How to unlock renewables? Cheaper, cleaner, better batteries

The cost of renewable energy is falling. But, as is the case in Australia, the cost of batteries needs to fall too for renewables to really take off.

albany wind farm western australia
The Albany Wind Farm in Western Australia. As the country moves to increase the share of renewables in its energy mix, it will need to rely on storage technologies to keep the electricity system reliable and resilient. Image: Juan Alberto Garcia Rivera, CC BY 2.0

Advances in energy storage technology have propelled an explosion in portable electronics and disrupted the way people live, work and communicate. It has also prompted a quiet revolution in the clean energy space.

What started as the dream of lone visionaries is slowly turning into a movement of sorts, and Brisbane-based energy storage firm Redflow wants to make sure it’s well placed when energy markets switch enmasse to renewables.

“Energy storage systems provide the missing link in the renewable energy revolution by storing energy from when it is produced—when the wind blows or the sun shines—to when it is needed on a still day or at night,” says Simon Hackett, Redflow’s largest investor and non-executive director.

In a best case scenario, energy storage systems, or batteries, harness uninterrupted power supply from renewable resources on a long-term basis. More significantly, they can help to make clean energy-based power plants a viable alternative to thermal power stations. While not quite there yet, technological advances and falling costs have made batteries more attractive to consumers.

The only barrier to the cost of renewable energy being consistently lower than fossil fuel energy sources is the cost of the necessary energy storage.

Simon Hackett, non-executive director, Redflow

“The cost of renewable energy is now seen as the lowest cost of new energy generation at scale in the world—far cheaper than building new fossil fuel energy plants,” Hackett says.

“The only barrier to the cost of renewable energy being consistently lower than fossil fuel energy sources is the cost of the necessary energy storage, which needs to be sufficiently low,” he adds, noting that battery costs have already started dropping due to economies of scale and advancing technology.

So, the race is on to invent cheaper, cleaner, more efficient and reliable batteries. Investors and tech mavericks all over the world, including in China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Australia, are betting top dollar in the hope of emerging with the next big breakthrough. And, although most markets have yet to embrace the new technology due to the high cost of entry and a limited track record, there are signs that they’re ready to give it a shot.

Australia is an early adopter of battery technology, prompted partly by the series of blackouts in South Australia at the end of 2016, but also due to a conscious government effort over the past decade to move away from thermal power generation. Recently, the state of South Australia partnered Tesla’s Elon Musk to install lithium-ion batteries to help its power grid meet peak demand and respond to coal plant outages.

Other Australian states are also investing in grid scale battery storage technology and battery demand is expected to soar in the country.

6Wresearch, a global market research and consulting firm, projects that Australian energy storage systems market revenue will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30.1 per cent from 2017 to 2023. That amount of growth is projected to produce an energy storage market worth just shy of AU$1 billion in five years.

Looking at the already impressive pace of battery growth in the country, it seems achievable. Climate Council, an independent organisation that provides information on climate change to the Australian market, estimates that more than 20,000 home batteries were installed in Australia in 2017, a three-fold increase over the previous year. Assuming the installed cost of a standard battery is about AU$10,000 (US$7,800), that suggests a 2017 value of around AU$200 million (US$155.3 million) for the residential market alone.

Hackett, who sees himself as something of a technology evangelist, will be speaking at the Australian Energy Conference and Exhibition, to be held in Adelaide on 23 and 24 May. He has put his money on the zinc-bromine flow battery technology as opposed to the more popular lithium-ion variety.

He says the zinc-bromine flow batteries are better suited to the “hard work of 24x7 baseload energy storage and delivery on a daily full-cycle basis over the long term,” compared to lithium-based batteries, which are better suited to a “‘rapid response’ frequency and voltage stabilisation role.”

“The point is,” Hackett says, “the roles—the ‘sweet spots’—for lithium and for flow batteries in the future grid are both additive and complementary.”

Zinc-bromine flow batteries have a natural edge in markets with high ambient temperatures that are looking to replace existing lead-acid deployments. He says, Redflow sees the “greatest existing interest” from markets in Southeast Asia and Africa and is currently eyeing expansion in Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines and South Africa.

To meet the rise in demand, the company has relocated its factory to Thailand from North America and is looking to start making 90 batteries a month in June, which it will ramp up to 250 a month by the year-end and even further if required.

Australia is a brilliant location to harness photovoltaic solar panels because it has large and sparsely populated inland areas where land is cheap and sunshine is plentiful.

While the telecommunications, commercial and industrial sectors will be the largest consumers of batteries in terms of volume and market size, companies like Redflow find it useful to piggy-back on the residential markets in order to showcase their technology prowess to the more lucrative commercial markets. Demand from off-grid residential and industrial sites is also rising.

Still, the path to full acceptance is far from clear. In addition to high barriers to entry in terms of cost and technology, the market faces challenges such as the availability of a sufficient supply of quality batteries and an appropriate regulatory and policy environment to support their safe and scalable deployment, Hackett says, indicating that it will be some time before we see runaway demand.

Even in Australia where conditions are seemingly perfect for harnessing renewable energy, he notes that lacklustre government policy has slowed take up of the new technology.

“Australia is a brilliant location to harness photovoltaic solar panels because it has large and sparsely populated inland areas where land is cheap and sunshine is plentiful. (So) the economics make sense and the technology works. The key barrier specific to Australia is the ongoing lack of cohesive national energy policy that looks to the future instead of desperately clinging to the past.”

So, if governments can loosen their shackles to the past and embrace new technology with a view to the future, harnessing clean energy will be well within their grasp.

To hear more from Simon Hackett and other renowned speakers, register for the upcoming Australian Energy Storage Conference and Exhibition held from 23 – 24 May at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

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