In Texas, One Really Big Battery

The Texas border town of Presidio only has one connection to the U.S. electrical grid — an aging, 60-mile long transmission line that goes down frequently in the area's high winds and electrical storms. The solution? A Texas-sized battery. Host Linda Wertheimer speaks to Calvin Crowder, president of Electric Transmission Texas, about the Presidio battery project.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Presidio is a little city on the southern edge of West Texas. It's about a hundred miles south of the nearest interstate, right on the Rio Grande. It's in a wild and beautiful part of Texas, and wild weather is part of the bargain.

Presidio has only one link to the U.S. electrical grid. It comes from Marfa, 60 miles away. It was built in 1948, and that line goes down frequently.

Presidio's solution is a battery worthy of the Lone Star State, a huge battery that can provide up to eight hours of power for the entire town. It started charging up this week.

Calvin Crowder is president of Electric Transmission Texas. That's the outfit that is putting this whole battery thing together. He joins us.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Crowder.

Mr. CALVIN CROWDER (President, Electric Transmission Texas): Thank you, Linda, I'm glad to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when you say that this big battery did you name the battery? Does it have a name?

Mr. CROWDER: we did not name the battery. Some people call it BOB, for big-old battery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROWDER: But we've not named it officially.

WERTHEIMER: This thing can do eight hours of power. Now, do you have to restrict it to just lights and refrigeration or something, or will it just run Presidio the way Presidio always runs?

Mr. CROWDER: For the most part, it will run it. The fact of the matter is Presidio has a total demand for electricity at its very peak period, the hottest hours of the hottest days of the year, of around 4,000 kilowatts or four megawatts, and the battery is simply charged and discharges into the transmission grid.

It also has this capability of storing up to four megawatts of power for up to eight hours.

WERTHEIMER: What does eight hours get you? What does it buy you?

Mr. CROWDER: Currently, and as you mentioned, we've got a single transmission line that was built over 60 years ago, and when we lose that line, we have no electrical connection to Presidio. What we have in place and what we've had for years is an agreement with the Mexican government that we can transfer the Presidio load over to Mexico, but that takes some time, and during that period of time, the townspeople don't have power.

WERTHEIMER: So it just sort of gives you a bridging amount of power.

Mr. CROWDER: That's right. It's key for short period of time or bridging the power until we can find a long-term connection. It also has benefits of just being there in the area. Generators are needed near where electricity is consumed to provide what we call voltage support, and this ensures that the power quality is high, and you don't have flickering of lights or resetting of VCRs...

WERTHEIMER: No fluctuations, computers quitting on you.

Mr. CROWDER: Exactly. And in Presidio, there is no such generation. And so this battery will also act as a source of what we call reactive power to improve power quality. So it'll have an ongoing role, and then it'll also serve this backup opportunity in the event of an outage.

WERTHEIMER: Is it going to be a real test of big-old battery when some summer lightning storm takes out the line, and the battery kicks in, and everybody in Presidio is dying from the heat and has their air conditioning on high? Is it I mean, is that going to be the moment when you find out whether BOB works or BOB doesn't?

Mr. CROWDER: That will be the test, and our success will be that nobody notices anything.

WERTHEIMER: So is this just a special case, Mr. Crowder, a little town that's way away from sources of power, or can you imagine that there might be other uses for batteries on this scale?

Mr. CROWDER: I think a little of both. It is a special case. The other solution for this town would be to build a second line, and that line would cost somewhere in the range of $40 to $50 million. And so a battery project in the $25 million range looks pretty attractive.

What I believe we will do is be providing data and new knowledge of how these batteries operate so that those that do want to invest in batteries for purposes of wind power or solar storage can learn things and find out how to deploy even larger battery systems for their use.

WERTHEIMER: Calvin Crowder is the president of Electric Transmission Texas. He joined us from the studios at KUT in Austin.

Mr. Crowder, thanks very much.

Mr. CROWDER: Thank you, Linda. I appreciate the opportunity.

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