Imagine that it’s mid-January at dusk. Temps outside: -50º F. Suddenly, the lights flicker, and then go dark. If power is not restored within two hours, your water pipes can freeze solid.
That’s why in 2003, Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA), in Fairbanks, Alaska, installed a giant storage battery as an emergency backup system to improve service reliability for its members.
Alaska, which has 16 percent of the country’s landmass, accounts for less than 0.3 percent of its population. That lack of density resulted in “more than 150 islanded, stand-alone electrical grids.”
Fairbanks is one of those electrical islands, and it’s a landlocked city, located about 200 road miles south of the Arctic Circle. Alaska has no power grid like the continental United States.
GVEA operates a local generation system and has “one big extension cord down to Anchorage,” Tom DeLong, chairman of the GVEA board of directors, told Renewable Energy World.
To address the problem of cascading blackouts, in 2001 GVEA partnered with ABB Ltd. to build a $35,000,000 battery energy-storage system (BESS). Saft Groupe SA built the 13,760 individual nickel-cadmium cells. BESS weighs 1,400 tons (1,300 metric tons) and lives in a warehouse larger than a football field (10,000+ square feet).
On 27 August 2003, the GVEA powered her up.
The batteries are stacked on four long metal shelves in a horseshoe formation… Each one is a bucket containing 10, 1.7-volt nickel cadmium battery packs, which look like fat plastic file folders sitting in a black Action Packer.
Golden Valley Electric Association “waters” the batteries on a regular basis to keep them working. The water holds electrolytes, which allows power to flow between the cadmium and nickel plates when charging (and discharging) the battery.
Should there be an outage, BESS is designed to kick in, for up to seven minutes, while operators start back-up generators. (This is known as a spinning reserve.)
During a test of the system’s maximum limit in December 2003, BESS discharged 46 megawatts for five minutes. Guinness World Records declared it the world’s most powerful battery, usurping the previous record of held by a 21 megawatt BESS in Puerto Rico. (It no longer holds the title.)
BESS is approaching 20 years of operation, and its expected lifespan is from 20 to 30 years. Cooperative staff have been evaluating options: repair or replace, just like you might do with a phone or computer. Latest news suggests the cooperative may replace BESS with wind generation, allowing it also close a coal-power plant.
In 2019, the U.S. Energy Department considered the Alaska BESS to be tied with one in California; it listed the capacity of both at 40 megawatts.
Florida Power and Light Company commissioned the world’s largest solar-powered battery in December 2021. The Manatee Energy Storage Center encompasses 40-acres (think 30 football fields). The 409-megawatt battery can power approximately 329,000 homes for more than two hours.
In April 2022, a 182.5-megawatt BESS built by Tesla and Pacific Gas and Electric Company near Monterey, California, came online.
From one remote region to another
Saft’s Oskarshamn manufactured those 13,760 cells over an 18-month period at its facility in Sweden. It took 66 containers to hold them all. To reach Fairbanks, they traveled from Sweden to England and then across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
The battery cells made it from east-to-west coast U.S. by train. To get to Anchorage, they left Tacoma, Washington, on barges. Delivery was four-week journey.
The 110 people who designed BESS included experts from Austria, Canada, France, Germany, India, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.