How Batteries Could Revolutionize Renewable Energy

Power poles and wind turbines are captured on April 30, 2017 in Nauen, Germany. Florian Gaertner—Photothek via Getty Images

By: Justin Worland

All over California, there’s evidence of the state’s goal to lead the country in renewable energy. Enormous farms of shiny solar panels have popped up across southern California, and gigantic wind turbines dot the landscape outside nearly all the major cities. There are less flashy—and less visible—investments in renewables going on, too. Tucked away in warehouses, trailers and industrial parks are lithium ion batteries that, if all goes well, will play a critical role in helping California hit its ambitious target: to have 50% of all electricity come from renewables by 2050.

Some green energy sources come with a built-in challenge: the wind and the sun can’t be turned on and off at will. When it’s windy and sunny, an abundance of energy may be harnessed—but any excesses go to waste. That’s where batteries, the most common type of energy storage, come in. Batteries solve that problem by allowing utility companies to collect excess electricity and store it for times when the sun may not be shining or the wind not blowing.

“Networks care about reliability,” says Logan Goldie-Scot, an energy-storage analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Energy storage is being viewed by network operators as a potential tool in their toolbox, and that hasn’t been the case up until now.”

In 2013, California launched an aggressive effort to ramp up large-scale energy storage with an initial goal of building 1,325 megawatts of storage by 2020, the equivalent capacity of two average sized coal-fired power plants. Today, the state is already home to 36% of the country’s battery storage capacity with projects continuing to open on a regular basis, according to a Climate Group report. Oregon and Massachusetts have since announced their own storage targets. Meanwhile, dozens of cities have made commitments to get 100% of their electricity from renewables.

California’s effort will serve as test case for policymakers and utilities across the country hoping to deploy more renewables. If it works as planned, others will likely follow suit. “Everybody looks to California to see what works and what doesn’t work—and how to tweak it,” says Marlene Motyka, global renewable energy leader at Deloitte. “States are looking at it in terms of renewable technologies and how to get more value out of their systems.”

Batteries will also change the power sector as homeowners and businesses install their own products. Batteries at homes, offices and other commercial buildings allow customers to save electricity collected by their solar panels and use it at times when electricity prices are highest. One in four businesses with more than 250 employees has already deployed batteries to help with their electricity management, according to a Deloitte study. Regulatory changes that encourage battery owners to sell back stored electricity when it’s in high demand could increase interest in batteries, analysts say.

Batteries installed in electric vehicles, for instance, will also affect the electric grid as automakers continue to expand their offerings. Experts say the impact will both stress and help utilities manage their electricity supply. The stress comes as vehicles create a new demand for energy, but at the same time, batteries in those vehicles act as a storage unit of their own that may offer new flexibility. The largest battery in a Tesla, as one example, can store enough electricity to power the average American home for more than three days. Utilities have begun exploring programs to encourage electric vehicle owners to charge their cars when there is extra power on the grid.

Perhaps the biggest open question for energy storage remains how much—and where—the market will grow in the coming years—whether lithium ion batteries will keep their place as the top way of storing electricity. Hydrogen storage, molten salt and other forms of batteries all offer alternatives that have received significant investment in recent years.

But much like photovoltaic solar panels in recent years, the cost of lithium ion batteries has already come down so much that the market’s continued growth seems almost inevitable.

“A few years ago, batteries were seen as talked about in terms of innovative technology,” says Motyka. “Now, it’s here and starting to be used in full force.”



Solar Road Surface to be Tested on TRU Kamloops Campus

By: Randy Shore

Polymer based solar cells will be tested as a road surface at the Kamloops campus of Thompson Rivers University. HANDOUT / PNG

Researchers at Thompson Rivers University are installing Canada’s first solar electric road surface in Kamloops.

Michael Mehta’s Solar Compass Project will embed 64 super-durable solar panels right outside the main doors of the university’s Arts and Education Building.

“The system will produce enough power to run 40 computers in that building, eight hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Mehta.

While the panels in their current form might not be practical for a busy road surface, they could easily be integrated into urban infrastructure as sidewalks to power street lighting or even to carry fibre-optic signals for telecommunications, said Mehta.

“There is some concern, and it’s justified, that people will start to use arable land for solar farms, because it’s lucrative,” he said. “We think that using existing infrastructure like roads and pathways makes a lot more sense.”

