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Saturday, May 04 2013 10:26 PM

You can't ride on this railroad, but it may keep your lights on

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    William Peitzke, director of technology development for ARES, walks over a 1/4-size rail test track that gently curves up a hill 868 feet. The Tehachapi area is a know wind energy center. Ares is developing energy storage technology using trains that would complement other energy generating methods including solar and wind energy.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    William Peitzke, director of technology development for ARES, kneels next to a 1/4-size rail test track that gently curves up a hill 868 feet. The Tehachapi area is a know wind energy center. Ares is developing energy storage technology using trains that would complement other energy generating methods including solar and wind energy.

    click to expand click to collapse
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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    On the gently rolling hills outside of Tehachapi where wind turbines have become part of the landscape test are ready to begin on a 1/4-scale rail track that could solve the problem of storing energy. ARES is developing the rail energy storage technology.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Lloyd Herziger cleans off the track where the energy storage technology being developed by ARES will be tested outside of Tehachapi.

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    By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian

    An artist's rendition of what the ARES train energy storage technology site might look like from the air.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

TEHACHAPI -- Depending on how well it works, a test project in the heart of Kern County's renewable energy region may be the next best thing to 24-hour-a-day sunlight or a breeze that never stops blowing.

But high technology it's not. In fact, the work going on at a ranch outside Tehachapi basically puts regular old gravity to work on one of the state's shortest and steepest railroads.

The goal is to create an efficient and environmentally sound method for storing and stabilizing energy generated by wind farms and photovoltaic solar plants, which by their nature work only when conditions are right.

Wind and solar are all the rage but power experts have expressed concern that neither source can provide a continuous, steady power output. Fuel-fired power plants can do that.

So the search is on for a renewable source that also can be continually reliable.

Rechargeable batteries are one approach, but they haven't worked well on a large scale. Worldwide, the most common way is to use renewable energy to pump water uphill, then release it when needed so that flowing downhill it powers turbine generators. The big drawbacks: it's water-intensive and, often, environmentally disruptive.

Enter a Santa Barbara company called Advanced Rail Energy Storage, or ARES. It's developing a system that would use electricity from wind farms and solar plants to drive electric locomotives laden with reinforced concrete and basalt up a steep slope.

When demand for electricity rises and the power grid needs a bump, ARES plans to allow the heavy rail cars to roll back down the hill. This rolling action would create electric energy using something called regenerative braking -- much the way a hybrid automobile charges its batteries.

Think back to high school physics: You build up potential energy by raising mass, such as a brick, to a higher elevation. Drop that brick and it moves with kinetic energy‚ in this case generating electricity.

The idea is not entirely new; others have talked about using weights and pulleys to store energy. But CEO Jim Kelly said ARES' technology may be superior precisely because of its simplicity: Electric locomotives have been around for more than 100 years.

"No breakthrough science required here," he said. "That's sort of the elegance of our solution."

What's more, it's about as environmentally friendly as renewable energy itself. No dams, no emissions.

"We like to think that our secret sauce is, we're the clean and green storage for green energy," Kelly said. Although the operation would require a good size parcel of land, he noted, the tracks could eventually be pulled up without leaving much lasting impact on the site.

Big plans

Formed in 2010 and backed by a group of investors based mostly in Seattle, ARES is talking with utilities and government-run enterprises in Europe, South America and China, Kelly said. The privately held company has filed for U.S. and international patents, and may license out its technology, he said.

ARES' management team and directors are respected professionals with expertise in a number of industries related to the venture. For instance, Kelly retired as senior vice president of transmission and distribution for the Rosemead-based utility Southern California Edison. Founder and director of technology development Bill Peitzke brokered long-term natural gas contracts to California co-generation facilities in the 1980s; he has 29 years of experience in the energy business, including as an investment banker.

The company plans to build a 31/2-mile-long commercial facility in Nevada that would not store but stabilize -- that is, even out -- the delivery of voltage, from renewable energy projects before their electricity enters that state's and California's power grid. Kelly said he hopes to have the operational within a couple of years.

In the meantime, for at least the next several months, anyway, there's experimentation to be done on the railroad ARES started building in February on a quiet ranch one of its investors owns near Tehachapi.

Laid out not far from a working wind farm and a turbine assembly plant, the site offers ideal topography, Kelly said, not to mention its symbolism as being smack in a hub of renewable energy development.

"We knew it was a really important area for renewable generation," he said.

The quarter-scale track meanders 868 feet along a hillside at grades ranging from 4.5 percent to 9 percent.

Initial tests set for later this week are intended to measure how quickly the system can respond to the kind of signal a utility would send if it suddenly needed juice.

Such responsiveness is one of several measures on which ARES' success may rest, said Robert Schainker, senior technical executive at the Palo Alto-based Electric Power Research Institute. Among other important factors he cited: how much energy the company's facilities can store, how much energy is lost in the process -- and of course, how much the system costs on a per-kilowatt basis.

A willing market

Schainker, who noted that he was unfamiliar with ARES' technology, said the company's competitors are many -- up to 300 companies around the globe. But he also said the industry has many niches to fill.

"We always need new, innovative ideas," he said, "and if they're economically attractive, we should try to demonstrate them and try to get them into the marketplace."

Demand for energy storage capacity is strong and growing, especially in California, where investor-owned utilities are under orders from the state to secure at least a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

For their part, utilities are testing their own energy storage technologies, including rechargeable batteries and a method that compresses air for future release into turbine generators.

"At this point, you can look at energy storage as a lab experiment, so to speak," said David Song, a spokesman for SCE, the Southern California utility.

One benefit of ARES' technology is that it is scalable, meaning it can be applied to storage facilities as small as 50 megawatts or as large as 2 gigawatts, Kelly said.

Also, he estimated its storage efficiency at about 80 percent, which is a little better than the leading technology, pumped hydroelectric.

As for relative cost, he said the company's system is roughly half the cost per kilowatt of most utility-scale rechargeable batteries. And depending on the needs of the power grid, it can deliver constant power over a period of about eight hours -- starting less than 10 seconds after a utility signals that it needs more power.

Peitzke, the company's founder, felt compelled to note that Kern County officials made the pilot project's permitting process easy.

That was key, he said, because ARES was looking outside the county, too.

"We had a number of alternative locations that we could have built on, and we chose Kern County because of their business friendly attitude and their progressive ... attitude toward renewable energy," he said.

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