It’s been three years since CleanTechnica first sat down with Simpliphi Power CEO Catherine Von Burg at the company’s headquarters in Ojai, California. After much progress and a close encounter with destruction, we recently got an update on what the energy storage solution provider has been working on over the last year, as well as Von Burg’s plans for 2018.
Simpliphi Power’s batteries are based on the extremely stable lithium-ferro-phosphate (LFP) chemistry, which differentiates them from the more common lithium ion variants in a few important ways.
First and foremost, LFP chemistries do not use any toxic cobalt. In addition to being toxic, cobalt is an extremely difficult mineral to source, with most of the world’s production currently coming from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC is not the most stable economy in the world and with the massive spike in demand for cobalt, it is considered to be a conflict mineral by many.
LFP batteries have the added benefit of being extremely thermally stable by design, which means they are not susceptible to failure due to extreme heat, nor will they spontaneously combust if punctured (as lithium-ion batteries can do). Lithium-ion batteries generate their own heat under normal operating conditions, adding to the risk of thermal runaway. Simpliphi Power has built a range of portable consumer energy storage and stationary residential energy storage products based on its preferred battery chemistry specifically because of these traits.
From Catherine’s perspective, it is clear that there is already a large market for residential energy storage, but that most customers simply don’t know about residential energy storage products or, even if they do, don’t know enough to convince themselves to pull the trigger on a purchase. Catherine spoke with us about how batteries extend the functionality of a rooftop solar system in the event of a power outage. “Adding just one battery to your home … or two … in a closet, and you suddenly gain access to the solar generation on your roof if the grid goes down.”
Many rooftop solar customers aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the system and simply expect that their home will have power if the grid goes down, but for most rooftop solar systems, that’s not the case. To keep the grid safe, most inverters and micro-inverters used in rooftop solar systems are designed to cut power when they detect that the grid has gone down as a safety mechanism. Doing so keeps anyone working on the grid safe from solar power feeding back into the grid but leaves the home dark.
Dropping a single battery into the equation allows the solar system to continue feeding power to the battery if the grid goes down, meaning the lights (and refrigerator!) stay on. During the day, the solar system can continue generating power that the homeowner can continue to use … within the confines of the battery capacity and solar system generating capacity, of course.
A Year for the Record Books
Looking back at 2017, Catherine shared that it was a blockbuster year for the company, with sales more than tripling versus 2016. The blockbuster year came in spite of a week-long shutdown of the company’s headquarters in Ojai when the team was forced to evacuate as a result of the Thomas Fire blowing through town, nearly consuming the facility on the way. When the smoke cleared, the team was relieved to find their headquarters intact and dug back in to make up for lost time.
The spike in sales have Simpliphi Power bursting out of its Ojai headquarters and scrambling around the surrounding area looking for more manufacturing space. To keep pace with the sales ramp, Simpliphi transitioned to working with larger global distributors. The real work is in building a seamless network that brings together sales, distribution, and installers. As such, Simpliphi and its partners are, “working with our network of installers globally to introduce them to this global set of distributors.” The new distributors have in-house engineering services and excellent customer support to ensure customers have a consistent, professional experience no matter where they are in the world.
Renewed Focus on Residential, C&I
For 2018, Simpliphi Power is constantly pushing to improve its products, at the best price for consumers: “We increased the capacity of our batteries in the same form factor and decreased pricing.” A few examples of the old and new product specs are below:
- PHI 3.4 kWh is now PHI 3.5 kWh
- AccESS-Schneider w/option of 6.8 kWh (2 x PHI 3.4) or 10.2 kWh (3 x PHI 3.4) à AccESS-Schneider w/option of 7 kWh (2 x PHI 3.5) or 10.5 kWh (3 x PHI 3.5)
- PHI 2.6 kWh is now PHI 2.7 kWh
- PowerBank 5.2 kWh (2 x PHI 2.6) → PowerBank 5.4 kWh (2 x PHI 2.7)
The new battery packs with their improved specs are a result of a new architecture that Catherine shared is well suited for Commercial and Industrial (C&I) installations. C&I have varied needs and the new flexible architecture allows Simpliphi Power to tailor the storage capacity and output levels for the exact customer needs.
Catherine shared that from a product standpoint, she sees the company continuing to focus on residential solutions as it pushes to fully explore the potential of microgrids and nanogrids. “At this point in the company’s trajectory, we are not looking at grid scale storage.” The decision to focus on smaller systems is all about resiliency. “Utility scale storage has inherent issues that any centralized asset does. Interruption from a cyber attack or weather related incident or overload [can be an issue] like it is for any centralized infrastructure.”
Hurricane Maria tore through the Caribbean, shattering the fragile threads that held the electrical grid for many islands in the region. Simpliphi and its partners pulled together to develop a containerized “microgrid-in-a-box” for the island of Dominica. Catherine shared that at the fringes of the grid, it’s more cost effective to air drop a 40′ containerized microgrid than to extend the grid.
Microgrids clearly have significant potential in developing nations and Catherine expressed her desire to be a part of the rebuilding of electrical grids around the world. Back at home in the United States, Simpliphi is pushing the envelope to explore the potential of micro- and nano-grids in developed regions as well, partnering with progressive thinkers like Stone Edge Farms in Northern California.
Stone Edge Farms (SEF) has become the ultimate sandbox for companies to test their microgrid technologies, as owners Mac and Leslie McQuown continue to look for the latest and greatest clean technologies to power their vineyard operations.
Simpliphi has been a crucial part of the evolution of the Stone Edge Farms microgrid and is now working with Jorge from SEF, who started as an intern at Stone Edge Farm on the Heila IQ controller that proven capable of automagically balancing the microgrid, when needed. That’s no easy feat, but the complex setup at SEF has proven its worth as the ultimate sandbox, where the Heila IQ is currently managing inverters, charge controllers, a handful of battery banks, solar installations, hydrogen generation, storage, and usage through a fuel cell stack to ensure they all sing as one voice in the confines of the microgrid.
Simpliphi is fleshing out several standardized microgrid offerings that build on the learnings from Stone Edge Farms and will make use of the Heila IQ. The beauty of microgrids is their flexibility by design, which allows them to be scaled up or down for each customer.
The future is created by those willing to dream and to take steps to make those dreams a reality. Thankfully, there are passionate leaders like Catherine Von Burg that have taken up the call to action to design and develop clean, non-toxic solutions to the energy crisis.