That opens the door for smarter road surfaces that could change the number of lanes by literally moving the white lines or display dynamic road-based signage that changes with driving conditions detected by integrated sensors, such as black ice.

“This solar surface is the scaffold for all those future applications,” he said. “Once we prove the concept, all those other things are relatively easy to embed in this technology.”

The 1,200-square-foot array of panels will produce 15,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. The panels — produced by Vancouver’s Solar Earth Technologies — are one metre by two metres in size and consist of 50 solar modules each.

The array will require 32 micro-inverters to convert direct current to alternating current that we typically use in our homes.

“Modern solar equipment is pretty straightforward, so there isn’t a lot of infrastructure required,” said Mehta. “The micro-inverters are about the size of an iPad, we need some wiring and other than that there isn’t much more involved.”

While the TRU installation will only have to stand up to foot traffic, the panels are strong enough to withstand the weight of a fire truck, he said.

“The low-hanging fruit for urban environments is to make better use of sidewalks, which aren’t subject to much wear and tear,” he said. “They could easily power a city’s outdoor lighting and become part of the telecommunications infrastructure.”

Conventional solar panels made with tempered glass surfaces last 30 years or more, but it remains to be seen how the high-friction polymer materials required for a road-surface panel will stand up to various levels of traffic, impacts and environmental conditions.

The installation is slated for June.



How Leading Solar Panels Stack Up Against the Competition

By: Travis Hoium

Image source: Getty Images

In the battle to win business in the solar industry, solar manufacturers have to find a way to differentiate themselves. Cost and efficiency are two of the biggest differentiators, and in the utility segment, a larger panel size can make installation more efficient as well.

Below, I’ve pulled the data sheet information for solar panels from Canadian Solar (NASDAQ: CSIQ), JinkoSolar (NYSE: JKS), and SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR). And I’ll show how their products compare from an efficiency standpoint.

How Solar Panels Stack Up

There’s generally three types of solar panels: the least efficient, polysilicon; monosilicon; and the most efficient, mono-PERC, for commodity-type construction. Canadian Solar and JinkoSolar have been leaders in building out mono-PERC capacity and are already expanding this product line.

The table below lays out how Canadian Solar, JinkoSolar, and SunPower’s products stack up against each other, based on public data sheets.

Panel Type Size Top


Canadian Solar Dymond Polysilicon 330 watt 16.90%
Jinko Solar Eagle Dual Polysilicon 335 watt 17.26%
SunPower P-Series Polysilicon 350 watt 17%
Canadian Solar Maxpower Monosilicon 340 watt 17.49%
Canadian Solar Superpower Mono-PERC 300 watt 18.33%
JinkoSolar Eagle PERC Mono-PERC 360 watt 18.57%

Data source: Company websites.

The reason I included SunPower in the mix is that its P-Series product was sold as being slightly more efficient than competing modules using the same cells. The datasheets don’t currently bear that out.

What’s also notable is that SunPower’s P-Series module is the highest-wattage module among its peers because it’s slightly bigger than competing products.

On the high-efficiency side, JinkoSolar appears to have a clear lead over Canadian Solar. As companies compete for customers who are putting higher value on efficiency, this is a small but critical lead to maintain.

Why Efficiency is Important

The efficiency manufacturers offer can be helpful to solar customers in a couple of ways. First, it leverages existing land and balance of system costs beyond the panel.For example, panels can be installed more efficiently because a crew could install 20% more 360 watt panels in the same amount of time as 300 watt panels. And with more efficient panels there would be fewer wiring connections, trenches to dig, and racks to install per MW.

Customers are also willing to pay a premium for efficiency. PV Magazine Opens a New Window.reported that late in 2016, polysilicon panels were selling for $0.41 per watt and mono-PERC were selling for $0.49 per watt. That’s a premium that’ll continue because of the value higher efficiency brings.

The Emerging Leaders in Solar Manufacturing

As it stands today, Canadian Solar and JinkoSolar are two of the biggest solar manufacturers in the world, and as they move to more efficient solar panels, they’ll differentiate themselves from competitors.




South Australia Heading to 80% Wind and Solar by 2021/22

By: Giles Parkinson

South Australia is not just likely to have already met its target of 50 per cent renewables some eight years ahead of time, it is now heading for an extraordinary penetration rate of 80 per cent wind and solar by 2021.

