The sporadic nature of renewable energy, wind and solar in particular, poses a great challenge to wider adoption. Storage systems, even in stationary applications, are not sufficently developed. But rather than depending on creating a massive battery industry to facilitate a decentralized electricity grid reliant on wind and solar sources, why not develop thermal storage? Check out “Gigawatt-Hours per Million Commuters” for more on why we need to store more decentralized energy, even if the sun shone 24 hours per day.
The science of exploiting the temperature differential between thermal masses to manage temperature and generate power is well understood, but to-date applications are usually at the utility scale, such as with geothermal power plants, or co-generation units at utilities with high power consumption. Why not engineer a thermal circulation system into a building, and store hot and cold thermal mass in the basement and in the core of the building?
The notion of engineering intelligent thermal circulation into server farms is just beginning to take off, and the nature of this application can be used for temperature management at a building scale using the same concepts. By circulating a thermal transfer fluid through machinery that requires cooling, their heat can be harvested. A building with a thermal fluid circulation system would have each section of the building routing transfer fluid through rooftop collection units, with distribution routes to heat and cool the envelope of the building, interior climate control, collection routes through stationary energy consuming fixtures, all programmed and automatically monitored and activated by sensor, and centrally managed via cell phone or website.
Thermal circulation – the process of keeping every element in a building functioning at an optimal temperature – would simultaneously harvest solar heat as well as heat from all electricity consumers in the building. A building with a comprehensive solar-thermal circulation system could also harvest cold, in a dual storage system designed to concentrate and store hot and cold thermal mass. By regulating the input in and out of these two thermal extremes, power could be generated and climate control could be provided to the entire building, while harvesting excess hot and cold mass anywhere in the building as needed.
At the end of the day, it is probably cheaper to use one system for energy storage, and more-comprehensive thermal systems may be launched as basic next-generation water heating and space heating systems. But the future of thermal circulation could also embody energy storage solutions that don’t necessarily include batteries.