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Large-scale energy storage will be the key to resolving the stand-off between traditional power utilities such as Eskom and the renewable energy industry over the problem of sun and wind not being able to deliver electricity on demand.
Eskom has opened a testing facility for different types of battery technologies at its Rosherville research centre, while the Industrial Development Corp (IDC) has teamed up with Bushveld Energy, a subsidiary of London-listed Bushveld Minerals, to investigate the viability of using locally mined vanadium for locally assembled utility-scale storage units called vanadium redox flow (V-flow) batteries.
Bushveld Minerals CEO Fortune Mojapelo says V-flow battery technology is advanced and already in commercial production. Bushveld Energy has a relationship with US-based UniEnergy Technologies, which has developed some of the world’s largest V-flow batteries.
Bushveld Minerals owns a substantial vanadium resource and sells a processed product to the global steel industry. Mojapelo says it plans to increase production and would have no difficulty meeting demand from a local battery industry. Bushveld Energy has the potential to make the vanadium electrolytes used in the V-flow batteries and market them globally and could also go further, to assembly of V-flow batteries in SA.
Two years ago the IDC established a “new industries” strategic business unit with a mandate to identify new or emerging industries with potentially long-term impact. After research and screening, eight new industries were identified in which SA could have a competitive advantage and from which financial and developmental returns could be derived. Energy storage is one of those eight and the joint venture with Bushveld Energy is the first energy storage project in this unit.
Bertie Strydom, senior project development manager at the IDC, says the V-flow project is the subject of a feasibility study to assess its local and African market potential and the techno-economics of electrolyte production and local assembly.
If the study is positive, and the shareholders give approval, the project is likely to be phased in.
At the same time, opportunities to deploy pilot projects in a real-world environment will be pursued. This will demonstrate the advantages on a smaller scale first. The initial hurdle is finding pilot project applications where V-flow batteries will demonstrate a cost benefit, he says. V-flow batteries can be scaled up more economically than competing technologies like li-ion.
Mojapelo says it is encouraging that Eskom is being proactive in the field of energy storage, but adds that there are other possible partners beyond Eskom, such as municipalities or large-scale commercial and industrial users that consume gigawatts of energy.
Some of the key considerations for promoting energy storage solutions are not only whether they can integrate backwards with SA’s mineral resources but whether a local industry can be competitive in local and export markets, Strydom says.
Mojapelo says it would be hard to find a better example of local beneficiation than this, since V-flow batteries would have about 60% local content.