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By Vaidehi ShahFriday 12 May 2017
The complex and technical world of energy storage—think battery chemistries, electrical grids and systems integration—has become an unexpectedly hot topic in Australia, capturing the attention of everyone from the nation’s public and politicians to billionaires halfway across the world.
Against a backdrop of heated debate over whether Australia’s renewable energy adoption targets are enough to meet global climate goals and whether renewables were responsible for state-wide blackouts in South Australia last December, it has become clear that the conversation about clean energy in Australia is incomplete without energy storage.
As climate and energy expert Jill Cainey puts it: “You can’t just deploy intermittent generation on an electricity system and expect it to run smoothly.”
“You need a plan,” says Cainey, who is grid solutions global application director of energy storage at Chicago-headquartered firm S&C Electric Company, which provides solutions services for electrical power systems.
Energy storage is seen as an ideal plan because it plugs one of the biggest gaps in the push towards renewable energy: intermittency.
Unlike fossil fuel-based power, which is generated round the clock, wind and solar energy are only produced when the sun shines or wind blows, complicating a grid operator’s job of providing a constant, stable power supply.
Driven by recognition of the importance of storage, Australia’s energy storage market has been gathering momentum in recent years. Solar energy consultants Sunwiz estimate that there were about 6,750 storage installations in Australia last year, compared to just 500 in 2015.
Sunwiz also expects the market for storage to treble this year; only 5 per cent of new solar sales today have storage options, but 70 per cent of customers polled by the company say they want batteries.
Recent events in Australia have also cemented the status of storage as a central part of the country’s energy future.
Late last year, for instance, South Australia experienced rolling blackouts during a heatwave, prompting some to blame the state’s high rates of renewable energy adoption for the unreliable power supply. This was swiftly refuted by others, who pointed out that power line collapses due to heavy storms—which are only set to intensify due to climate change—and a disrupted electricity supply from neighbouring Victoria were also key causes.
With storage widely hailed as the key to overcoming intermittency issues, South Australia recently announced that it will build the country’s largest grid-connected battery as part of a A$550 million investment to boost energy security. This came shortly after an offer by South African billionaire and Tesla chief Elon Musk to build a 100 megawatt battery system for the state in 100 days, or else it would be free.
But though South Australia’s storage plans have dominated headlines, the technology’s potential is far beyond the state, says Cainey, who will be speaking at the upcoming Australian Energy Storage Conference and Exhibition, held in Sydney from 14 to 15 June.
Other renewable-dependent states, too, have been caught unaware by changing energy supply. Tasmania, for instance, experienced its own energy crisis last year when low rainfall caused record low water levels in the state’s hydro-electric water system, causing the state to resort to recommissioning a gas plant and firing up portable diesel generators to keep the lights on.
Whether it’s sudden spikes in energy demand for cooling during a heatwave or hydro-electric water shortages during a drought, Australia’s electricity system is especially vulnerable to extreme weather, explains Cainey. And not only can storage help stabilise the electricity grid, technology such as batteries can do much more than that, she adds.
For example, it can help communities in remote parts of Australia wean themselves off power from expensive and polluting diesel generators to a microgrid made up of renewable energy sources and storage systems; this is both a cleaner and cheaper option.
You can’t just deploy intermittent generation on an electricity system and expect it to run smoothly. You need a plan.
Jill Cainey, global application director of energy storage, grid solutions, S&C Electric Company
Yet another benefit of energy storage technology is something known as “frequency response”, says Cainey. The frequency of the electrical current in a power grid needs to be stable for it to function well, but sudden spikes in demand can generate lower frequencies, while sudden drops can have the opposite effect.
Examples of this include spikes in energy demand when people wake up in the morning and start their days, or sharp drops when most people in the city turn off lights and appliances at home before calling it a day. Depending on demand, energy storage can supply power or absorb it by recharging, says Cainey.
While traditional fossil fuel-based power stations that use coal and gas are an important source of inertia, delivering energy to meet changing demand takes a while. In comparison, energy storage can perform frequency response functions in mere seconds and quickly support demand, explains Cainey.
Given its many benefits, the storage market’s explosive growth in Australia is perhaps no surprise. But Cainey notes that many questions remain unanswered, including identifying which technologies can deliver maximum security, who is best placed to deliver storage at lowest cost, and what the most efficient use of investments in storage technologies is.
These are some of the issues that will be discussed at the Australian Energy Storage event, which will be held in Sydney’s International Convention Centre this June. The annual gathering will feature a conference where more than 50 international speakers will debate Australia’s energy policy, market dynamics, and share global perspectives on energy storage adoption in residential, utility-scale, and commercial use.
This will be co-located with an exhibition where more than 60 firms will showcase a suite of energy storage technologies and services ranging from batteries, electric vehicles, and systems integration offerings.
There are many applications for long duration storage in Australia.
William Sproull, vice president of business development and sales, ESS Inc.
One solution that will be on display at the conference will be an iron flow battery, designed and built by Portland, Oregon-headquartered outfit ESS Inc.
William Sproull, ESS’s vice president of business development and sales, explains that while conventional batteries store power in closed cells with materials such as lithium ion, flow batteries store electrolytes—the materials that provide energy—as liquid in external tanks.
ESS’s product consists of a patented electrolyte substance made of iron, which is suspended in salt water. It is housed in a 40-foot-long shipping container-like structure, has a capacity of 400 kilowatt hours, and a power output of up to 50 kilowatts. The battery can provide up to eight hours of rated power at a time, and has a lifespan of about 25 years.
The technology is a great fit for Australia’s energy needs for many reasons, says Sproull, starting with the fact that its core components, iron, salt and water, are safe, cheap, and abundant. Unlike alternatives such as lithium ion, which are not only rare and expensive but also lose their storage capacity over time and have to be replaced every decade or so, the iron flow battery experiences minimal loss of capacity over its 25 year lifespan, meaning it does not need to be replaced.
And because its materials are non-toxic, it doesn’t need expensive, ultra-sterile and safety-enhanced facilities to manufacture. It can also be manufactured with inexpensive plastic parts because its core materials are not corrosive unlike lead acid and other battery chemistries.
Thanks to these qualities, the “levelised cost of storage”—that is, the price per kilowatt hour over the product’s lifetime—of an iron flow battery can be between five and seven US cents per KwH. In high use applications, this is between three and four times less than alternatives like lithium ion, says Sproull.
While lithium ion is probably the better choice for users who want a short-lived power supply of one or two hours at a time, the iron flow battery is a much more economical choice for longer durations of between six and eight hours.
Many applications in Australia fit this bill, including off-grid storage for communities that are not connected to the grid, utility-scale storage for grids which are adopting more renewables, and use with on-site power generation for mining companies which operate in remote areas of the country.
ESS will be exhibiting its product and service offerings at the upcoming Sydney conference, and Sproull is excited to raise awareness in the Australian market about the technology.
The company is already exploring possible projects in Western Australia, which relies heavily on intermittent wind power, and New South Wales, where there are good prospects for commercial solar installations, says Sproull.
“There are many applications for long duration storage in Australia,” says Sproull. “I am looking forward to understanding the opportunities.”