The Smart Grid is one of those intangible concepts now a fixture in national energy vernacular. A project that broke ground in November 2009 in New York state will offer the smart grid there a real-life boost and, in terms of the concept, something tangible and much more easily defined.

The Tyngsboro, Mass.-based Beacon Power broke ground in Stephentown, N.Y., on what is being touted as the nation’s first, full-scale, 20-megawatt (MW) flywheel frequency regulation plant. Initial construction work on the plant was launched with the groundbreaking. Full construction is expected to begin late in the first quarter of 2010 and should be completed in 16 to 18 months.

Frequency regulation is an essential component of a smart grid, the primary objective being efficiency. It is performed by maintaining a tight balance between electricity supply and demand. Beacon’s plant will provide frequency regulation by absorbing and storing electricity from the grid when there is too much. The system will send energy back into the grid when there is not enough power to meet demand. The key component of this regulation system will be a matrix of flywheels, designed and built by Beacon, which will store the surplus electricity as kinetic energy.

Beacon points to a 2008 study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a DOE research institution, which concludes that 1 MW of fast-responding flywheel-based regulation can be expected to provide the equivalent of 2 MW of conventional slow-responding regulation.

Flywheel regulation is especially useful in expanding the use of renewable power, such as wind and solar, because of the intermittent nature of its generation. Also like renewable power sources, flywheel plants help address global warming. Unlike conventional fossil fuel-powered generators that provide frequency regulation, these do not consume any fuel, nor will they directly produce CO2 greenhouse gas emissions or other air pollutants. They operate solely on kinetic energy.