Pushing the solution envelope for alternative power to seemingly wilder (yet practical) extremes, Active Power (Austin, Texas), with mostly off the shelf components, has gone public with a system for generating up to two hours of backup at 10 kW, or 15 minutes at 85 kW using compressed air technology with thermal storage, a small turbine, and a flywheel. Following on the heels of wind machines, a few flywheel products, fuel cells, inverter systems for solar applications, and most recently a high-power, supercapacitor backup source for bridging, this thermodynamics development came as a bit of a shock even to me. After endless discussion, literally decades in some cases, every one of these technologies faced a "show-me" phase and, to a lesser or greater degree, came through.
I'd say this newest system draws the closest analogy to what we call integrated (versus alternative) medicine—taking the best from each approach— but in this case without costing the patient a billion dollars. And a variety of customers are already lined up for this self-contained product, according to Active Power. As with many recent systems, this one is aimed at replacing the "bad guy," i.e, lead-acid batteries that back up uninterruptible power supplies.
Still, with the growing alternative-power buzz, a stream of analyses coming from various market experts warn that the cost of such systems isn't going to be negligible, one reason why the investment dollars for supporting the present/post R&D phase aren't expected to come easily. There also seems to be a kind of stigma associated with individuals expressing support for such ventures. Indeed, I can see those letters coming in right now, in great numbers, chiding me (again) of such predicaments as the lack of hydrogen mines on earth that would thus render practical hydrogen fuel cells useless.
But with the collective state of alternative power technology as it is, I can't help but think those market reports, and the naysayers, may have missed the point. Indeed, for all we know the funding machinery is well developing as we speak, or already in a self-sufficient mode, supported by many of the companies with various beta-stage models and a stake in the power environment. If that's true, financial backers are already way ahead of the pack and the casual investor entering the typical learning curve of an emerging technology, and will be for a far greater period than customary. And why not! The products indicate there's a lot of new power "weapons" to draw on, as they say in football. Count me as a believer; a well-developed "alternative power" industry, with or without deliberate consumer funding, is destined to take hold sooner than later.
Vincent Biancomano covers power products for eeProductWeek. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author and should not be taken as an editorial position of EE Times or any of its other editors, publications or Web sites.