Election politics almost killed a great idea.
When Beacon Power inaugurated its 20-MW flywheel storage plant in Stephentown, N.Y., last July, it celebrated the successful implementation of a radical technology idea: evacuate a chamber and set a flywheel spinning inside of it. With no air to slow it down, the flywheel’s momentum will continue, deterred only by the forces of gravity and a small drag from its bearings. Put a slew of these flywheels together, and you’ve got an energy storage system with none of the technology constraints of chemical batteries, and none of the siting hurdles of pumped storage.
This seemed like a slam-dunk, and from a technical perspective, it was. Except for certain teething glitches, the $69 million Stephentown facility has operated flawlessly, delivering small bursts of power into the grid for on-demand voltage support. But from a business perspective, Beacon’s project faced two major problems that ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy, just a few months after the Stephentown plant went live.
Blame it on government regulation, if you will. But in reality, it was just plain politics.