The power industry must adapt. Reliable electric service is more important than ever, but the push for green energy and rising cost concerns complicate things. Thankfully, several new technologies offer potential solutions. Electric thermal storage is particularly promising.
As renewables grow, buildings and utility grids will need a way to store excess energy from peak generation hours to use during peak demand. While batteries are the most recognizable solution, they have several drawbacks. Thermal storage is an ideal alternative in many cases.
How Electric Thermal Storage Works
Thermal energy storage converts excess electricity into thermal energy. Often, that means either cooling a refrigerant or heating another thermally conductive medium. Then, when an area needs heating or cooling, this medium circulates through it to reach desired temperatures with minimal additional power use.
Unlike other power storage methods, thermal systems don’t provide general-use electricity. However, buildings account for 40% of all energy consumption, and thermal loads account for almost half of their usage. Consequently, these technologies can considerably impact the utility industry, especially in the building sector.
Green heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) alternatives have been gaining popularity for a while now, and thermal storage takes these solutions further. Capitalizing on them could help power companies meet this growing demand and prepare for a greener future.
Applications for Thermal Storage
Power and utility companies can implement thermal energy storage across several use cases. The most straightforward is to replace conventional HVAC systems in buildings. Heat pumps using excess energy retained in thermal storage solutions could heat and cool new structures instead of energy-intensive air conditioning and natural gas heating.
Existing buildings can benefit from these installations, too. Thermal storage could complement existing HVAC systems to reduce their workloads instead of replacing them entirely. This application would offer a less disruptive and lower-cost way to make buildings more sustainable.
HVAC isn’t the only use for thermal storage, either. It’s also an ideal solution for industrial purposes. Experts expect data centers in the U.S. to consume 35 gigawatts of power in 2030, more than doubling in 10 years. These centers could use thermal storage to cool their critical hardware. Similarly, factories could use them to keep sensitive equipment in ideal operating conditions.
Benefits of Thermal Storage
Across all its use cases, thermal energy storage has many advantages. Here are a few of the most significant.
The most apparent benefit of thermal storage is that it benefits the environment. Cooling alone produces 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and cooling demands will rise as the planet warms. Because thermal storage uses excess power to manage this process, it significantly reduces those emissions.
Thermal storage’s environmental benefits go even further when coupled with renewable energy. Solar and wind power are essential in the fight against climate change, but they can’t produce electricity on demand, and peak generation doesn’t align with consumption. By storing surplus power for high-demand times, thermal solutions solve that issue.
As thermal energy storage makes renewables more practical, it enables wider renewable adoption. More buildings and power grids will be able to justify these technologies’ upfront costs, leading to a faster green energy transition.
Lower Electrical Bills
This efficiency has financial benefits, too. If buildings recycle energy that would otherwise go to waste, they can maintain the same temperatures without additional power consumption. Consequently, they lower their energy bills without adjusting their daily habits.
Because thermal storage enables broader renewable adoption, it can further reduce these expenses through self-generated electricity. Building occupants don’t have to pay for as much power when they can generate some themselves through solar panels or wind turbines. Companies installing this infrastructure could use these savings to impress potential customers.
It’s also worth noting that thermal storage can save more costs than other storage techniques. Thermal systems apply excess energy directly instead of converting it to another medium before converting it back into electricity. By removing the second conversion process, more of the original power remains, leading to less waste and, thus, higher savings.
Electric thermal storage is also more resilient long-term than other energy storage methods. Batteries rely on rare minerals prone to shortages, cost hikes, and supply chain disruptions. Thermal systems don’t have the same dependencies, making them a more stable investment.
Thermal storage solutions last longer than alternatives, too, due to their relatively straightforward designs. A high-end thermal installation can last more than three decades—twice as long as a grid-scale battery. Because they lack hazardous materials, disposing of or recycling them at their end is easier, too.
This resilience means lower operating costs for the power companies that install and maintain this infrastructure. It also makes these solutions more sustainable, as they require less energy and fewer materials over their lifespan. That will prove a crucial advantage as climate initiatives grow.
As awareness and alarm around the climate increases, energy efficiency is becoming a regulatory concern, too. Decreasing power consumption with electric thermal storage will help organizations comply with these emerging regulations.
Some countries have laws specifically targeting energy emissions, while others have more general emissions reduction goals. In either case, thermal storage can help by enabling a faster shift to renewables, decreasing energy consumption from fossil fuel sources, and limiting destructive mining processes involved in battery manufacturing.
In some cases, laws may not restrict fossil fuels but reward energy-efficient alternatives like thermal installations. Clean energy systems now have a dedicated tax credit for residential systems. These cost reductions justify the upfront implementation costs and provide a profitable new business opportunity for companies developing and installing this infrastructure.
Thermal Storage Could Be Key in the Clean Energy Transition
The shift to clean energy is inevitable, so power and utility companies must prepare for this transition. While renewables are the most obvious part of this movement, organizations shouldn’t overlook their supporting technologies. Electric thermal storage is one of the most beneficial of these related innovations.
Energy storage as a category is crucial to enabling grid-scale sustainable power. While thermal systems aren’t the only way to store surplus electricity, it’s hard to overlook their strengths. Embracing this technology could help energy companies ensure long-term resilience and sustainability before it’s too late.
—Emily Newton is an industrial journalist who regularly covers stories for the utilities and energy sectors. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized.