It’s depressing that lithium batteries get almost all of the focus in the energy storage industry. Lithium batteries have a number of advantages, including high energy density, good longevity, declining costs and established integration with electronics, vehicles and stationary energy storage. Although ideal for residential and commercial storage applications, lithium ion chemistries are not great for long term and high capacity energy storage — which are the characteristics that many utility storage installations require.
Flow batteries have the potential to meet these utility storage application needs. Flow batteries use two tanks of liquid electrolyte, separated by a special membrane, that flows between the anode and the cathode within the battery cell. Energy is stored in this liquid electrolyte instead of as part of the electrode material in conventional batteries. The energy storage capacity of a flow battery is related to the amount of liquid electrolyte — bigger tanks provide greater storage capacity. The power output of a flow battery depends on the size of the anode and cathode electrodes in the battery cell.
Since their storage capacity is limited mostly by the size of the electrolyte tanks, flow batteries are great for grid-scale storage. They are also finding applications when sited alongside PV systems. Since the battery can absorb power in excess of what the grid or inverter can handle, inverters can be smaller — resulting in lower equipment costs and greater efficiency.
I heard about new flow battery technology from my friends at NexTracker. I was initially hesitant to learn about flow batteries – one could say I’m in a lithium rut waiting for the commercialization of dual lithium crystalline reactor technology for interstellar travel. But when I understood the real-world benefits of Avalon’s batteries when integrated with utility-scale tracker installations, I was convinced.
So on this week’s show we’re going with the flow. Our guest is Matt Harper, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of Avalon. I hope you tune in to this week’s Energy Show as Matt explains the technology behind flow batteries, practical applications, availability of electrolytes, and Matt’s view of how flow batteries have the potential to meet our long duration energy storage needs.
Solar combined with battery storage seems like magic to many residential and commercial customers. With a million and a half systems installed in the U.S., the question is no longer: “does solar work?” Instead, customers want to know how much money they will save with a system. And commercial customers are even more diligent about accurate savings predictions.
There are a plethora of “solar calculators” on websites all over the internet. But these crude calculators do not take into account detailed weather data, shading, orientation, equipment parameters and utility rates. Surprisingly, the utility rate information is hard to get, extremely detailed, and changes more often than import tariffs. And correlating hourly solar output data with these utility rates, time periods, rate tiers, fixed fees and demand charges can be a programming nightmare. I’ve had experience with huge spreadsheets that did these calculations for rates all over the country. Just thinking about a spreadsheet with 35,000 rows of 15 minute interval data is enough to make me reach for the Advil.
Traditionally, solar performance calculators only had to model energy flows in two directions: to the building or to the grid. With batteries there is a third path for the energy to flow, making it exponentially more complicated to optimize savings from a particular system design. Dedicated software tools such as Energy Toolbase provide an accurate software platform for modeling the economics of solar and storage products — and also provide professional proposal tools.
My guest on this week’s Energy Show is Adam Gerza, Chief Operating Officer of Energy Toolbase. Adam gained his solar chops after many years in the commercial solar industry. He knows the business and knows how to crunch the numbers. So leave the headaches to Energy Toolbase, and listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we speak with Adam about his company, solution and the solar + storage market.
There are there are three market segment for solar in the U.S.: residential, utility and commercial. Based on some rough math, in 2018 we expect to install 5 to 7 million solar panels on homes in the U.S. In areas with high residential electric rates, paybacks are usually in the range of 4-8 years. But the utility solar segment is much larger: about 20 million solar panels will be installed by utilities in 2018. Utilities realize that it is cheaper to generate power with solar compared to coal or nuclear generation. Moreover, the combination of solar and batteries is projected to be even cheaper than natural gas in a few years.
The commercial solar segment has been growing, but has been challenged by a lack of efficient financing, slow decision making, and relatively high costs. But this market segment is poised to grow much more quickly in the coming years. Standardized lease, PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) and PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is now available. Cheaper solar panels, inverters and rooftop installation techniques are reducing up front costs. And commercial customer decision making is accelerating now that a number of national retailers (Costco, Staples, Target, Safeway), tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google), casinos and data centers have made rooftop solar a standard part of all their buildings.
Quite simply, the biggest advantage of rooftop solar to commercial customers is financial. As with the residential and utility segments, almost any commercial building can reduce their electricity costs by 20-40% (net of financing costs). Paybacks are in the range of 3-8 years, easy financing is available for both for-profit and non-profit businesses, and even tenant-occupied buildings with triple net leases can benefit.
As a result, the acres and acres of flat roof buildings around the country are destined to be put to work generating clean, renewable power. For more about commercial solar for businesses of all sizes, Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Great solar policy is just as important as great solar technology. Obviously we need the technologies for these products — but we also need the policies so that solar products can be cost-effectively installed. And I’m not just talking about incentives…policies related to net metering, interconnection and permitting are just as important.
Getting good solar policy requires effective political lobbying. I hate to let you down, but these great energy policies did not magically spring from the brains of inspired politicians When I look back at the successes our industry has had over the years — net metering, the California Solar Initiative, Solar Tax Credits, state incentives — all of these policies were based on sound analytical research coupled with effective lobbying.
There are a few companies that specialize in the types of analysis that’s required to put together good policies. One of the best is Cross Border Energy, based in Berkeley California. They provide clients with strategic advice, economic analysis and expert testimony on market and regulatory issues in the natural gas and electric industry. It is my pleasure to have Tom Beach, Principal Consultant of Cross Border Energy as our guest on this week’s Energy Show.
Tom has been influential on many of California’s ground breaking energy policies. He has worked on the restructuring of the states gas and electric industries, the addition of new natural gas pipelines and storage capacity, renewable energy development, and a wide range of issues concerning California’s large independent power community. I also had the pleasure of working with Tom on the California Solar Initiative many years ago. To learn more about the energy industry, real world solar economics, and Tom’s perspective on energy regulatory issues, listen up to this week’s Energy Show.
