store energy during off-peak hours and then recycle it during peak consumption. Compressed air has the potential to replace these antiquated energy storage systems but are currently too inefficient because of heat loss. If heat could be captured, stored and recycled, compressed air could completely replace water cycling and even battery storage.
LightSail has developed a grid-scale system to cool and store this heat loss for reuse. Their system makes compressed air energy storage nearly twice as efficient - like a huge battery that can be used and recharged 24/7 365 days a year. It’s no wonder Peter Thiel and Bill Gates already invested.
The expected cost of electric infrastructure upgrades worldwide over the next two decades is almost $14 trillion. More than 30% of this investment serves a need that could be economically met with energy storage at the right price.
Nearly half of the electric grid capacity is underused.
The modern electric power grid has been called the largest and most complex machine in the world. In the United States alone, 3,200 utilities deliver $400 billion worth of energy a year to homes and businesses along 2.7 million miles of power lines.
"You can think of it as any other battery," said Travis O'Guin, LightSail's business development manager. The company is funded by private investors, attracting financial backing from Bill Gates and Peter Thiel, among others.
However, compression produces a large amount of heat energy that is currently not used in the process. According to the Berkeley, California-based LightSail Energy, "Until now, this was wasted, drastically reducing efficiency."
In the longer run, optimists believe, batteries like these, or some equivalent technology, are the key to dealing with the problem not just of irregular demand, but of irregular supply. As the unit cost of solar and wind energy drops ever closer to that of power from fossil fuels, the fact that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine becomes more and more irksome. It is not just the great power-gap that is night which matters.
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