LightSail Energy has developed a way to efficiently store wind energy. If successful, its Nova Scotia test site could radically change the world
Turning wind into usable electricity is an exciting, green way to meet energy needs, but a major challenge remains: what do you do when the wind stops blowing?
Battery storage options are improving, but they are expensive, heavy, and not terribly efficient. Most wind farms still need backup generation, often not from renewable sources.
But LightSail Energy may have found the solution.
LightSail, the brainchild of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia native Danielle Fong, is developing an innovative, highly efficient way to store energy using compressed air. A dense water spray is used to rapidly capture the heat created when air is compressed and stores that heat for later use.
In lab tests, Fong’s method shows a 90 per cent round-trip efficiency, which is extraordinarily high. High enough that LightSail has caught the attention of international investors, including Bill Gates, Peter Thiel (PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist), Total (France-based international oil and gas company), Innovacorp (Nova Scotia-based venture capital organization) and more.
Fong’s personal story is incredible: she graduated with a combined honours degree in Physics and Computer Science from Dalhousie University at age 17 and, that same year, started a PhD program at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Lab. She left Princeton in 2007 and, with a goal of “solving the energy problem,” founded LightSail in California 2008. In 2011, she was named the energy standout in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for her work.
Now 27, Fong, LightSail’s cofounder and chief scientist, currently spends most of her time in California, where the company is based. In July, however, she was in Queens County, Nova Scotia to announce an important new project: a test site for LightSail technology.
LightSail Energy Canada is partnering with Dartmouth-based Watts Wind Energy Inc.: Watts Wind will build three wind turbines by 2016; LightSail will build and install its technology to store the excess energy until periods of low wind. It’s a chance for LightSail to test its product in the real world and, more importantly, in a cold climate.
“The objective is to make this technology work, to establish proof of concept,” says Greg Fong, Danielle’s father and director of business development for LightSail Canada.
Greg Fong points out the technology could offer remote communities and industrial sites (places that are a significant distance from the electrical grid) a way to generate stable electricity from renewable sources.
If the Nova Scotia project is successful, Fong says, LightSail could be selling its product by 2018 or sooner. “It’s giving us the ability to create an industry that doesn’t quite exist yet,” he adds.
Nova Scotia is an ideal place to test and develop the storage technology, not only because its inventor is from the province. According to Nova Scotia Power, wind already provides nearly 10 per cent of the electricity used in the province (over 30 wind farms are currently in use or under development); hundreds of millions are being invested in the tidal energy industry. The renewable energy resources are certainly available; the storage capacity is not.
“This could be huge,” says Nova Scotia Energy Minister Andrew Younger. “If [LightSail is] able to achieve efficient storage of renewable energy and then release it at the peak times in a way that doesn’t involve the current expensive battery technology, that could fundamentally change the way we look at renewables.”
Younger could see LightSail expanding operations in Nova Scotia, and exporting its technology. “If we can prove that it can be used here, this technology could be used in the deserts of Africa, could be used in China … it really addresses a worldwide issue.”