Is This Energy Storage Idea Dumber Than A Box Of Rocks?

Energy storage solutions come in many varieties. Some are very high tech, like grid storage batteries. Some are rooted in technology that would have been considered ancient way back in the 19th century. Yesterday, we introduced you to Electric Mountain in Wales. There, millions of gallons of water are pumped up uphill every day, then allowed to flow downhill again, turning hydroelectric turbines along the way.

ARES rail car energy storage system

Nevada is attracting lots of high tech investment these days. Tesla is building its Gigafactory in the desert outside of Reno. Faraday Future and Hyperloop One have both selected Las Vegas as their new home. Now a start-up company based in southern California wants to go back to the future by filling boxcars full of rocks. It proposes to run the train up a mountain near Pahrump, Nevada, then let it roll back downhill, generating electricity from regenerative braking.

The impetus for the idea is the demand by regulators, particularly in California, for more renewable energy on the electrical grid. California wants utilities to use 50% renewable energy by 2030, but how to store it until its needed? That’s where Advanced Rail Energy Storage comes into play.

Francesca Cava, ARES operations manager, says the company plans to have a demonstration model of its train full of rocks idea up and running by 2019. The 9,600 ton train will run along a 5.5 mile long track covering 106 acres of desolate nothingness in the middle of nowhere. Nevada has an abundance of land like that.

The ARES plan is not cheap. $55 million has been budgeted for the first phase, which will have a power capacity of 50 megawatts. “Fifty megawatts doesn’t get us to economies of scale,” ARES CEO James Kelly tells UtilityDive. “We are more efficient as we get larger.”

sisyphusThe rail line has to be capable of handling heavier than normal boxcars. Then there are all the electronics and transmission lines needed to make the project work. Andy Lubershane, a senior analyst with IHS Emerging Energy Research, says the setup is more expensive per kilowatt-hour “than almost anything else on the market today.” Ravi Manghani, a senior energy storage analyst at GTM Research, urges a wait and watch approach. “Any new technology has to go through some big hurdles,” he says.

Could moving thousands of tons of rocks up and down a mountain prove to be cheaper than buying grid storage batteries from Tesla Energy and other companies? That remains to be seen. But if the company has one iota of humor, it will include Sisyphus in its official logo.

Source: Wired  Graphics credit: ARES


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.