New York City dove headlong into the race to build bigger and bigger batteries this week, as regulators approved plans for a massive system on the East River in Queens.
But for those keeping score, the biggest of all has been quietly at work for almost 16 years in a far more remote corner of America: a warehouse in central Alaska.
The 46-megawatt battery, in Fairbanks, uses a chemistry that’s largely gone the way of fax machines. It’s old enough that its operators can’t find replacement parts for some components. But it still works, keeping the lights in the city of 32,000 near the Arctic Circle, preventing 59 blackouts last year alone.
“Our system operators are very adamant that they don’t want it to go away,” said Dan Bishop, manager of engineering services for the Golden Valley Electric Association, which owns the battery.
The push to install bigger and bigger batteries on U.S. electric grids comes as the price of lithium-ion systems has plummeted and states try to squeeze out fossil fuels. By soaking up excess power and dispatching it when demand spikes, batteries can help keep grids stable and smoothly incorporate ebbs and flows of wind and solar. They can also displace so called peaker natural-gas plants that kick in only when demand surges.
Dubbed the BESS, for Battery Energy Storage System, the array in Alaska uses 13,760 nickel-cadmium cells, stacked in rows. Guinness World Records certified it as the world’s most powerful battery when it was commissioned in 2003. It’s since lost its global crown as systems including Tesla Inc.’s 100-megawatt battery in Australia have come online.