The Energizer

Forget the bunny. Robin Parker has a battery that might save the world.

Parker remains bitter. “We wasted ten years.” He's cut off his friendship with Coyle, who married Parker's sister this past March. “The drama here on this thing has been unbelievable,” Melahn laments. “It has been unbelievable because this business of energy is so big and it is so important. And Florida Power and Light has held SRT back incredibly. It has held it way, way back.”

Coyle says he actually tried to interest FPL executives in SRT shortly after he joined the company in 1989. But since Jim Broadhead became CEO that year, Coyle explains, the utility has developed a policy which prevents it from investing in any technology that isn't already on the market. FPL stopped contributing to EPRI shortly after the dinner incident, contending the research institute was a waste of money. “Robin has always felt that I let him down,” Coyle says. “There are all kinds of alternative power generation sources out there, fuel cells and so forth, and we simply don't invest in them. When a technology is proven we'll go out and buy whatever the product is and use it to produce electricity, but we're not in the research and development business. Our business is generating and distributing electricity.”

And so FPL continues to make and sell electricity mostly by burning oil; about a third of its output relies on natural gas, and a fraction comes from coal. To meet demand in the Sunshine State the firm also buys power from Atlanta-based Southern Power, which uses mostly coal-fired generators. In California an FPL subsidiary generates electricity from two large solar energy facilities in the Mojave Desert and sells it to Southern California Edison. “It's the most expensive power they buy,” Coyle notes. “We don't think [solar power] is going to lead anywhere productive. It's too expensive compared to the alternative means, which are nuclear or fossil fuels.”

Holy architectural genius! The 1954 home Alfred Browning Parker and his first wife  Martha built when Robin was eight years old
photos courtesy Robin Parker
Holy architectural genius! The 1954 home Alfred Browning Parker and his first wife Martha built when Robin was eight years old

Ironically FPL owns the greatest number of wind farms in the nation, a total of fifteen in California, Iowa, Texas, Oregon, and Wisconsin. But spokesperson Carol Clawson suggests the company is in no hurry to develop a way to store that electricity for times when the wind is not blowing. “The only way to store wind energy would be with batteries,” she insists. “And nobody has developed a battery that could be used on a large enough scale to work with wind farms.”

FPL's rejection is all the harder for Parker to take because the DOE considers wind power a perfect application for SRT's technology. Rossmeissl thinks FPL's wind farms would be far more productive if, when the breezes cease, power could be stored in a SRT-style system. “FPL is just not a supporter of energy storage,” he concludes. “They're similar to a lot of very conservative power companies. Their idea of energy storage is how much oil you have in a tank or how much natural gas you have in a line.”

Other members of Florida's energy establishment such as Tampa Electric Company and Florida Power Corporation have also passed on SRT. So have State of Florida leaders who control millions of federal dollars available for renewable energy research. Among those Parker has contacted are state legislators and economic development gurus appointed by former governor Lawton Chiles and his successor Jeb Bush. “I've been screwing around with Florida officials for fifteen years trying to get funding, and these bums don't even return a phone call,” Parker grumbles. “They don't answer mail; they don't return a phone call. Florida is always being written up [in newspaper articles] as a low-tech state. And I can see why.”

And so Parker has taken his campaign to places east of the Atlantic and west of the Mississippi River. Last year DOE agreed to provide nearly two million dollars to build and test a ten-kilowatt, solar-powered electrical storage unit that uses HBr. Under the deal Parker was required to contribute $780,000. He managed to convince the Arizona Public Service Company (APS), one of the biggest energy suppliers in the southwestern United States, to provide $657,000 of it. With that money engineers at SRT's lab in Virginia currently are assembling the unit. If Parker can find supplemental funding, more testing would take place at one of the Arizona company's facilities. APS president Peter Johnston is uncertain about the project's future because of the cost of solar collectors. “It's so damn expensive,” he remarks. Notes Parker: “Everyone's down on solar these days.”

During the past year SRT has also been building an energy storage unit with the American subsidiary of one of England's largest utilities, National Power. DOE approved $2.5 million for the project; SRT and National Power are to provide another $2.5 million over several years. In late July of this year, Parker finally raised the last portion of nonfederal funding needed to keep the work moving: Wyoming governor Jim Geringer approved $475,000 from a public energy reserve. Once various components are assembled at National Power lab in North Carolina, engineers from that company and the nonprofit Wyoming Research Institute will assemble the module for a field demonstration in the western state. Parker says he has no idea when it will all be ready.

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