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$25-million battery will add to power infrastructure

COLUMBUS — In Mississippi the availability and affordability of electrical power is largely taken for granted. But with the recent rolling blackouts that have plagued California, more attention is being paid to the importance of having an adequate supply of electricity on hand.

One potential piece of the puzzle could be to store excess electricity that isn’t needed at night to be used in the daytime when power usage peaks. That’s the idea behind the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) $25-million pilot project to build a giant electrical power storage facility near Columbus Air Force Base.

“This is a very interesting, ‘Star Wars’ type of program,” said Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes County Economic Development Association. “This is very new technology. There is only one other similar facility in the world. This will be the second. The system is called Regenesys. Like a reservoir of water, it stores electricity in the device at night during off peak, and puts it back on the grid during peak power usage.”

The facility will add to the already considerable growth in the electrical power infrastructure in Northeast Mississippi. Ford said that new power generation project either under development or planned in the area represent more than $1 billion in investments.

TVA spokesman John Moulton said a $10-million contract with a company based in South Wales was approved in November 2000 by the TVA board of directors for the project.

“It is the first plant of its type in the U.S.,” Moulton said. “This is a way to help meet demand by having power during high peak usage times. It will work like a giant battery. It will store electricity, not generate it. It uses fuel cells to store electricity when demand is low. Then the electricity is available to put out on the power grid during high demand times.”

TVA is currently considering three sites near the Columbus Air Force Base for the pilot project. The sites near the base are being considered because of access to electrical transmission lines. Moulton said TVA hopes to announce which site has been selected by the end of May. After an environmental review is conducted, construction could begin in the summer.

Moulton said the total cost of the 12-megawatt energy storage plant will be about $25 million. TVA is also addressing the issue of meeting energy demands with plans in 2002 to build four small peaking plants in Mississippi with a total of 680 megawatts of production capacity. Moulton said those units would run only during the hottest and coldest days of the winter when demand is at its highest.

Wayne Bennett, dean of the Mississippi State University College of Engineering, said the Regenesys project is good news on several levels.

“The thing that pleases me about an installation of this nature is, number one, it helps our tax base,” Bennett said. “And two, as we know now from the situation in California, industry and our quality of life are very dependent on the availability of cost-effective electric power. That’s important to our area. I was in California two weeks ago in San Diego and they were under rolling blackouts during that time. There was a lot of concern about the impact of blackouts on industry production.”

Bennett said there are a lot of telecommunications companies in California where equipment is designed and built. When production is stopped in a facility of that nature because of a power outage, there is a significant negative impact on the company.

“It also impacts the tax base of the area and the people who work at the facility,” Bennett said. “Energy is critically important. Most of us think of it in terms of the convenience of having the lights on at home. But the implications are much greater. A lot of companies are now having to invest in standby power systems, which is just another expense that affects the bottom line.”

Bennett said that Mississippi is very fortunate to have not only an abundant supply, but also reasonably priced electricity. He said that could be a major draw for recruiting new industries to the state.

“My hope is that one of the good things coming out of some of the energy problems is the potential for other companies locating here,” Bennett said. “Cypress Semiconductor has a facility here in our research center. It is less expensive to operate that design facility here than in California. With a lot of the technical work involved in modern telecommunications, it doesn’t matter where you are. So it is my hope that we will be able to attract other industries here.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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