Innovative energy storage devices to solve Africa’s power problems - CNBC Africa

Innovative energy storage devices to solve Africa’s power problems

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Energy storage devices could be used as a viable solution for power outages. PHOTO: Frology

This is according to California-based Imergy Power Systems president and COO, Tim Hennessy, who also believes, along with business partner, Tom, that their innovation in battery flow technology can aid in a significant reduction in the cost of power.

“The grid is basically designed to operate to match the load. It’s a ‘just in time’ system so whatever the load wants, you generate for. The problem with that, clearly, is you don’t have any method of adjusting for unknown events,” Hennessy told CNBCafrica.com.

“If something catastrophic happens – you lose a power station or a power line goes down, or the load changes suddenly – it’s very difficult for the grid to balance that.”

AN ECONOMICALLY VIABLE SOLUTION

Hennessy further stated that a power utility would then put in a reserve, extra generators or bigger power lines, which are underutilised most of the time. 

“That means the economics are poor and that drives the actions of utilities around the world and in Southern Africa. Many of them don’t invest because they don’t get the return on their investment,” he added.

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This, however, presents an opportunity for energy storage devices like the Vanadium Reox Energy Storage Platform (ESP), which Hennessy indicates is more economically viable.

“The way you can handle this, if you think about a conventional system, is you put in inventory, you put in some way of storing or having buffer stock. That is exactly what an energy storage device does,” he explained.

“You put it on the grid and it is able to take the energy that is generated when it’s not needed and store it until it is needed. The key thing for us is that you need to have it where the problems occur. You don’t want to always have it at the central location.”

HOW DOES IT WORK

Hennessy also explained the dynamics behind their device and emphasised the fact that materials used in the product can be sourced from within South Africa.

“You basically have electrolyte which is the liquid, the energy is stored in there – like the water in a dam – and then you have a conversion box which is the generator. You push the water through a generator and that makes the power. In our case, we store the energy in the electrolyte,” he said.

“There’s an additional value here in that our technology derives a lot of its key attributes, its benefits, from material that can be sourced in South Africa. We use Vanadium Electrolyte and South Africa is one of the world’s largest producers of the vanadium.”

WHERE IT’S NEEDED THE MOST

He added that this device should be placed at the ‘local’ level, in a distributed fashion throughout the grid where there might be bottlenecks or, in the future, where there might be critical loads that need this.

“You want to apply it down at the commercial and industrial level as well as to residential levels. The greatest value, more than convenience, goes to, for example, a hotel or a small business, which can’t afford to have a system, a company shut down when there is an outage,” Hennessy stated.

“You could use it at Eskom level as well but their requirements are massive in terms of the number of megawatts that they require. The distributive approach works better so you can put it in multiple places and relieve the problem at the lower level rather than on the central grid.”

(READ MORE: Contingency plan for power cuts a necessity)

According to Hennessy, this would essentially create a microgrid within the system and would allow individuals and businesses to save in some areas.

“If you have a strategic industry that cannot afford to have an outage of any form, like a chemical plant, you have to make sure that the supply that is always on, always available. For that, you generally buy what people call batteries or UPS’s for uninterrupted power supply,” he stated.

“They put those systems in and then they also have diesel generators – these are expensive, it’s polluting and, clearly, the case is, how long do you need to run it for? Our technology comes in and allows you to avoid the need to run the diesel.”

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?

Hennessy listed some of the other benefits as a reduction polluting emissions, less wear and tear on diesel devices and a reduced cost to the user because the energy storage system is charged with grid power when it’s available.

“From a South African perspective, here is a problem that they need solved and solved economically. You have a source so it’s a perfect match to bring in the innovative technology and to solve problems within the country, using its own resources,” he said.

Other application uses for the device include grid back up, peak load management, renewable energy generation, microgrids, diesel hybrid solutions and grid power reliability and cost.

THE CONTINUED FOCUS ON RENEWABLE TECHNOLOGIES

Hennessy stated that the integration of renewable energy technology use was crucial to recent trends in the renewables, specifically solar power, space.

“Photovoltaics (PV) have come down tremendously in price. The energy that a photovoltaic panel can produce is now less than the cost you pay for your energy from the grid. You have to find a way of combining the PV with energy storage to be able to make it ‘firm’ so it’s always available,” he explained.

“Any excess generation that you have from the PV or from wind [power], you store in a battery system, in the energy system and then you withdraw from that when you need it.”

EXPANDING INTO THE REST OF AFRICA

He also highlighted interest in the device from other parts of the continent, particularly in the telecommunications industry.

“We’ve got systems that we’ve put into Nigeria. We’re looking at expanding on the East of Africa. Most of them up until now have been tied with telecommunications, so the cell phone towers – most of those in Africa are not connected to the grid,” Hennessy said.

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“We’re doing rural electrification projects in India and we will look at doing the same concepts in Africa, in Southern Africa – so in Zambia and places of that nature. We’re also looking at supporting the mining industry and their remote sites – they consume a lot of power.”

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