• The storage of electric power

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    MIKE WOOTTON

    MIKE WOOTTON

    TODAY’S level of use of electronic gizmos—laptops, i-Pads and tablets, mobile phones and portable power packs—produces a massive market for chargers. The batteries in the gizmos never seem to hold a charge for very long despite the manufacturers’ claims, and it is usually difficult, particularly in the Philippines, to be certain that any replacement battery you may buy is not a fake and will will actually hold a charge for more than an hour or two. And batteries are not too cheap. All this brings about the market for battery chargers and a consequent need for more and more socket outlets in which to plug them—there are wires all over the place in today’s home and work environments.

    But moving upscale, there are an increasing number of electric cars and motorbikes now reaching the markets, and so long as you keep plugging them in, they will continue to run and perform to the same levels as those powered by gasoline. Tesla, an American electric car manufacturer, produces several models that both perform and look like sporty sedans and which have a range, with a full charge, of 400-500km. It takes four to five hours to fully charge the car from a wall outlet.

    Now moving further upscale, what about storing electricity for powering your home? Well, the technology exists to do this. Install a home solar array with a bank of batteries and you have 24/7 power without any need to depend on Meralco or your local distribution utility, and in fact, if you produce more electricity than you need, the distribution utility will pay you for it and use it for their other customers—via net metering.

    A lot of research and development work is now going on to produce electricity storage systems that will store wind power and solar power at a commercial grid level of capacity in order that the renewable electricity produced—when the wind blows and when the sun shines—can be made available on a reliable 24/7 basis. So far, commercially sized energy storage systems have reached 10MW capacity, which is enough to satisfy the needs of a municipality with a 200,000-300,000 population. The technology to store hydropower has been around for decades and simply consists of using some of the hydroelectricity produced to pump the water back up the gradient before releasing it to cascade down again and produce more electricity.

    Technology for the storage of electrical energy is available now. Needless to say, the problem is its cost. A power storage system for home use which will just provide enough power for lights, refrigerator, TV and some battery charging costs around $13,000 [P570,000] which, together with the cost of a home renewable system, is far too expensive for most people. But then the cost of solar power fell by 60 percent between 2011 and 2013 and is forecast to fall by a further 40 percent over the next two years.

    Renewable energy is now on a fast track. For the first time ever, more renewable power generation was developed in the USA last year than fossil fuel power, and that trend will continue and will accelerate. What is really heartening here in the Philippines is the widening use of solar panels to power shopping malls, such as SM North EDSA and Robinson’s in Puerto Princesa. The cost of grid-delivered power is quite unacceptable and of doubtful reliability in the Philippines, and even now, coal-fired generation contracts are being entered into at costs of over P10/kWh. The greed of the fossil fuel power providers in the face of renewable energy technology developments and cost reductions will surely turn them into dinosaur technologies.

    A characteristic of Philippine business is its conservatism. Big business just keeps doing what it has always done—deal in land, develop real estate, buy banks and do a bit of construction to feed off the real estate development and banks—rent-seeking activities which do nothing for the development of the nation. Thanks to EPIRA (Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001), they have made a shift into power generation, fossil fuelled mainly, of course—easier to do, good cash flows produced and a flexible regulatory environment, with the added bonus of a spot market for electricity sales.

    “Electricity is a public good which must be protected from private abuse”. “A market approach to the provision of electricity is inherently gameable”—so said the US inquiry on the California electricity crisis of 2000/2001.

    Now if I were involved in Philippine big business, I would see which way the wind was blowing [pardon the pun!]and I would be thinking about how I could set up production facilities here in the Philippines to produce energy storage systems. Obviously this is an area of opportunity; a local skill pool exists and there is money to be made and a sustainable industry. But again, this is new technology and is counter to the innate conservatism of Philippine big business. Alas, it is probably a bridge too far, which is just another example of why the Philippines is so slow to develop and produce jobs at home . . .

    Mike can be contacted at mawootton@gmail.com.

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