PS – the Kyocera and SMA rooftop solar system I installed for Tom back in 2003 is still working perfectly, with only 0.4% degradation over the last 15 years.
PPS – his monitoring system is intermittent since his 15 year old computer that runs the software is on its last legs.
Electric utilities got their start in the U.S. in the 1880s. Thomas Edison began transmitting DC power as he literally illuminated the world. Then George Westinghouse (with help from Nikolai Tesla) deployed a better way of delivering electricity with AC power. Both Edison and Westinghouse went on to build tremendously successful companies, aptly named General Electric and Westinghouse Electric respectively. Although dominant in the 20th century, both companies have struggled in the 21st century.
Without a doubt utilities strive to deliver reliable and affordable power all over the world. But new technologies — particularly wind, solar and battery storage — are making the conventional utility business model obsolete. Customers are able to purchase and maintain their own power plants for less money than it costs a utility to centrally generate power and transmit it to every building. There is no doubt in my mind that over the next 20 years we will transition to a network of microgrids supported by some type of intelligent power distribution system.
What we knew and (some of us) loved about conventional utilities is changing. And utilities are fighting back — hard — to maintain their power supply monopoly. So here are Ten Electric Utility Company Myths — some of which were based on fact, and some were simply PR spin.
1. Myth: Utility profits are decoupled from selling electricity
2. Myth: Solar shifts costs to disadvantage ratepayers
3. Myth: Utilities support energy efficiency, we offer rebates
4. Myth: Utilities like EVs. They get to sell a lot more electricity
5. Myth: Utilities like Solar and Battery Storage
6. Myth: Utilities are a public monopoly working for ratepayers
7. Myth: Solar reduces electricity costs
8. Myth: Safety is a utility’s #1 concern
9. Myth: public utilities are the only way to provide reliable and affordable electricity
10. Myth: Solar will disrupt the grid at high penetration levels
Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we go into detail on each of these myths — and explain their implications on ratepayers and competing power industries.
Success in the solar industry requires leaders with a diverse skill set. Leaders must really understand the technology’s evolution, be effective with sales and marketing, coordinate what always seem to be chaotic operations, juggle financial issues and manage a growing team. I’m always interested in learning from people who have this diverse background — and have demonstrated success in the solar industry.
One of these executives is Todd Lindstrom, CEO of Enable Energy. Todd and I go back to his time at Sun Power and Geothermal Energy circa 2004. Since then he’s been at Solar Power Inc., Sharp Solar, and Paramount Energy Solutions. He is also manufacturing very clever mounting solutions for flat roofs that we are using at Cinnamon Energy Systems for many of our flat roof projects.
Join us on this week’s Energy Show as Todd discusses innovations that are changing the way the industry installs commercial rooftop solar — as well as his solar installation business at Enable Energy.
This week we’re talking about battery storage system safety. But first, a brief digression. As a contractor, the biggest safety concern that I have for all rooftop solar and battery systems is not necessarily with the solar panels or the batteries, but with fall protection. It’s an OSHA regulation that all workers must be secured with roof anchors and proper harnesses when working on rooftops. So make sure your solar contractor installs roof anchors during your installation so the people working on your roof are safe. Back to battery safety…
Look around: there are batteries everywhere. 120 years ago we started with batteries in our cars and flashlights. Now just about every portable device we have requires batteries: cars, laptops, phones, entertainment systems, toothbrushes and wacky Internet Of Things devices. Fortunately, with the proliferation of electric vehicles, the prices for large-scale battery storage systems have declined substantially. We’re now at the point at which in many locations it is cost-effective to install a home or business battery system to avoid high peak electricity costs — and get the added benefit of backup power if your utility is unreliable.
Batteries pack a lot of energy in a small package — but not as much as conventional fuels. The energy density of a standard alkaline battery is 0.14 kwh/kg, and the energy density of a lithium ion battery is 0.5 kwh/kg. Compared to explosive gasoline (13 kwh/kg) and uranium (23 million kwh/kg), stationary batteries used in buildings are extremely safe. Moreover, circuitry required by safety agencies (UL, National Electrical Code) makes it almost impossible for these batteries to burn or explode — even if they are damaged or misused.
Nevertheless, the solar and battery storage industry takes safety issues related to battery storage systems seriously. Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show to learn about the built-in safety provisions in residential and commercial battery storage systems — as well as the fire safety, transportation and worker training required for their safe installation.
The battery storage industry is roughly where the solar industry was in the early 2000’s. It’s a tiny market now, with fewer than 1,000 grid-tied systems installed last year. Nevertheless, technology is evolving rapidly and investor funds are pouring in. There is tremendous money saving potential for customers — while at the same time risks for incumbent energy providers.
The rapid hockey stick growth that we are seeing in the energy storage industry is likely to be even more accelerated than the growth of the solar industry. All the pieces are in place for a number of successful companies throughout the storage value chain. But as with successes in the solar industry, there will be some unfortunate train wrecks along the way as companies or products fail in the market.
In the spirit of George Santayana’s famous quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” on this week’s Energy Show, we will discuss eight mistakes that companies in the solar industry made that hopefully storage companies can avoid:
Mistake 1: Constraints on critical upstream components (Li or Co = Si?)
Mistake 2: Live by incentives and die by incentives
Mistake 3: Releasing half-baked products
Mistake 4: Ignoring software
Mistake 5: Assuming electricity rates will always go up
Mistake 6: Not paying enough attention to safety issues
Mistake 7: Selling commodity components, not bankable systems
Mistake 8: Inevitable black swan events