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Researchers Push Thermal Energy Storage to Next Level


By Dan Hounsell Energy Efficiency
thermal storage
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Sundry Photography / Shutterstock.com

U.S. buildings account for 40 percent of total energy consumption. Of that, almost one-half goes toward thermal loads, which includes space heating and cooling, as well as water heating and refrigeration. In other words, one-fifth of all energy produced goes towards thermal loads in buildings. And by 2050, the demand on the electricity grid from thermal loads is expected to increase dramatically as natural gas is phased out and heating is increasingly powered by electricity. 

Now scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are making a concerted push to take thermal energy storage to the next level

“If we use thermal energy storage, in which the raw materials are more abundant to meet the demand for thermal loads, this will relax some of the demand for electrochemical storage and free up batteries to be used where thermal energy storage cannot be used,” said Sumanjeet Kaur, lead of Berkeley Lab’s Thermal Energy Group.  

Could a tank of ice or hot water be a battery? Yes. If a battery is a device for storing energy, then storing hot or cold water to power a building’s heating or air-conditioning system is a different type of energy storage. Thermal energy storage technology has been around for a long time but has often been overlooked. To overcome some of the limitations of traditional water-based thermal energy storage, Berkeley Lab scientists are looking at developing next-generation materials and systems to be used as a heating or cooling medium. They are also creating a framework to analyze costs as well as a tool to compare cost savings. In a series of papers published this year, Berkeley Lab researchers have reported important advances in each of these areas. 

“It is very challenging to decarbonize buildings, particularly for heating,” said Ravi Prasher, Berkeley Lab’s Associate Lab Director for Energy Technologies. “But if you store energy in the form of the end use, which is heat, rather than in the form of the energy supply, which is electricity, the cost savings could be very compelling. And now with the framework we’ve developed, we’ll be able to weigh the costs of thermal energy storage versus electrical storage, such as with lithium batteries, which has been impossible until now.” 

Dan Hounsell is senior editor for the facilities market. He has more than 25 years of experience covering engineering, maintenance and grounds management issues in institutional and commercial facilities. 

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