Everybody knows that conventional coal power plants are not designed to handle the demands on the nimble, renewables-integrated grid of today. What’s not much discussed, though, is the need for energy storage systems that can meet new demands on the grid. Those demands include electric vehicles surging into the market as well as an increase in wind and solar power.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at new energy storage technology from the Swiss company Innolith. CleanTechnica spent some time on the phone last week with Innolith CEO Sergey Buchin (with CMO Julian Tanner joining in) to discuss how the company’s new battery could help improve stability while leveraging more renewable energy into the grid as well.
Two Ways To Improve Lithium-Ion Energy Storage
As the name suggests, Innolith is focused on improving the performance of lithium-on batteries. Here’s the rundown from its press release:
The Innolith batteries use an unconventional inorganic electrolyte that delivers far greater durability, but also ensures a safer battery that is fundamentally non-flammable. This is in contrast to organic lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries that have limited usable lives and have caused multiple fires in consumer devices and grid applications.
Ouch! That thing about fire is a little over the top. To be clear, fire is not an issue for properly designed lithium-ion batteries.
The real issue is money. Conventional lithium-ion batteries are designed with an extra layer of safety engineering to prevent overheating, and that can push up costs.
If you neutralize the safety issue from the get-go, then you can avoid those additional costs.
Another feature related to cost is durability. Conventional lithium-ion batteries lose efficiency after repeated charge-discharge cycles. If you had a battery that could last for say, 50,000 cycles instead of just 10,000, your costs would go down even more.
A New Inorganic Battery For The Sparkling Green Grid Of The Future
That’s where Innolith’s new technology comes in. The electrolyte consists of lithium tetrachloroaluminate with the inorganic solvent sulfur dioxide. If that sounds a bit familiar, you may be thinking of the innovative battery company Alevo. Alevo’s technology was promising but it ran into financial difficulty last year, after which it was acquired by Innolith along with the fruits of its 20-year R&D effort.
At the end of our conversation, Sergey Buchin wrapped things up with a helpful observation on the general state of conventional lithium-ion technology, so let’s start with that (comments edited for clarity and flow):
The technology on the market is the same for all applications. Conventional Li-ion batteries were first commercialized in the 1990s for consumer applications, and this is more or less the same technology you find in a Tesla or in a container connected to the grid. This technology is coming to a limit.
The basic idea is that energy storage demands are different for grid-scale facilities, electric vehicles, and wristwatches. Having one architecture to rule them all is bound to bump up against an efficiency ceiling eventually.
Agree? Disagree? Drop us a note in the comment thread!
Meanwhile, let’s start over again at the beginning of our conversation. As Buchin explained, the Innolith energy storage platform differs from conventional lithium-ion batteries:
The battery platform consists of inorganic electrolytes. This is exactly what enables the battery to have a number of distinctive features.
First, it is not flammable. Second, The system is intrinsically chemically stable, which allows for longevity.
In contrast, conventional organic electrolytes use complex compounds. You have to fight thousands of parasitic reactions. With inorganic material you only fight tens of parasitic reactions.
Also, the [solid electrolyte interface] remains stable over time. Internal resistance is low, so it means that we are talking about a battery that has a power rating unchanged over time.
Conventional batteries have a dramatic growth in internal resistance even within just 1-2,000 cycles.
This is not the case for our battery. After 50,000 cycles it still has same power capacity, and 50% of residual capacity. That makes it ideal for applications requiring high power and a high number of cycles.
So, Does It Work?
When Innolith first reached out to by email to gauge CleanTechnica’s interest in its story, one thing that grabbed our attention was the company’s PJM connection.
For those of you new to the US grid, PJM is the operator responsible for a rather large and challenging part of the nation’s electricity infrastructure. Here’s the rundown from PJM:
PJM Interconnection is a regional transmission organization (RTO) that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity in all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Got all that? Good! Innolith left all this PJM stuff out of its press release, which only refers, somewhat mysteriously, to “the deployment of a prototype on the US grid.”
The company did mention it in its email to CleanTechnica, though. PJM has been testing an Innolith “GridBank” battery at scale in Hagerstown, Maryland, for a little over a year, so we made sure to ask Buchin why Innolith was interested in partnering with PJM.
As Buchin explained, PJM offered the opportunity to test the equipment under highly demanding conditions:
PJM has introduced a mechanism that created a market space for services in frequency management.
There are hundreds of different batteries deployed throughout this market. They compete with each other under a harsh [as in, high-standard] rating system of zero to 100. The higher your rating, the sooner you will get dispatched.
We have our system in operation in PJM for one year. We qualified with a score of 98.5 and the battery is still running with a score in the high 90s.
As for the bottom line, Buchin stated that “we think its the most economically viable way to distribute frequency management. We are about one-third the price of our competition.”
What About EVs And Renewables?
One thing to keep in mind about Innolith’s energy storage solution is that its real usefulness comes into play for grid stability, not load shifting. As a grid stabilizer in PJM, for example, it handles a charge/discharge cycle about 10 times a day.
According to Buchin, Innolith’s battery is expected to last about 10-15 years under those conditions. In contrast, conventional Li-ion batteries might last about 1-3 years if they were called upon to cycle that often.
With that in mind, Buchin foresees the need for Innolith’s energy storage as more electric vehicles enter the market:
Our battery is perfect for EV chargers. To reduce “turbulence” in the grid, you would charge the vehicle from the battery instead of directly from the grid.
That’s rather timely, considering that global companies like Enel are rushing pell-mell to build EV charging infrastructure.
The use of energy storage for grid stability also dovetails with the integration of more intermittent sources into the grid, namely wind and solar.
Though Innolith’s technology is source neutral — it can be charged with any electricity, from anywhere — the company is also making a strong pitch for renewable energy integration. In particular, part of its business plan involves ramping up renewable energy in emerging economies.
In consideration of the latest IPCC report, anything that can leverage more renewables into the grid is a good thing.
If all goes according to plan, Innolith is looking at hitting high-volume production by 2020 — just in time to help save the planet.
Here in the US, it looks like offshore wind energy is poised for a near-term breakthrough, but keep an eye on the next few years, when next-generation technology could keep pushing the cost of solar power down.
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Image (screenshot): via Innolith.