North America has committed significant funding to the development of energy storage technologies and researchers are beginning to learn how to store meaningful amounts of renewable power that can be tapped on demand. Hydropower is poised to play an important part in the growth of energy storage, a promising concept that could transform the power industry.

BC Hydro is testing what could be the most viable method for storing large amounts of power at its Clayton Falls hydroelectric plant in Bella Coola, about 248 miles north of Vancouver.

The run-of-river plant is now capable of using its surplus electricity to produce and store hydrogen through a process known as electrolysis. The hydrogen can then be used in a 100-kilowatt fuel cell to generate electricity when demand peaks. This new source of emission-free power is replacing the need for power made from diesel-fueled generators. BC Hydro estimates the demonstration project known as the Hydrogen Assisted Renewable Power system (HARP) will lower the community’s diesel consumption by 200,000 liters a year and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 600 tons a year.

“It’s a very cost-effective and convenient way to store renewable energy,” said David Field, a spokesman for BC Citizens for Green Energy. “It’s better than importing coal-fired electricity from Alberta and the U.S. to accomplish the same thing, which is what we’re doing right now.”

Even more interesting is the project’s use of smart grid technology. A microgrid controller acts as a “brain” of sorts to manage the power system. The microgrid controller monitors the balance between supply and demand and uses the information to determine when to convert power into hydrogen and when to convert the hydrogen into power to meet increased demand. “Smart grid technology is going to let us actively manage the electrical grid,” Field said. “It’s the biggest change in the electrical system since Thomas Edison”.

Using renewable resources such as water to cheaply produce hydrogen that can be used in fuel cells to generate power for homes and businesses has been a long-held dream for many researchers and chemists.

The demonstration project at Canyon Falls may prove to be a major step toward fulfilling that goal.