28 October 2015


Opposites attract: a story of sun & ice and other energy storage innovations revealed at ESNA

Author: Eveline Jansen, Solarplaza

Energy storage is as important as energy generation. So it’s no surprise that the market is fast becoming crowded, with countless new companies and start-ups all competing for a slice of the pie. And this makes the path to commercialization a tough one – everyone is looking for the best business models and the most unique concepts. This year’s ESNA (hosted in San Diego, October 13-15) gave us a flavor of this enterprising work. But which will yield the greatest value, we wonder?

Think of energy storage, and your mind quickly turns to battery technology. But one of the more innovative approaches bypasses this technology and its associated risks altogether.

Ice Energy harnesses the properties of freezing and thawing water and offers this as a distributed energy storage solution for the grid. Already installed in several commercial buildings, their ‘Ice Bear’ freezes water when demand for power is low and then uses the ice for cooling purposes, making power-hungry Air Con units redundant.

But this innovative company is going even further by showing that opposites really do attract. They announced at ESNA that they plan to pair their ice with – yes, that’s right, solar, using excess PV energy to create their ice: “Ice and solar are the odd couple that can solve all issues with renewables because they complement each other so perfectly,” explained Mike Hopkins, CEO of Ice Energy, California.

Southern California Edison, a major California client of Ice Energy, recently purchased 25.6MW of Ice Bear units to operate in conjunction with commercial rooftop AC units to increase efficiency and reduce peak demand. But Ice Energy has plans to expand beyond California - “anywhere the sun shines abundantly and the AC needs to be used regularly.” And to make it even more attractive, the company’s Solar+Ice bundle is available to utilities through long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) that guarantee performance.

So, what else new in energy storage was revealed at this year’s ESNA? Well, if you’re looking to commercialize successfully, why not go for a market where there’s little to no competition?

That’s exactly what the start-up Simpliphi Power has done by adopting and repurposing an energy storage solution for the film and photography industry. The technology is based on Lithium-Iron-Phosphate batteries, and with no heat profile or thermal runaway is enabling Hollywood movie makers to power their cameras and energy-hungry lighting much more efficiently and for longer.

The batteries are now also available for residential, commercial and military applications, but Catherine Von Burg, CEO, explained that the company is keen to explore more humanitarian uses as well: “We are looking to partner with the likes of NGOs and emergency relief agents. Currently we are in contact with USAID, Doctors Without Borders and several other NGOs.” Fascinating stuff!

It seems that all this innovation isn’t confined to stand-alone companies; you can see it in fruitful commercial collaboration too.

One enterprising firm, Vionx Energy, has created a winning energy storage solution by assembling an all-star team – what it calls an ‘ecosystem’ of companies. The firm’s Vanadium Redox Flow Battery technology was developed and engineered at UTC and 3M. The ecosystem includes four big partners – Starwood Energy and Vantage Point Capital Partners for financial investment, Jabil for manufacturing the batteries, and Siemens for taking care of the EPC.

In their first year, Vionx Energy has already finalized a large-scale energy storage project for the US Army, and of course the financial benefits of this commercial collaboration filter down to the end-user in the form of reduced-cost batteries.

And there are other ways that ambitious companies have teamed up to their mutual advantages…

Dynapower has strengthened its business strategy by teaming up with another big name, Tesla. As a result, Dynapower is now supplying the inverters for Tesla’s new commercial PowerPack batteries. The company also announced at ESNA that they will be working with Ecoult to supply a newly-designed inverter to be installed with a 1MW Ecoult battery system.

Meanwhile, for companies with long established market presence – companies like Saft – the step into the efficient storage system market is a relatively small one. They already have a record for developing innovative products. Saft, for example, holds the record for the longest-running Ni-Cad battery (up and running since 2003 in Fairbanks, Alaska). And they currently have a 4-plus years Li-ion battery project on the go that provides the invaluable data that investors are looking for.

And with such established names in the game, it’s inevitable there is healthy competition. Panasonic supplies Tesla’s EV batteries – but this hasn’t stopped them from beating Tesla by entering the European storage market ahead of them with their own residential storage system!

But what about the bottom line – getting innovative projects financed?

This remains a challenge; and with the number of new companies in the sector still growing, will it get any easier? Well, commentators say that the market won’t grow forever: “Eventually the market will see a lot of consolidation,” predicts Chip Palombini, Sales Manager for Dynapower, “just as we saw in the solar PV market.”

And it’s a view shared by market predictors and industry peers. Which perhaps explains why there was so much positive energy at this year’s ESNA – and reason to look forward to ever-more ingenious innovation both in products and commercial collaboration.

Heads up: Solarplaza will be organizing the event Monetizing Solar + Storage in Milan on March 3rd, 2016.

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