According to Thomas Buscheck, the paper’s author and director of LLNL’s Geochemical, Hydrological, and Environmental Science division, if “you want to store the large quantities of renewable energy necessary to balance seasonal supply-demand mismatches and store it efficiently, we believe the best way to do that is underground.”
The underground storage system involves pumping supercritical CO2, a highly concentrated liquid version of carbon dioxide, into highly porous and permeable sedimentary rock. Once underground, the highly pressurized CO2 pushes brine trapped in the rock up production wells. At the surface, the brine can be heated by energy from concentrating solar power plants, wind turbines, and nuclear and other baseload power plants.
Once heated, the brine is sent into the reservoirs to store thermal energy. The geothermal heat and huge amount of pressure underground prevent significant heat loss. When renewable energy cannot fulfill power grid demands, the pressurized CO2 and brine can both be released and their thermal energy converted to power. The brine could be used in a steam-powered generator, while the heated CO2 could drive turbines by itself. Both fluids could be reheated and sent back down into the reservoirs.
Another benefit of the system is that it locks away CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, fueling climate change. Buscheck says at least four million tons of CO2 could be stored underground each year over 30 years. That is equivalent to the CO2 impact of a 600-megawatt coal plant. To relieve the enormous pressure of the stored CO2, which will make it difficult to keep underground permanently, some of the brine could be removed to create water through desalination.
Burning fossil fuels to generate electricity accounts for about 31% of the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States—more than any other source, including transportation. This translates into more than two billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year, according a 2013 study by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Buscheck says the United States is a very suitable candidate for the new system, but his reasons are less about the country’s carbon footprint and more about its geology. The sedimentary rock formations required for this system cover about half of the United States, he says.
The project falls within the U.S. Energy Department's Grid Modernization program, which aims to integrate renewable energy sources into the grid, while making it more resilient and secure against cyberattacks. On Thursday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that the laboratory would start 14 new power grid research projects this year. Buscheck and his LLNL colleagues worked on the project with researchers from Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, and Terracoh Inc., a company that designs underground CO2 storage systems.