A Battery Powered Future is Closer than we Think

Thursday, March 17th, 2016
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Battery Powered Future
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Get set for the powerhouse combination of battery storage and photovoltaic cells to transform our homes, businesses and communities.

A report from the Climate Council, Powerful Potential, has found the potent double act could be the cheapest way to source electricity within just three years.

With battery storage capacity expected to grow 50-fold within a decade, the Climate Council says going completely “off-grid” could be cost-competitive as early as 2018. In fact, Australia could emerge as the world’s leading spot for home battery storage, with the market predicted to reach $24 billion.

Rechargeable batteries already power our smartphones, laptops and toothbrushes, but recent advances in lithium-ion battery technology has seen rapid reductions in costs, making them more affordable to consumers than ever before.

When Tesla’s Powerwall lithium-ion battery arrived on Australia’s shores in January, it changed the renewable energy game forever. Each Powerwall, with its seven kilowatt/hour lithium-ion battery system, stores electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. With the sleek system available in a number of colours, some are saying Tesla’s design will do for batteries what Apple did for smartphones.

Tesla’s offering is not the only battery storage product on the market, and a growing number of storage systems that apply different technologies and battery chemistries are available.

Analysis of the various battery options for the telecommunications sector, for example, has found that lead crystal batteries offer similar advantages to that of lithium ion batteries, but also the best value proposition in terms of lowest cost per kilowatt/hour. Melbourne-based Hybrid Aus uses lead crystal battery technology in its all-in-one 8.2-kilowatt hybrid battery storage system aimed at the residential sector.

At the same time, the costs of solar panels have dropped dramatically, with the Climate Council estimating a massive 75 per cent decrease in prices over the past five years.

And so, enter the vanguards keen to capitalise on this emerging market.

In Perth, for example, the first trial of large-scale battery storage for households is underway. The $6.7 million pilot project, which is being funded by the state and federal governments, is being undertaken at Lend Lease’s Alkimos Beach development in Perth.

Solar panels are mandatory on the roofs of each household within the nation’s first 6 Star Green Star – Communities-rated development. A 1.1-megawatt lithium battery, housed in a shipping container, will enable households to store excess power from their solar panels during the day and withdraw it at night.

Reposit, a start-up in the ACT, has developed software to allow people who store their power to trade directly on the wholesale market. In this model, everybody can have a mini power station in their backyards.

Another start-up, Local Volts, has developed a system to enable consumers to trade their surplus energy directly with other households, small businesses and community groups in their grid. The company’s founder, Jitendra Tomar, says anything from a home to a high school to a tennis club can “become an energy farmer.”

CSIRO thinks half of all Australia’s electricity will be generated on site – in homes, businesses and within communities – within a few decades. This has massive implications for the traditional players in the power space.

CitiPower and Powercor, which owns more than half of Victoria’s poles and wires, is in the process of installing 18 test sites for solar battery storage as part of a three-year trial, while AGL, which owns Victoria’s biggest brown coal power station, is developing its own battery. AGL has also begun spruiking solar panels without upfront fees.

While the battery revolution will enable consumers to take charge of their energy storage, it is not without challenges.

Lithium-ion batteries are lightweight, low-maintenance and long-living, but they also pose some environmental and safety risks. Made from a highly-reactive substance, lithium batteries can overheat and burst into flames – a tendency which makes them hazardous in severe heat. What this means for bushfire prone regions remains to be seen.

Lithium mining can also be harmful to the environment. Lithium is found in brines underneath vast salt flats in places like Chile, Argentina, China, Bolivia, Tibet, Mexico, and California and Nevada in the United States. While evaporating the water on the salt flats to extract the lithium is non-toxic, pumping the brines out from under the salt flats can lower the water table permanently, affecting access to water, agriculture and tourism.

Some investors are calling lithium the “new oil,” and dangers from irreparable damage to our water resources distinct possibility. However, there may also be opportunities for developing nations to boost their economies through the supply and manufacture of this essential ingredient. Managing accelerated demand for this resource must be considered alongside recycling products at their end of life.

There’s also the equity issue to consider. Generous feed-in tariffs that governments used to kick-start the rollout of photovoltaic systems around the country resulted in households which couldn’t afford to purchase solar panels subsidising those who could. With the combination of battery technology and solar panels costing tens of thousands of dollars, it’s still out of reach for many Australians. Analysts are hoping a market-driven approach to battery storage uptake won’t see a repeat of this.

Australia’s sunny days, high energy costs and consumers looking to “do their bit” for climate change represent a triumvirate of drivers that will see us embrace battery technology not tomorrow, but today. Australia’s renewable energy technology future has arrived.

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