Our batteries offer three to four times better life than lead acid batteries and they operate over a wide range of outdoor temperatures without cooling/heating.
Zinc-air Battery Technology
Ramkumar Krishnan | NantEnergy
Tell us a bit about NantEnergy and your role in the alternative energy industry?
At NantEnergy our mission is to develop disruptive energy storage technologies that ultimately could help solve the world’s challenges in delivering access to clean, sustainable, safe, reliable and affordable energy for everyone, everywhere. We are beginning to see technology disrupt the energy industry at an accelerated pace. Last year, over 1TWh (1000GWh) of solar energy and wind energy was produced in just one energy hour. But intermittent renewables can pose a challenge to grid operators and remote communities. What’s needed is low cost, environmentally responsible energy storage is to stabilize the grid, enable higher penetration of renewable energy sources and provide energy to the 1.2 billion people who don’t have access to electricity. That is what we set out to do in 2006 as Fluidic Energy, and what we continue to strive toward today as NantEnergy – to enable the three D’s: decentralization, decarbonization and digitization of energy.
We began by looking to answer a few fundamental questions: Can we use earth abundant, safe materials like zinc to store energy electrically? Can we store energy from an electron at the lowest possible cost? And can we scale that energy from the few Whs needed for cellphones to the hundreds of MWhs needed to power cities? Rechargeable zinc batteries, and in particular zinc-air batteries, have long been considered the “holy grail” of energy storage due to their low cost and safe, environmentally friendly materials. But in 2006, when we started out, no one yet had figured out how to solve the challenges of the technology. Our team was able to combine innovations in many areas – mechanical, architecture, chemistry, materials, electronics and intelligent controls – to crack the code of making zinc batteries rechargeable.
The raw materials that we use are nearly 17 times lower cost than materials used in lithium-ion and even four times lower cost than materials in lead acid. Our zinc-air battery breathes air and uses only green and readily available materials such as zinc, water, air, carbon and potassium. In contrast, much of the cobalt and lithium used in Li-ion batteries are only available in large quantities in conflict areas. The result is that our product is geopolitically neutral because we use only earth-abundant materials.
Today, we have over 3,000 energy storage systems installed in nine different countries. We have over six years of deployment and just last year we dispatched over 6 GWh of clean energy. We are not only providing clean, reliable energy to businesses and people but we are more widely impacting our planet by eliminating over a million toxic lead acid batteries and preventing the use of nearly four million liters of diesel, representing 10,000 metric tons of CO2.
Battery safety is also important. Our battery chemistry is water based, doesn’t use any flammable liquids, and air is not stored inside the battery. This provides some unique benefits related to safety as there is no risk of explosion or thermal runaway.
We are building a network of smaller production facilities located where the customers are. As our capex costs are significantly lower than any other battery technology, we are able to deliver faster global impact, especially in emerging markets where people need this solution the most. We are creating local green-jobs as well as creating a local supply chain in under-served markets.
Our goal is to be the premier green energy company providing energy storage centric solutions for stationary markets including telecom, microgrids, commercial and industrial, and ultimately residential customers and utilities. With the recent acquisition of Sharp’s energy storage group and software services, we can provide energy based on what people need and use. That’s a different model and why we’re bringing together the best solar, storage and power conversion technologies in the world to offer the lowest cost energy solutions, like Energy-as-a-Service, enabled by the lowest cost energy storage technologies.
NantEnergy has deployed hundreds of microgrids in Indonesia. What is it about your systems that make them well suited for this business case?
We have deployed over 120 microgrids in Indonesia, Africa and even in the US (working with Duke Energy) that are entirely powered by solar panels and energy storage with no fossil fuels. Many of these autonomous microgrids address common challenges faced by remote communities – conventional grid lines that are difficult to install or maintain, fossil fuel that is costly or difficult to transport, and no visibility into how the solution works. Since renewables like solar and wind are intermittent and have major fluctuations in power and energy outputs during winter/rainy/monsoon season, long duration storage is necessary to maintain a high availability of electricity. Other challenges include extreme weather conditions and air conditioning that is hard to maintain. In addition, batteries typically remain at low state of charge and technologies like lead acid don’t perform well under these conditions.
NantEnergy’s zinc-air technology is bringing some unique benefits to these applications. Our batteries offer three to four times better life than lead acid batteries and they operate over a wide range of outdoor temperatures without cooling/heating. They provide cost-effective long duration capability of 48-72 hours, smart controls that prevent theft, smart expansion capability, and remote monitoring through satellite or cellular communication. That said, it is still a challenge to train, maintain and operate energy systems in remote areas and we are learning and improving every day.
We’re also seeing NantEnergy systems being relied upon for backup power for telecom towers. How are the price and reliability requirements from these telecoms different from those of remote microgrids?
