Dream of becoming independent of the national energy grid? Well, it's no longer a dream restricted to rich folks who live in the country. It is becoming a reality for nearly anyone.
The Provo Daily Herald has published a story about Ceramatec, a Salt Lake City-based company who has taken a significant step forwards towards personal energy independence at home. They've invented a rechargable home storage battery that can power an entire house - including the normal complement of applicances - for up to four hours.
Here are the technical specs: Inside Ceramatec's wonder battery is a chunk of solid sodium metal mated to a sulphur compound by an extraordinary, paper-thin ceramic membrane. The membrane conducts ions -- electrically charged particles -- back and forth to generate a current. The company calculates that the battery will cram 20 to 40 kilowatt hours of energy into a package about the size of a refrigerator, and operate below 90 degrees Celsius.
How does this differ from contemporary technology? The most energy-dense batteries available today are huge bottles of super-hot molten sodium, swirling around at 600 degrees or so. At that temperature the material is highly conductive of electricity but it's both toxic and corrosive. But the essence of Ceramatec's breakthrough is that high energy density (a lot of juice) can be achieved safely at normal temperatures and with solid components, not hot liquid. More information about their advanced battery technology available HERE.
Ceramatec says its new generation of battery would deliver a continuous flow of 5 kilowatts of electricity over four hours, with 3,650 daily discharge/recharge cycles over 10 years. With the batteries expected to sell in the neighborhood of $2,000, that translates to less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour over the battery's life. Conventional power from the grid typically costs in the neighborhood of 8 cents per kilowatt hour.
How does five kilowatts over four hours translate in everyman's terms? You could run your trash compactor, food processor, vacuum cleaner, stereo, sewing machine, one surface unit of an electric range and thirty-three 60-watt light bulbs all running nonstop for four hours each day before the house battery runs out (you obviously could not run a forced-air furnace or air conditioner, but a wood stove would mitigate heating problems in the winter). Not exactly spartan living conditions. Then you recharge. With a projected 3,650 discharge/recharge cycles -- one per day for a decade -- you leave the next-best battery in the dust. Deep-cycling lead/acid batteries like the ones used in RVs are only good for a few hundred cycles, so they're finished in a year or so.
How do you recharge? By tapping your solar panels or windmills. It's just like plugging in your cell phone or iPod, only you plug in your house. A small three-bedroom home in Provo, Utah might average 18 kWh of electric consumption per day in the summer -- that's 1,000 watts for 18 hours. A much larger five-bedroom home in the Grandview area might average 80 kWh. Either way, a supplement of 20 to 40 kWh per day is substantial. If you could produce that much power in a day -- for example through solar cells on the roof -- your power bills would plummet.
The system is apparently designed to use with alternative energy sources. Solar energy is no longer merely the province of the rich. Thanks to normal supply and demand, no Obama stimulus needed, the cost is tumbling, driven by new thin-film chemistry and manufacturing techniques. Leaders in the field include companies like Arizona-based First Solar, which can paint solar cells onto glass; and Konarka, an upstart that purchased a defunct Polaroid film factory in New Bedford, Mass., and now plans to print cells onto rolls of flexible plastic.
Obviously, this system is designed to be supplementary rather than primary at this point. You still remain on the electricity and/or natural gas network, but you could put up solar cells on you windows, tap and store the resultant solar energy, then use it when the main power goes out. Or if you have enough property and favorable zoning laws, you could also put up your own windmill, and do the same. But each new generation of technology becomes more powerful and less expensive than the previous generation. Look at how PCs have evolved. The next generation of home storage batteries might last eight hours. So it still may be a worthwhile investment.
Besides, it beats a noisy, smelly generator.