Development of renewable energy sources is a big issue. The EU has set a target to produce 15% of the energy it consumes with the use of renewable sources by the year 2020. But there is a big problem: renewable sources are intermittent and volatile. Renewable energy may be produced in plenty when we do not need it, and we may have to dump it. But when we do need some extra energy, the wind may subside and stop turning wind turbines or a cloud may hide the sun from a solar panel. This makes storage of energy very important.

One of the solutions to storage of energy of wind turbines came from the technology of Formula 1 racing cars. A change in F1 racing regulations made engineers of Williams, the British F1 car manufacturer based in Oxfordshire, to install flywheels on their cars. The flywheel can accumulate kinetic energy when the car decelerates and give out this energy when it accelerates again.

The next change in F1 regulation demanded an increase of the capacity of the fuel tank so that the car would not need refueling during a race. This change made the flywheels on F1 cars redundant. By the time of this change, Williams spent millions of pounds on R&D (research and development) and designed technologically advanced flywheels. So the company decided to find other applications for its expensive invention.

One of such application is storage of energy of wind turbines. The company designed a flywheel suitable for equipping each turbine. Its casing is around 1,5 m thick and around 2 m in diameter. The flywheel rotates inside the casing, from which the air has been pumped out. This is necessary, because otherwise aerodynamic drag would slow down the flywheel very quickly – the points on its rim most remote from the axis of rotation move at the speed of 3200 km/h or nearly 900 m/s - almost Mach 3, like a modern fighter jet.

Flywheels are unique in taking load in almost no time. The flywheel designed by Williams can increase its power output from 0 to 200 kilowatts in just 4 to 5 milliseconds. There are plans to equip wind turbines of the London Array – one of the largest wind farms in the world built in the Thames Estuary.

This text is based on the information presented in the "Inside Science" BBC radio programme.
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