Put a Wind Turbine in Your Tank

People of a certain age will remember putting a “tiger in your tank” at the Esso gasoline station. I remember being really happy when they gave us a furry little tiger tail to stick out of the gas tank hatch. Well the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is going us one better. They want to help you put a wind turbine in your water tank.

The BPA is a US Federal agency that transports and sells power, primarily from the Government-owned dams on the Columbia River here in the Pacific Northwest. But while the BPA answers to Federal officials and derives revenue from the sale of power, they are fully engaged with this region’s quest to reduce energy usage and shift to renewables. They have been integrating power from commercial wind farms into their system at a rapid rate over the past few years. And in general, they bring a tremendous amount of innovation and brainpower to the energy conservation problem and renewable energy initiatives. This program is a good example of the kind of solutions you can find when your goal is not to develop technology or sell a new product, but to make renewable energy viable on a mass scale. (Hint: You don’t have to get bigger, but you DO have to distribute the responsibility.)

As most everyone knows, the problem with wind power is that the wind doesn’t always blow when you need it. So storing that power when it DOES blow is critical to making wind power reliable. There have been many answers proposed – battery banks, refillable reservoirs, flywheels, etc. But they all require either technology development or a large investment. Not so this latest initiative.

The BPA’s plan is that our home water heaters can be equipped with a smart grid sensor that receives a signal through the power line that wind power is being generated, and that if you need to heat water, now is the time. When the wind power dies off, the signal commands the water heater to shut down. In essence we are storing the wind power in our water tanks.

If you are just considering a few wind turbines and a few water tanks, this is clearly an unworkable system, and a lot of people would be out of hot water on a regular basis. But if you scale up to hundreds, or thousands, of wind turbines around the region, and match it with tens of thousands of water heaters, you should be able to balance things out relatively well, and get everyone the hot water they want using only wind power.

The BPA’s pilot program will recruit 100 homeowners in Washington State’s Mason County to start exploring the operational aspects of such a system. Almost certainly there will be enough wind generated in the region to provide hot water for this number of users at any time. But the lessons learned from such a pilot will enable a larger pilot to be planned where the balance of generation and demand will be finer, and we can really see how effective this distributed energy storage can be.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Photo: ectctrains