Beacon Power patents idea of flywheels for frequency regulation?

Michael Giberson

Can Beacon Power patent the idea of using flywheel technology for frequency regulation? Apparently the answer is yes, at least according to Beacon’s press release.

“Beacon Power invented the idea of using high-energy flywheels to regulate grid frequency, so it’s appropriate that we’ve now been awarded a core patent for the idea,” said Bill Capp, Beacon president and CEO. “The patent gives Beacon exclusive rights to this innovative method of providing an essential grid service, and further strengthens our intellectual property position.”

The patent is U.S. Patent No. 8,008,804, “Frequency Regulation Using Flywheels.”

Beacon has certainly developed a great deal of control  and grid integration technology to enable their flywheels to supply ancillary services in regional power grids. For some background see, for example, this 2010 paper from Beacon that describes flywheel system performance in an 18 month field trial in the ISO New England system. A paper from 2004 presents Beacon’s analysis of the benefits of using flywheels for grid frequency regulation instead of using hydro or fossil-fueled generation.

Still, I don’t see how they can claim to have invented the idea of using flywheels to supply frequency regulation services. Especially given the prior use of flywheel systems to provide grid frequency regulation service, as described in this paper published in 2000 describing a 1996 commercial installation of a flywheel on the Okinawa Electric Power Company transmission grid in Japan.

The 2000 article, which refers to the flywheel system as ROTES  (ROTary Energy Storage system), reports:

This is the world’s first commercial operation of such a large capacity flywheel energy storage system… When the ROTES was disconnected from the 66kV bus, frequency fluctuation of over +/- o.4 Hz often appeared in the line frequency, resulting from sudden load changes as large as 30 MW. When the ROTES was connected, the frequency fluctuation was suppressed within +/- 0.3 Hz, thus meeting the goal of installation. The ROTES has been operating properly for more than two year, showing great promise as a FACTS device which has the capability of releasing or absorbing electric power with a response time as fast as less than 100 ms.

(HT to correspondent/former colleague/occasional reader MH for tipping me off to the press release and useful dialog.)

UPDATE: A commenter from Beacon helpfully provides a link to the patent, http://bit.ly/nMupPp, and notes that the above article was specifically considered by the patent examiner as part of the patent application review.

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8 thoughts on “Beacon Power patents idea of flywheels for frequency regulation?

  1. Hi Michael
    Thanks for the HT but there is one mistake: I am a regular reader!
    Here is another puzzle that just occurred to me. I can understand possibility of issuing a patent on a new technology or even a completely original application of an existing technology (I doubt this really qualifies). I can also understand the possiblity that the DOE might want to subsidize a new and original technology. But I cannot understand how it is the public interest for a company like Beacon to take $23 million from the DOE (the company is only worth $26 million) to develop their pilot project and then have that company turn around and patent the idea so no one else can use it. Its like paying Leonardo to paint the Mona Lisa and then when he’s finished he mounts it above his fireplace.
    -Michael

  2. Shows exactly how bad our patent system really is. My guess would be that Tesla probably used a flywheel in his first AC system more than a century ago, not to mention the mo-gen sets Edison used to convert voltages in his all DC system.

  3. Dr. Giberson:

    With all due respect, the U.S. PTO determined that Beacon’s patent claim was valid after extensive review of prior art (we initially filed the application in August 2004). As with all patent claims, that review included related U.S. and foreign patents and certain publications. The 2000 paper about the ROTES system that you reference here was one of those publications — and was specifically considered by the patent examiner and noted on the cover of the patent (see USPTO site here: http://bit.ly/nMupPp).

    We stand by our claim that we hold the only U.S. patent for performing frequency regulation on the electricity grid with flywheel systems.

    Gene Hunt
    Beacon Power Corp.

  4. There is so much prior art that your claim is ridiculous if you are saying you have an exclusive patent. Almost as ridiculous as the claim that Gene Hunt made that their plants would require no maintenance for a minimum of 20 years. When are you going to disclose to the public the material news that (at least) one of your flywheels failed catastrophically 2 weeks after your grand opening and blew a 1000lb cover off of its enclosure? I have never seen a publicly traded company with such blatant lies and such a concerted effort to cover up material news. Where is the SEC? No wonder all of the institutional holders have run and your stock price keeps going lower.

  5. It is obvious much prior art exists on using flywheels for frequency regulation. Any claims of an EXCLUSIVE patent is absurd. They received a patent on A method for performing FR with flywheels and not ALL methods. Description of prior art:

    “A patent is barred if “the invention was patented or described in a printed publication in this or a foreign country or in public use or on sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of the application for patent in the United States.”

    Boeing did extensive R&D on flywheels in the 1990s and even received DOE support as described in this 1998 article:

    http://www.boeing.com/news/releases/1998/news_release_980217c.html

    This description predates the Beacon Power application by 6 years where only one is required. Another obvious and clear example of prior art.

  6. By the way… Boeing also patented this idea well before Beacon Power:

    Filing Date: 06/22/1999
    Publish Date: 04/03/2001

    Magnetic systems for energy storage flywheels United States Patent 6211589

    A flywheel system suitable for storing energy when demand for energy from a power plant is low, and from which energy can be retrieved when energy demand increases.

    http://www.freepatentsonline.com/6211589.html

    Once again… more obvious and irrefutable prior art. Beacon Power does not have an exclusive patent. They have a patent on their one exact method outlined in their application. This patent covers “magnetic systems” for flywheels, but clearly shows Beacon Power didn’t invent “the idea of using flywheels for frequency regulation” as their CEO claims.

  7. To Mr. LBCB:

    Your considerable research into prior art is noted. Perhaps you could bring your discoveries to the attention of the US Patent and Trademark Office, who spent 7 years reviewing our claims but apparently missed these other publications and patents when granting Beacon’s.

    “Obvious and irrefutable” seems to be a matter of opinion. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s opinion, however, counts for more than that of an anonymous critic. As we noted above (and the USPTO affirmed), we stand by our claim that we hold the only U.S. patent for performing frequency regulation on the electricity grid with flywheel systems.

    Gene Hunt
    Beacon Power

  8. Because nobody else would waste their time getting a vanity patent on something that is so obviously in the public domain. Are you telling us that the first company to use batteries on the grid to perform FR would be able to get an exclusive patent and be the only ones to use batteries on the grid? How about supercapacitors… should someone patent the idea of using supercapacitors on the grid to perform FR? Someday they will be cost-effective. Who first used CAES?, Pumped Hydro? etc. You should get a refund from your patent attorney if he told you that you have an exclusive. You have patented A method and not THE method.

    “Beacon Power invented the idea of using high-energy flywheels to regulate grid frequency, so it’s appropriate that we’ve now been awarded a core patent for the idea,” said Bill Capp, Beacon president and CEO

    What an incredible slap in the face to the true pioneers in the industry. Dick Post described using flywheels for frequency regulation on the grid at least as early as 1973. Dozens of patents and technical papers described using flywheels for FR before Beacon Power existed. You weren’t even the first grid-scale facility as is shown by the Okinawa plant. I’m sure you can fool some people, but you have no credibility with those who understand how the patent process works and how baseless your claim is. I will watch with interest as other companies are ready to go to market with flywheel products. They at least had enough sense to work on next generation products and allow the regulatory environment to mature instead of rushing to market with an infeasible product. We will see if the courts rule flywheels on the grid to be in the public domain or if your “exclusive” will stand up to all the prior art.

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