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Using Ultracapacitors in Utility

Applications
The development of ultracapacitors suitable for high-power applications has raised
much excitement and speculation throughout the electric industry. Manufacturers of
adjustable-speed drives (ASDs), uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs), and fuel cells
are keen on using the inherent advantages of ultracapacitors to create better products.
Now utilities are looking to these devices for performance improvement and reliability in
a variety of areas.

The development of ultracapacitors suitable for high-power applications


has raised much excitement and speculation throughout the electric
industry. Manufacturers of adjustable-speed drives (ASDs), uninterruptible
power supplies (UPSs), and fuel cells are keen on using the inherent
advantages of ultracapacitors to create better products. Now utilities are
looking to these devices for performance improvement and reliability in a
variety of areas.

For over two decades, engineers have used ultracapacitors as low-voltage backup for
memory within programmable logic controllers and computer mother boards because of
their excellent energy-storage capability, high cycle life, and outstanding reliability.
Today, advancements in the materials and design configurations for ultracapacitor
systems have made it practical to apply these devices at much higher power levels and in
voltage configurations typically up to 600VDC (see the photo).
What Is an Ultracapacitor?

Ultracapacitors are devices that store electrical energy as charge separation in porous
electrodes with large surface areas. They are true capacitors in the sense that energy is
stored via charge separation at the electrode-electrolyte interface, and they can
withstand a large number of charge/discharge cycles without degradation. They also are
similar to batteries in many respects, including the use of electrolyte and the practice of
configuring various-sized cells into modules to meet the power, energy, and voltage
requirements for a wide range of applications.

In ultracapacitors, the physics of capacitance have not changed. As in any capacitor, the
amount of capacitance directly relates to the surface area of the electrodes. What has
changed is the surface area of the electrodes. The surface area of a carbon electrode is an
amazing 1000 m2 to 2000 m2 per gram.

While batteries store charges chemically, ultracapacitors store them electrostatically


(see Fig. 1, on page 42). Ultracapacitors use an electrolyte solvent, typically potassium
hydroxide or sulfuric acid (both aqueous electrolytes), and they consist of two capacitors
connected in series via the electrolyte. They are often called double-layer capacitors
because of the dual layers within the structure — one at each electrode. The combination
of carbon and potassium hydroxide allows for inexpensive construction.

Some key benefits of ultracapacitors include the following:

 Highest capacitance density of any capacitor technology

 Lowest cost per farad

 Reliable, long life

 High cycle life

 Maintenance-free operation
 Environmentally safe

 Wide range of operating temperature

 High power density and good energy density

Of these features, the greater power and energy densities fill the gap between standard
batteries and traditional capacitors for high-power, short-duration energy storage. The
basic ultracapacitor technology, which is scalable in the cell form, is also scalable in
module form, and ultracapacitor modules are now being configured for high-voltage,
high-power applications. The flexibility and scalable nature of ultracapacitor technology
enables a wide range of applications that directly interface with power-conversion
systems, including DC-to-DC boost converters and DC-to-AC inverters.

Utility Applications

In a time of constrained transmission corridors, increased concern for power quality,


and obstacles to the construction of transmission lines, the search for innovative
technologies promises significant risks and rewards. Ultracapacitors can be the solution.

EPRI PEAC engineers have been actively involved in investigating the use of
ultracapacitors with utility-scale inverters. A simplified schematic is shown in Fig. 2, on
page 44.

Utility applications don't always require large amounts of energy generation. Many
require only a small amount of energy storage combined with advanced power
electronics. The most promising applications are described below:
Transmission line stability

It's possible to increase the stability of a transmission system by adding energy storage.
This serves to dampen oscillation through the successive generation and absorption of
real (as opposed to reactive) power.

There is also transient stability — the stability required after a utility event (loss of
substation or major line). During a transient event, achieving stability requires a
substantial capability to absorb energy quickly. This is somewhat analogous to “dynamic
braking” because generator turbines must be slowed. A typical specification is 100MW
with 500 MJ (< 5 sec).

Spinning reserve

This is the generation capacity that a utility holds in reserve to prevent service
interruptions if a generator fails. An ultracapacitor system can be built to supply power
during the interruption, until quick-start diesels begin to supply power. A typical
specification is 20MW to 100MW and 300 MJ to 1500 MJ.

Area and frequency control

Electricity generated by utilities must be produced and consumed at the same time. Any
discrepancy between aggregate electrical energy production and aggregate energy
consumption (including losses) appears in an AC system as a frequency variation.
Because of its potential to react instantly, an ultracapacitor-based system would be
considerably more effective than a generating plant in supplying frequency regulation. A
system based on ultracapacitors can absorb or supply energy as required, freeing other
generation sources from frequency regulation or tie-line control duties. A typical
specification is 100MW to 1000MW and 0.1MWh to 10MWh.
Voltage regulation

Voltage regulation is a system's ability to maintain the voltage at either end of a


transmission line within 5%. A voltage-source inverter is capable of regulating local-area
voltage (when it's connected in shunt) or regulating power flow (when it's connected in
series). It's capable of providing these two functions without a significant amount of
energy storage. The need for voltage regulation and power flow control is site-specific. A
typical specification is 1 Mvar for less than 15 minutes.

