The ocean is really just a big reservoir.

That, in part, is the idea that underlies a plan proposed by Gridflex Energy to build a 300-megawatt storage facility in Hawaii. In most pumped storage facilities, there are two reservoirs. When power is needed, water is pumped from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir. The water then shoots through a turbine to create power and returns to the lower reservoir. Repeat.

Hawaii is surrounded by water (cf. "Blue Hawaii" by E. Presley). The ocean itself could be used in place of a lower man-made reservoir, thereby saving millions in capital. The U.S. has 35 pumped hydro projects but none exploit the ocean, says Gridflex. The Lanai pumped storage project would help smooth out the power production from 400 megawatts' worth of wind turbines proposed for the islands and could even help smooth out power production from solar farms. Right now, Hawaii gets most of its power from diesel generators, but has implemented aggressive renewable goals to get 70 percent from renewable sources by 2030.

Cue ugly reality: environmental sensitivity will be at heightened levels, ocean water is salty and the large-scale hydroelectric industry tends to prefer fresh water, and violent tropical storms are a fact of life. The topography can also represent a challenge.

But if the project could be pulled off, it potentially widens the opportunities for pumped hydro storage. Other things to note: ocean storage would become a sixth way to generate power from the ocean. (Including fresh water, there are seven.) Some companies, including Beacon Power, have already begun to sell storage capacity as a service to utilities. A pumped hydro service could be a money spinner.

Hawaii's also got some other mega-projects on the books. Check out this plan to use ocean waters to power a district air conditioning system for downtown Honolulu.


--Lockheed Martin has been selected to erect and test a microgrid at Fort Bliss in Texas. When most people think of microgrids, they think of them as a way to allow isolated communities to go off the grid. Increasingly, however, some argue that microgrids are more commercially attractive as a way to connect renewables to the larger grid. A utility would rather think of distributed solar panels as a single block of consistent power. In that scenario, microgrid technology is essentially masking complexity for convenience. Lockheed will test these and more issues.

--Solopower, one of the original copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) startups, has come out with a new, improved line of modules. The company claims that NREL has certified modules on its production line exhibiting an aperture efficiency level as high as 12.1 percent. Solopower's modules are also on flexible substrates: a few years ago, Solopower concentrated on glass substrates, which can be more expensive to make and ship. Miasole (in production) and Nanosolar (allegedly in production) both use flexible substrates.

--Xcel Energy and SunEdison broke ground on a 54-megawatt solar farm in New Mexico.

--At the American Geophysical Union, a large conference of earth and space scientists going on in San Francisco, new research presented by French agencies indicates that the 2003 Paris heat wave resulted in 4867 unnecessary deaths and that heat islands in urban centers will get worse.

--And for sheer entertainment value,, which tends to highlight the accomplishments of the fossil fuel industry, put out a note on how Cancun highlighted the need for carbon capture and included a three-year timeline describing how some individuals believe that carbon capture will play a unique role in energy.

It left out, however, that hardly any progress has been made on actually getting CCS facilities built. The high costs and long lead times on CCS projects -- like nuclear projects -- are becoming an Achilles' heel. Time will tell how well CCS does.

“2010 is the crucial year. If we don’t have the demonstration plants, we won’t be able to have the commercial plants in 2020,” said Graeme Sweeney, the executive in charge of carbon dioxide at Shell, told me earlier this year. We're still waiting.

Tags: cigs, energy storage, hawaii, pumped hydro, solar power, solopower, thin film, wind power