LOS ANGELES -- Ice Energy has a novel solution for the electricity challenges of the 21st century: Make Popsicles.
Put another way, the company wants to freeze water at night in refrigerator-like boxes adjacent to commercial air conditioners and then thaw it during the day, when power demand is highest. This would theoretically allow AC-hungry commercial buildings in warm climates to cut energy use during heat waves, by shutting air conditioners down while still providing cool air to buildings from melting ice.
After seven years of development and testing, the Windsor, Colo.-based company signed an agreement recently with the Southern California Public Power Authority here to deploy some 6,000 Popsicle-making units at 1,500 locations in the utility's service territory around Los Angeles. Ice Energy says the units, called Ice Bears, will lead to a 30 percent fuel reduction for the utility through avoided use of so-called peaker generation plants, which are only turned on when demand is highest.
In Southern California and other warm places, the benefits are numerous, the company says, because of a heavy reliance on air conditioners during hotter months. Avoiding peak power also means importing less coal-fired electricity from out of state when the California grid is taxed during heat waves.
"Electricity suffers from the central tenet that it has to be used when it is generated," Ice Energy CEO Frank Ramirez said in an interview. "What we're really leveraging is what nature gives us every single day through its rotation: cooler temperatures at night."
Ramirez likes to call their technology "energy storage," but in truth the Ice Bear is just a way to use energy when it is cheaper and more plentiful. Doing so could save utilities money, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create more blue-collar jobs for HVAC technicians and manufacturers.
The cost? The Southern California Public Power Authority paid about $100 million for the 6,000 units, a price that comes with a maintenance guarantee by Ice Energy, which plans to subcontract to HVAC experts, and smart-grid coordination with the distribution network.
That may seem pricey on its surface, but Ramirez insists the investment will save the utility as much as 20 percent in reduced fuel costs over a 20-year period. And, as he likes to point out, that is an investment not backed by the federal or state government, unlike many rival new technologies that tend to vie for subsidies.
"We are the first stand-alone energy efficiency technology that doesn't require government assistance or subsidy to employ," Ramirez said.
Not your average icemaker
This is how the Ice Bear works: It fluctuates between charging and cooling, freezing 450 gallons of water at night (a process that might be said to "store" electricity) to then reverse course during the day. The cool air is fed into buildings with the same duct system already in place.
Some have likened the technology to hybrid cars, which rely on batteries to shut down internal combustion engines until their juice runs out, when the engine restarts. Also comparable are geothermal heat pumps that are used widely in Scandinavia and other cold nations to heat homes during colder months. Like the Ice Bear, such systems act like freezers, in a sense, with the back of the pump (which gives off heat) built into the inside of a home, with water freezing taking place outside.