Could air be the next big thing in renewable energy?

What if countries and regions could use air instead of water as a way of storing energy? Under the guidance of the European Union, scientists from all over Europe are attempting to turn this fantastic concept into a viable prospect, via a research project called RICAS 2020.Ā 

The challenges lie in issues such as climate change, economic, social and sustainable development. Additionally, security problems are closely linked to the energy supply of European societies. The RICAS 2020 project is named for the climate and energy package that requires that at least 20% of EU gross final energy consumption have to come from renewable energies until 2020. The challenge of RICAS 2020 is given by intermittent renewable energy sources which require increased energy storage to time shift this energy to meet daily demand.

The general principle, which has already been adopted at a few sites around the world, is essentially a matter of using surplus electric power to compress air, which is then stored in an underground cavern. When power needs to be made available, the air is released through a gas turbine that generates electricity. Existing plants of this type are often used to meet peak demand as a supplement to classical power plants, providing the right amount of electricity needed at different times during the day.

Poor energy efficiency has reduced interest in the few plants that are already in operation, and in the course of the past 15 years, a significant amount of money has been invested in developing more energy-efficient versions of the compressed-air energy storage concept.

However, the combination of significant technological challenges, low energy prices and uncertainties in the energy market has acted as a "showstopper," which has led to all plans for large-scale demonstration plants being postponed or abandoned. Therefore, nothing would be more ideal than seeing the EU project meet its goals.

Photo credit: Science Daily

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