That, at least, is the presumption of the Australian Energy Market Operator in a series of scenarios that it prepared for its submission into the Tamblyn review on the proposed second link from Tasmania to the mainland.

AEMO considered three different scenarios to assess whether that new link to Tasmania would be a good deal, and translated those into its own estimates of how much wind and solar would be built in each state over the next 5, 10, 15 and 20 years.

South Australia was an important factor in the AEMO’s deliberations on the extra link to Tasmania, because it suggested that it would make more sense if there was an extra link to South Australia, to take advantage of that state’s growing wind and solar output.

In two of the scenarios that it contemplated – the neutral one (above) based on current policies, and the ambitious climate goal of a 45 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 (below) – South Australia’s wind and solar capacity doubled over the next five years, before coming to a halt over the following 10 years.

Consider what that means. Its current capacity of around 1,600MW of large-scale wind energy meets just over 40 per cent of total state demand, and the 720MW of rooftop solar adds another 7 per cent. When Hornsdale 2 is completed later this year, that percentage will go beyond 50 per cent.

AEMO’s forecasts suggest the capacity of wind and solar (now that it is cost competitive with wind) will double to around 3,100MW by 2121/2022. Given that the state’s rooftop solar installation is also expected to soar, this suggests at last 80 per cent of the state’s electricity demand could be met by wind and solar.

That’s not necessarily something to worry about, if properly managed, given that the CSIRO and the Energy Networks Australia canvassed a similar scenario in their Future Grids work, which they said would not affect system reliability, although they were suggesting it would happen more than a decade later.

However, it should be noted that AEMO’s forecasts were completed before the state government unveiled its energy security target, which requires that 36 per cent of its local demand be met by local dispatchable resources, and 50 per cent by 2025 – which suggests that wind and solar will need to come with storage attached.

That looks achievable, given that the state is already holding one tender for 100MW/100MWh of battery storage, and many of the new solar proposals are coming “battery ready”. One developer, Reach Solar, says solar and storage is already cheaper than gas and will be “well below” $100/MWh – the current level of wholesale prices – within a few years.

AEMO has already canvassed the likelihood that rooftop solar, alone, could account for 100 per cent of minimum demand on some occasions within the next five to six years, a situation that is likely to be repeated in Western Australia and Tasmania. Even north Queensland is building so much large-scale solar and wind that its capacity will equate to minimum within a few years.

The only scenario where South Australia’s large-scale wind and solar capacity did not double was in the “low demand” scenario, where much of future demand is met by “distributed energy”, primarily rooftop solar and storage, and energy efficiency.

But this scenario’s impact on wind and solar construction over the next five years is a little hard to understand, given that the “low grid demand” is unlikely to be evident to all within the next few years.



Texas A&M Central Texas Working to Improve Solar Power

By: Andrew Moore

KILLEEN – Central Texas may not have had a big Earth Day march but a local university is quietly making major steps in solar research. Texas A&M University Central Texas is working to make solar more cost effective for cities and businesses though two areas of research and just got a major upgrade to make that happen.

One research area is to make solar panels more efficient. The university installed a $700,000 electron microscope last week in order to study alternate materials for solar panels at the molecular lever. The analysis will help them increase the efficiency limit currently holding solar back.

Conventional solar panels only convert 12 to 18 percent of the sun’s energy to usable power for a consumer. Because of economies of scale, large solar farms can be cost effective for a utility powering part of a city. For businesses and individual users however, there is no uniform solution that can compete with typical utility company costs.

Texas A&M University Vice President for Research and Economic Development Dr. Russell Porter said solar energy only has 1 percent of the national market, but if that 18 percent energy conversion rate went up it would open doors for a larger market.

“When you go from an efficiency of 18 to 30 percent that we have actually got in the lab, that already exists, in two to five years when you have that you can start to get business close to utility costs,” Porter said.

Porter said he believes it is possible to get almost a 50 percent energy conversion rate, but that is up to a decade away.

The university is also researching how businesses could implement new solar technology to close the gap between current electric company costs and the overall cost of implementing a solar system. The research considers not only new technologies but what tax incentives are most effective to help businesses decide on solar power.

The University of Texas A&M Central Texas is working with Texas A&M College Station, The University of Texas at Austin, and Colorado State University to conduct solar research thanks to a four year $1.2 Million grant from the National Science Foundation. Porter said the continued availability of federal funds is important to the research moving forward in the future.