The 19th century Rhode Island industrialist Zachariah Allen has lessons for today’s energy market, according to Timmons Roberts at Brookings. Allen owned two major water-powered textile mills, which often sat idle during dry summer months.
“Rather than take the want of energy as an unresolvable problem, Zachariah Allen set out to solve it,” Roberts writes.
Allen began by raising the dam at one of his mills by three feet, but that bought only a five-day buffer. So over a period of years in the 1820s and 1830s, he and fellow mill owners built a series of reservoirs upstream from the mills and bought privileges to draw down existing mill ponds. For a cost of $42,195 (about $1.1 million today), the owners implemented a scheme that worked for decades, with the mills not sitting idle at all for many years.
“The six reservoirs, with a total of 4,928 acre-feet of water that could be carefully released as needed, provided all the mills downstream 84 days reliable supply of energy, regardless of whether the rain fell during those summers or not,” writes Roberts. “This is a remarkable achievement: On a modest river, Allen had essentially created grid storage of 84 days capacity for everyone downstream.”
Continues Roberts, “What Allen created is precisely the kind of systems we need now to level off the supply and demand of electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable sources, as a way to provide ‘on demand’ power when energy use peaks.” He points out that on hot summer days the “…cost of electricity can soar to 600 times its usual price, as demand exceeds supply and grid operators have to purchase juice from highly polluting ‘peaker’ coal, oil, and diesel plants and other expensive sources that are kept around only for those times.”
He adds that six peak hours on just five to ten days per year “…can account for one-third of the price of electricity over the whole year.” He notes that wind and solar power are helping, with solar capacity greatest when needed the most, yet late afternoon intermittency issues remain, which grid storage would address. Batteries catching on, but they are expensive, he notes, adding that other solutions like flywheels and pushing rail cars uphill raise scale and cost issues.
“That’s where Allen’s ideas should be built upon,” Roberts writes. “A new innovation, suppliers of wind power are pairing their facilities with dispatchable hydropower. In this way, they can guarantee power to utilities at quite a low cost, even when the wind drops off.”
Dispatchable hydropower builds on “pumped hydro” approaches such as employed at the Northfield Mountain facility developed for nuclear power-plant load balancing. As recounted earlier, that facility is being repurposed to purchase green energy during off-peak periods and resell it during periods of high demand.
Writes Roberts, “Siting new big pumped hydro facilities is likely to be difficult, but it might be possible to pair our new renewables with some of the old reservoirs created years ago across our landscapes.”
Concludes Roberts, “There are wonderful opportunities to think creatively about repurposing old ideas and features from our industrial history. Zachariah Allen, who created grid-scale energy storage in the 1830s, would be proud of such innovations. Let’s try it again, and pair the low-tech of hydro with the ‘new renewables’ of wind and solar power. American ingenuity should tell us what it told Allen: We can. We must. We will.”