By: Eugene Wilkie
Solar and wind has been my passion for several decades now and my sole source of income. When I first started in the industry they were all off-grid systems. Grid tied inverters were not in existence at the time. Our biggest problem back then was the reliability of batteries as they needed constant servicing and often had a short life expectancy.
My first solar systems involved pumping water for farmers who were looking at several hundred thousand dollars to bring grid tied power to remote locations for livestock or agriculture. Often times it was a hybrid system that also included a generator and the only reason that they would include solar was it was often a pain in the derriere to transport fuel to these remote locations. Often times the short life of the batteries were due to the owner forgetting to bring distilled water and would just use water that was accessible at the time. This was definitely a battery killer.
Finding these clients was tough and often involved (puff puff) agriculture which was not a good business building model as you could not use them for references. I decided to make a huge jump in markets and immigrated to the central American markets as I had a captured clientele there. In most of these remote locations fuel could be as high as $10.00 a gallon and was unreliable to locate. After several years down there I visited a system I had installed in the mountains of Guatemala for an orphanage. I was appalled at what I witnessed. My lead acid batteries had ceased to function and were now in the playground being played with by young children. I was convinced that we needed to come up with some sort of alternative.
Surprising enough, there are many communities of Mennonites in central America and they are a very industrious and inventive group of folks. I visited several of their communities and was intrigued with the solution they had come up with for storing energy. They would use wind power to charge up a contraption that was simple but quite effective using kinetic storage. They harvested used large springs from railroad cars and semi trucks. They would use a hydraulic press to press down the spring and when they needed the energy the spring would push the hydraulics back through a inline generator or they would just use the hydraulic pressure to run a tool.
I of course immediately returned to several of my installs for orphanages and promptly built several of these and sort of addressed the power problems. Hydraulic fluid does break down and our pressure control valves leaked and often times blew out. I still think there is a market for this and have often times just explained how to build to the farming community as most know how to weld and deal with hydraulics daily using their tractors. I did a search on others using this and was stunned to see the military has used this or bladder systems for years.
So for the last several years I have been reading articles pertaining to the research and development of battery storage and have been intrigued and hopeful. After quite a few years in the Latin American markets I returned to the U.S. when California started its solar incentive program and grid tied inverters hit the market. I have for the last several years become nervous for the renewable market as I knew we were going to hit a wall of, one can only install so much intermediate power source. The idea of molten salt systems using concentrated solar has never really interested me as they involve a lot of maintenance and the cost is prohibitive.
My main and early markets taught me a very important lesson that if you did not provide a maintenance service for systems installed off-grid systems the customer was more than likely to run the system into the ground and then complain loudly at how unreliable renewables were.
When graphene first hit the news I got a bit excited as it is versatile and has capacitor storage capabilities as well as battery like qualities. Combined with nano wire capabilities today it is no wonder that so many Universities and companies have taken up the research and development side. I really believe this is a emerging technology one needs to watch closely.
Regardless of the technology used, it is essential that energy storage is integrated with renewables if they want to gain a true market share in the energy sector. Intermediate renewable power is heavily dependent on fossil fuel technology and has only short term effects. Peak power usage does not end when the sun goes down.
The wind industry has recognized this and has progressed with companies like Siemens utilizing hydrogen generating technologies. Very simply they use excess electricity to split water and then separate the hydrogen and oxygen. They store the hydrogen and when power is needed use the hydrogen in a fuel cell or generator.
I believe that we will see the same pattern for energy storage that we have seen in the solar panel markets of, more market share equals greater reduction in price. NRG Energy has really recognized this potential with their model of adding storage to their residential systems to capture those lost hours of peak power price points. There are several other solar companies that are in the markets where utilities utilize the TOU (time of use) markets and started utilizing storage. The economics absolutely make sense even with today's battery pricing.
I have consulted for several investors in the last couple of years and can say that the investment community has very much recognized the potential market share renewables can have if the price point of renewables combined with storage capabilities is market competitive with fossil fuels. We could definitely see an explosion of the renewable market not seen in energy since oil first spewed out of the ground if energy storage becomes main stream implementation. So here is to the renewable energy community integrating energy storage and really taking our market share like never before.