California Wine Town to Fight Blackouts With Batteries, Hydrogen

California Wine Town to Fight Blackouts With Batteries, Hydrogen

(Bloomberg) — A California wine town plagued by wildfires and power outages may soon have a backup power supply capable of running most of its homes and businesses for two days on batteries and green hydrogen.

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Utility giant PG&E Corp. and Energy Vault Holdings Inc. plan to create a microgrid covering most of Calistoga, a small town of restaurants, tasting rooms and shops on the northern edge of Napa Valley. During outages in the region’s power grid, the microgrid would use a mix of lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power the city, with no greenhouse gas emissions.

Fuel cells use an electrochemical process — rather than combustion — to generate electricity, and when fueled by hydrogen, their only emissions are water vapor. Energy Vault will purchase the hydrogen, which will be extracted from the water using solar energy, from a third-party supplier.

PG&E and other California utilities have resorted to shutting down power lines before strong winds, following a string of deadly fires started by their equipment. Such “public safety power outages” have repeatedly hit Calistoga and surrounding towns, and wildfires have threatened their neighborhoods. Tree-covered hills scorched by the 2020 Glass Fire loom over downtown Calistoga.

The new system will provide protection during a public safety shutdown without using diesel or natural gas generators, said Robert Piconi, Energy Vault’s chief executive officer. The system, which can serve 2,000 homes and businesses, will provide carbon-free power in a location unsuitable for a large solar or wind plant, and its batteries will be able to start supplying power almost immediately when necessary. Although the two companies are not disclosing an exact price, Piconi said in an interview that it will be less than $100 million. The project will require approval from the California Public Utilities Commission.

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“It’s going to be an economical solution to solve use cases that otherwise couldn’t be solved with renewables, and that’s very exciting for us,” Piconi said.

The Energy Vault first gained attention for using gravity to store large amounts of energy—much more than lithium-ion batteries can hold. Its gravity-based system uses electric motors to lift large, heavy blocks from the ground, stacking them inside a building whenever electricity is cheap and plentiful, then lowers them and puts the motors on reverse direction to generate electricity when needed. But that system, Piconi said, wouldn’t have worked for Calistoga, which likely required an 18- to 20-story structure that wouldn’t have blended with the lower town. Calistoga is home to about 50 wineries.

“That wouldn’t be something, with the community there, that we could propose,” he said.

Construction is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of this year, with service available in mid-2024.

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