The Decade of Utility Scale Batteries

January 21, 2020 4:01 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Article written by Matt Hayes, Phillip Riley

As we begin a new decade a hot topic in the Australian renewable market is the potential of energy storage.  It is predicted by many that grid scale storage will significantly evolve over the next decade. While there have been some notable grid scale storage projects to date, it’s clear that the grid scale storage market is still in its infancy in Australia.  Developing stand-alone wind and solar projects will enable Australia to continue to improve its renewable energy resources but it will not be enough to support the grid in the long term.  Renewable Energy projects combined with storage will improve long-term financial feasibility and will also improve grid strength and reliability.

The most common and easiest method of providing storage to a solar or wind project is by adding a battery energy storage system (BESS).  Put simply, Batteries can store energy during times of low demand and release at times of a peak demand.  Moreover, batteries can also act as a power back up if there are issues with the grid or a power outage.  It was recently reported that South Australia’s big batteries earnt over $1million across a two-day period in December. This highlighted not only how financial lucrative a BESS can be but also how well storage can support the grid. With the recent success of the big batteries it begged the question what battery technologies will we see dominate, what new technologies will emerge and how will this affect the job market?

Lithium-Ion Battery

Arguably the most known form of battery storage is the Lithium-ion battery which is typically used in electric vehicles (EV), households and grid-scale batteries.  Australia is home to the world’s largest lithium-ion battery, located at The Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, built by Tesla and managed by Neoen.  It was announced last year that battery will have its storage and output extended by 50 percent which will improve the grid stability for the state.

So why is Lithium-ion so well-known and what are the benefits?  Batteries are typically rated against 4 main performance factors – Energy Density, Power Density, Calendar Life and Cycle Life. Lithium-ion scores well in all 4 areas and is also currently considered cheaper than its counterparts. It is also currently seen to have a lower risk profile than other technologies both financially and from a health & safety perspective.  Some accredit the affordability and development down to the growing EV market where lithium-ion is used.  Another factor that makes the lithium-ion battery popular is its ability to release a high amount of energy in a short period of time which is typically 1-4 hours. It is predicted by many across the sector that the majority of grid scale storage projects delivered over the next 1-4 years will be lithium-ion however we will start to see other technologies emerge and compete.

Flow Battery

The battery technology that most believe will strongly develop over the next 2-3 years is the flow battery.  Flow batteries use a very different form of chemistry to lithium-ion as they rely on liquid electrolytes that are stored in external tanks separated by a membrane and are then pumped through electrochemical cells. The way in which the chemistry works enables the battery to be able to discharge at 100 percent without any negative affect on the battery’s performance. It is believed that the battery will therefore have a better cycle life than its counterparts.

One of the other major attraction to flow batteries is the ability to discharge energy for over four hours which will be a huge benefit to the grid. The battery is also highly recyclable as most of its parts could easily be used in other sectors. The flow battery has performed well in the off-grid market but it is still unproven in grid scale projects, however It was announced mid last year that we will see a 50MW/200MHW vanadium flow battery storage system which will be built by CellCube and developed by Pangea which will be operational in late 2020. If the project is successful it could be a tipping point for flow batteries on the Australian grid scale market. There are some other companies who many people believe will be very influential in developing their flow battery technology and are confident projects will start to move into delivery in the next 2-3 years.

Lead Acid Battery

Another battery of interest is the lead-acid battery which would be one of the oldest and most reliable forms of battery storage.  It has been developed for over 100 years and typically is a slow charge and discharge however using Carbon as an additive does now speed up this process. The battery can be scaled up simply and therefore we may see the battery be used for larger scale projects.  It has already been used commonly in off-grid projects but with its scalability we may see the battery used in the utility market. The main benefits are believed to be it is extremely durable, it can be overused, used at very high temperatures and doesn’t shut down. It is very good for reserve power as it can be run dead and still not be damaged.

Whilst only 3 battery types have been listed, other types of battery and storage have been developed and It is likely that we will see many other forms of chemistry and technology become commercially viable over the decade. What is clear is that battery storage will be a very interesting and growing sector, which will lead to great improvements in Australia’s electricity grid and the performance of renewable energy assets. Whilst many are predicting a strong emergence of flow batteries in the next 2-4 years it is believed that we won’t see a specific technology truly dominate as each battery has its own unique benefits. It is important to understand that one battery type is simply not better than the other and when selecting a battery technology, we must assess several variables which will influence the battery technology that is most suited to that particular project.

Future Career Opportunities in Energy Storage

BESS will vastly develop over the next decade and will we soon see a large number of projects move into detailed planning and delivery.  This will drive demand for energy storage specialist engineers; specifically Proposal Engineers, Design Engineers, Analysts and Application Engineers (Solution Architects).  Employees with experience working on grid scale Renewable Energy projects will have transferable skills for this emerging market and especially those with strong technical grounding or energy markets appreciation.

Employers will largely be Renewable Energy developers, EPC contractors, engineering and management consultancies as well as companies closer to the technology including battery manufacturers, software companies and system integrators.  Employees with well rounded knowledge of the energy markets and trading environment combined with analytical and forecasting skills will specifically be in high demand as the market takes off.

This is a hugely dynamic pocket of the Renewables market and one to keep an eye on for all parties involved in the sector – from a business and career perspective.

For comments on this article or more details, contact Matt Hayes