Power quality and uninterruptible power

Power outages can result in costly interruptions for large commercial and industrial
customers. Energy storage has been used for decades in power quality applications at
distribution and utilization voltages. The next logical step is power quality for wide areas
at the transmission level. Examples of this already exist. Dynamic voltage restorer
(DVR) technology can provide energy storage equivalent to ½ sec of peak load. Similar
principles can be applied to large loads (>20MW) served from low-voltage
transmissions. A typical specification is 1MW to 5MW and 10 MJ to 50 MJ.

Integration Design Issues

There are numerous key factors involved in the design and integration of
ultracapacitors, as compared to lead-acid batteries and electrolytic capacitors. These
factors include:

Size

Obviously, the smaller the element, the better. However, it's important to note that the
power requirement is strenuous, and current values to several hundreds of amps are
common. Generally, the mechanics of the interconnect dictate the packaging. In
addition, electrolytic capacitors or large snubbers will be required if the storage element
is so large that more than a few inches of lead length are needed to connect the element
to the power electronic switches. This would increase cost and decrease efficiency.

Availability

As market size increases, so must the availability of the energy source. Lead-acid
batteries and electrolytic capacitors are readily available. Ultracapacitors are not.

Cost

Of course, lower costs are preferable to higher ones. However, it's imperative to include
factors such as maintenance, cycle life, and design complexity in any cost analysis.
Despite the fact that batteries are a mature technology, ultracapacitors compare
favorably if you consider more than the initial cost.

Design complexity and useful voltage range

Design complexity defines the cost of integrating an ultracapacitor into a system. It also
answers the question, “Is the energy in a form that is useful, or are power electronics
required to convert the stored energy to the proper voltage and current levels for the
application?” An important consideration is the tradeoff between depth of discharge,
which determines the quality and rating of power-electronic switches, and the number
of ultracapacitors placed in parallel.

Design complexity is closely related to the voltage range at which the energy is available.
The cost of power electronics is driven upward with decreasing voltage and increasing
current, while the cost of the energy source is generally driven upward with increasing
voltage and decreasing internal resistance.

Ultracapacitors do not have flat discharge voltages like batteries. Thus, a balance is
needed between the cost of power electronics and the size of the ultracapacitor bank.
Efficiency

There is a cost associated with the charge/discharge efficiency, which is a function of the
equivalent series resistance (ESR) and charge acceptance of the ultracapacitor. A lead-
acid battery typically requires 30% more energy to charge than to store. Capacitors
require much less, with electrolytic being the best. Efficiency is a function of rate of
charge. The faster the rate, the lower the efficiency.

Cycle life

Cycle life defines the number of charges/discharges that an ultracapacitor can


withstand. In lead-acid battery systems, cycle life is closely related to depth of discharge.
This is not so with ultracapacitors. Therefore, the inherent energy advantage in lead-
acid batteries is, in part, offset if the application requires a large number of cycles.

Self-discharge rate

The self-discharge rate describes the rate at which energy is lost (within an
ultracapacitor) as a result of parasitic losses. A high self-discharge rate will increase
design complexity by requiring an additional circuit to maintain a typically small but
constant flow of energy to the element. Discharge rate varies by the type of technology
used within an ultracapacitor, with the symmetrical (carbon/carbon) systems having a
higher leakage current than the asymmetrical (metal/carbon) systems.

Equalization

Cells are placed electrically in series to produce the voltage required for a particular
application. During discharge, depending on the condition of each individual cell, an
imbalance between cells can occur. If this situation remains uncorrected over time, it's
possible for a single cell to completely discharge. Then, instead of producing energy, the
cell accepts an excessive amount of energy, eventually causing the entire string to fail.
The equalization process ensures that all cells contain approximately the same amount
of energy. Having to equalize the ultracapacitor elements increases design complexity.

Excess discharge to 0V

During maintenance, it is safest to eliminate all potential sources of energy. Batteries


and asymmetrical ultracapacitors cannot be completely discharged without damage.
Electrolytic capacitors and symmetrical ultracapacitors can be completely discharged.

Conclusion

Ultracapacitors can be applied to utility applications. From improving area/frequency


control to improving voltage regulation, ultracapacitor-based systems can provide and
absorb real and reactive power. The appropriate configuration will depend on the
application and site. Ultracapacitors are available today with the necessary power and
energy characteristics to meet the application requirements.

EPRI PEAC Corp. is currently in the process of gathering more information about the
design and application of systems sized for multimegawatt applications. Preliminary
analysis indicates good performance, small footprint, and high reliability.

Thomas D. Geist is a senior power quality engineer with EPRI PEAC Corp. in
Knoxville, Tenn. You can reach him at tgeist@epri-peac.com.