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Bank of 1,440 lithium-ion batteries to make power grid smarter

Portland General Electric

Rows of battery racks at Portland General Electric's Salem Smart Power Center in Salem, Ore., are being used to test several smart grid technologies and approaches.

A bank of lithium-ion batteries big enough to supply about 500 U.S. homes with electricity during a power outage went online today to demonstrate the future of smart grid technologies.

The 5-megawatt battery is a piece of a larger, government-backed $178 million research project in the Pacific Northwest to make the electric grid more efficient and friendly to additional loads of renewable energy such as wind and solar, which fluctuate depending on the weather and time of day.

The battery itself consists of 1,440 individual modules that are "just like electric vehicle batteries," Elaina Medina, a spokeswoman for Portland General Electric in Salem, Ore., where the battery bank is installed, explained to NBC News.

The company has partnered with the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to use the battery in a range of smart grid tests, including as a storage system for renewable energy that is produced when demand is low.

For example, Oregon's Biglow Canyon Wind Farm is most productive at night when everyone is asleep. The power will be stored in the battery and then released when "everyone's getting up, getting ready to go to work in the morning and we've got more demand on the system," Medina said.

The utility also plans to use the battery as a backup power supply during blackouts. It will turn on the instant an outage occurs on the system, keeping everyone on the local grid humming along. "What that means for customers is they won't see any blip," Medina noted.

The battery should last long enough for backup diesel generators to fire up and begin serving as a power source until the grid is ultimately restored.

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, visit his website