NARRATOR: Our attitude about energy hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years. We want it when we want it, with absolutely no delays. The thing is, because many of us are on similar schedules, our energy use tends to follow a similar pattern—for example, we use lots of it in the early evening when we get home from work or school, and then very little a few hours later when most of us are asleep.
The result is that cities and towns have times of high and low energy use throughout the day. So, in order to make sure that everyone has energy when they want it, utility companies HAVE TO keep costly power plants on stand-by, just to fill in during peak times.
It would be great if renewable energy sources were always available during times of high demand, so we wouldn’t need those extra power plants. But solar and wind farms produce electricity only when the Sun is shining, or the wind is blowing. And if they produce more electricity than people use… too bad. That electricity is gone forever.
If we had efficient ways of holding on to the excess electricity we produce, we could rely more on renewables, and save money. We can’t store electricity directly, but we can store it as other types of energy. Figuring out the best ways to do this is one of the biggest challenges facing scientists and engineers today.
One of the most likely solutions is to store electricity in the form of chemical energy inside giant batteries. These batteries are similar to those found inside a cell phone or hybrid car, but on an enormous scale. The hard part is making a battery that can provide power to thousands of people for several hours, but which isn’t too costly and doesn’t take up too much space.
There are many other ideas as well. Some involve storing electricity in the form of potential energy or kinetic energy. But while all these ideas have promise, we still don’t have reliable ways of storing energy in every location. It may be up to the next generation of scientists and engineers to rethink how we use and store the electricity we produce.
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