We have installed our systems in over 1,000 telecom sites, delivering the highest performance and network availability in some of the harshest conditions. In places like Honduras, lead acid batteries are stolen almost every year. Telecom sites are also located in high crime areas where batteries may even occasionally see gunshots! As our batteries do not have any valuable materials and each of the batteries have built-in intelligence, we have virtually eliminated battery theft issues in many parts of Southeast Asia and Central America. Telecom is also very price sensitive and requires a really quick payback period for equipment expenditures. We have been able to show a strong total cost of ownership advantage to our telecom customers and our initial cost is now on par with lead acid batteries. Through data analytics, we have been able to show our customers that diesel generators can be eliminated in some cases with longer duration storage while maintaining high network availability. Our seamless expansion capability also allows customers to expand as the power demand at a site grows over time. In the case of lead acid batteries, typically the entire string would have to be replaced if the load grows over time or if one battery is not performing well.
In addition to providing back-up power, what other benefits do commercial and industrial buildings experience from using NantEnergy’s “behind the meter” energy management system?
Commercial property electricity bills are made up of two parts. Energy charges (measured in kWh) are based on the total amount of energy a customer uses during a billing period. Demand charges (measured in kW) are based on a customer’s peak electricity usage during that same period. These demand charges can be quite expensive and significantly impact a company’s bottom line. In some cases, demand charges can represent up to 50% of a commercial electricity bill. To combat expensive peak demand charges, commercial and industrial (C&I) buildings are increasingly turning to solar power. NantEnergy’s behind-the-meter energy storage systems offer peak shaving capabilities that can dramatically lower demand usage, resulting in reduced demand charges.
In addition, we have seen the value of solar power decline as more utilities implement rate changes. NantEnergy’s system can help future proof against fluctuating utility rate structures, simultaneously increasing the value of solar power for C&I facilities.
Several of NantEnergy’s systems pair solar installations with energy storage. Are there particular battery technologies where this pairing works best?
When pairing solar installations with batteries, there are multiple attributes that are important, particularly if solar and energy storage are to eliminate the need for diesel generators. In some cases, not all of those attributes can be achieved by a single technology. We have been able to develop hybrid storage systems using multiple battery chemistries and technologies to provide the best value for our customers.
Our installation at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great example of a successful hybrid microgrid project. The power lines that provided energy to the park’s communication building faced a lot of reliability issues, particularly during an outage. Our technology has now supported them through multiple hurricanes (Sandy and Florence) and has also helped free up 13 acres of forestland originally taken by miles of powerlines.
NantEnergy made some waves last year by announcing it has broken the $100/kWh price barrier, calling it a “game changer.” Why is this significant for the industry and for your customers? Do you expect the price to drop further?
We believe this price point is a game changer for the energy industry similar to how automobiles changed transportation at the beginning of 20th century and microprocessors started the communications and digital age. At $100/Kwh, distributed energy generation through renewables and energy storage starts to become competitive to conventional fossil fuel-based generation at central locations.
This is also significant to the industry because the upfront cost of storage technology plays a critical role in the penetration of renewables and the elimination of lead acid batteries and diesel generators. Cost-effective, long-duration energy storage (24 - 48 hours) can even eliminate the need for the MW scale diesel generators used by data centers and other critical commercial backup applications.
Long duration energy storage also accelerates the transition to a renewable-based energy economy, and in turn will help to mitigate climate change. And ultimately, just as the cell phone democratized communication and access to data in every corner of the world, distributed energy generation and storage can democratize access to clean energy. Reliable energy helps expand access to education, clean water, food and information, and it fundamentally increases productivity and economic growth.
We feel that $100/KWh is just the tipping point, as our fundamental raw material cost of zinc is just $2-$3/KWh. Today, commercially available zinc batteries are already below $30/KWh. Long term, we see a clear path to a very low-cost battery option that would be disruptive to the entire energy industry.
What else can we expect to see from NantEnergy in 2019 and beyond?
Our usage of the metal zinc in NantEnergy’s zinc-air batteries (which are a leading alternative to long-duration lithium-ion batteries) has already resulted in important technological advancements for energy storage. Expect even more innovations in storage chemistry to further increase duration capabilities. We will also be able to help our customers plan for delivery of seasonal storage for times when they know they will need it.
NantEnergy is also working on battery technology that will ultimately benefit the automotive and transportation sectors, enabling ultra-long range (>500 miles) for hybrids and electric vehicles.
Our forward momentum follows the vision of our CEO, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. Dr. Soon-Shiong is surgeon and health industry pioneer who considers energy storage an important and necessary technology to improve people’s lives.
About Ramkumar Krishnan
Dr. Ramkumar Krishnan, NantEnergy’s Chief Technology Officer, joined the company in 2008 and leads product and R&D teams in the development of the company’s game-changing rechargeable and long duration metal air energy storage technology. Prior to NantEnergy, Dr. Krishnan was a member of the technical staff in the Energy Technology Laboratory of Motorola’s Embedded Systems Research Laboratories in Tempe, Arizona. He has also served as a lecturer in the Department of Electronic Systems at Arizona State University.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
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