In a refurbished warehouse in Cremorne, Melbourne, Daniel Crowley and colleagues at Relectrify are trying to overcome a big obstacle to wider take-up of the home storage batteries that help households get more out of their solar panels.
Prices of batteries from Tesla, LG Chem and other suppliers are falling but they are still not strictly economical in most states, according to Carbon+Energy markets’ Bruce Mountain.
Solar householders like the idea of storing the surplus energy generated on sunny days for use in the evening when they come home, but many are holding off in the hope that the next generation of batteries offers better value and performance.
Crowley and co-founder Valentin Muenzel think they can reduce the upfront cost by about 30 per cent by recycling the best cells of spent electric vehicle batteries and connecting them via smart technology that draws power from the cells in a way that extends their lives and increases their efficiency.
If they can offer recycled cell batteries that last almost as long as new ones and cost a lot less, that will boost takeup, Crowley says. It would also reduce demand for greenhouse polluting grid power and battery waste.
They’ve previously raised $2 million and recycled a 12 volt battery for a caravan and driven it around Australia. The next step is field trials of a 48V home storage battery – recycled from a spent Nissan leaf battery – with IBM and Selectronic, a maker of current inverters for solar systems. A 400V industrial and small utility scale battery is the next goal.
Crowley says they don’t want to recycle batteries en masse themselves. “We have got this technology and we’d like to be able to work with battery manufacturers to implement it in their products.”
Utilities host boot camp
The technology’s novelty and potential helped the startup beat off about 500 rivals from around the world to win a place among the 15 finalists for Free Electrons, an energy start-up bootcamp program founded by Origin Energy, Ausnet Services, Tokyo Electric Power and six other utilities.
Relectrify and the other finalists will gather in Sydney this week, San Francisco in June and Berlin in October to spruik their wares with the aim of winning financial support and a coveted pilot with one of the utilities, which could help commercialise their technologies.
Crowley says Free Electrons is “setting us up for the next stage” and their goal is to get pilots with “as many utilities as we can”. They have one under way with a New Zealand utility.
The attraction for the utilities is to expose themselves to cutting-edge technologies in hope they can roll up the best of them into an “Amazon of energy” one-stop shop rather than being elbowed out of the way in the shift to decentralised energy markets.
“Our role and our goal is to be the ones that provide it. If you are providing them with scale and channels you are going to be an attractive partner,” says Cameron Briggs, Origin’s general manager future energy.
Briggs says energy companies can help startup founders see the big picture and encourage them to work together to improve the strength and appeal of their offer. From last year’s finalists, Tempus, a demand management software firm that Origin is trialling in South Australia, has put its head together with Climote of Ireland to broaden the appeal of that firm’s hardware for demand response in hot water systems.
“It all has to come together in a way that can work. So we are almost cherry picking things, not that we think there is an one silver bullet. They can not come together without us – we have the data,” Briggs says.
The other 14 Free Electrons finalists for 2018 range across smart grids, energy efficiency and demand management. UK start-up Howz monitors energy use so family and neighbours can be alerted if, say, an elderly person fails to boil the kettle one morning. Verv, another UK start-up, offers an energy trading platform, and US group Orison is developing a “plug and play” battery that consumers can take home from the hardware store like any appliance rather than a technology product that has to be installed by electricians.