Batteries for stationary storage applications became sexy a few years ago when Tesla launched the Powerwall. Before the Powerwall, good old lead acid batteries were the default go-to battery in their bulky and uninspiring rectangular prismatic form factor. Now in its second generation, the Powerwall has brought a lot of swag to the home storage market. Shortly after its launch, Tesla faced some very good problems arising from the insatiable demand associated with such mass appeal. There were just not enough Powerwalls being churned out to meet the demand in its home market of America, Europe, low hanging fruit markets like Australia, and of course Africa.
The introduction of the second generation Powerwall, now with an integrated battery inverter and larger usable storage capacity of 13.5 kWh, saw interest go into overdrive. However, production of the second generation Powerwall immediately slowed down as Tesla prioritized the very successful ramp-up of the production of the Model 3. Similarly, its big brother the Powerpack has stimulated growth in large scale stationary storage applications, the most famous one to date being the Big Hornsdale installation in Australia.
Several other brands launched home stationary storage products on the world market. These included the LG Chem Resu, Samsung SDI’s AIO Series (Now Hansol AIO), BYD’s B BOX, Sonnen, and the Enphase AC Battery. But just like the many EV brands blame the slow ramp-up of EV production on battery supply constraints, these lithium-ion home batteries have not been produced in large volumes. With a huge world market to address, a limited quantity of the batteries from these global brands get to reach Africa. Most of these OEMs do not have local offices in Africa, resulting in long delivery lead times, absence of local back-up and service support, and to some extent warranty issues as some products come on the market as grey imports from third parties. This has created the perfect platform for localization of battery production.
Three startups took on this challenge to disrupt the status quo and lead South Africa into the age of lithium-ion for stationary storage applications. Solar MD from Cape Town, Blue Nova based in Somerset West, and Freedomwon from Johannesburg. The firms import lithium iron phosphate prismatic cells and LiFeYPO4 cells from Chinese manufactures like CALB and Winston (Thundersky). These are then assembled into battery packs in South Africa. The startups have since developed their own proprietary Battery Management Systems (BMS) as well as their own Energy Management Systems (EMS). This approach gives them the flexibility to build battery packs more suitable to local conditions as well as sizing the packs to suit local customer usage profiles. The benefits of local assembly and continued increase of local components in the battery packs are no doubt a big deal in job creation in a country battling a high unemployment rate that is nearing 30%. Downstream industries that also benefit include sheet metal benders for casings, manufacturers of electrical cables, and associated accessories. The Blue Nova story is quite impressive for the small town of Somerset West as several components used in making the battery packs are sourced from suppliers on Erica Way, the same road as Blue Nova’s factory.
In a typical case of when opportunity meets preparation, these local battery firms have found themselves being in the right place at the right time. The Southern African community has been experiencing electricity blackouts recently as the state utilities in their respective nations battle to keep the lights on. South Africa has been hit by periodic power rationing cycles, commonly referred to as load shedding. These tend to last about 2 to 4 hours at a time. Across the border to the north of South Africa, the prolonged drought and lower than usual rainfall over the last couple years has seen water levels in the Kariba Dam fall to critical levels. Kariba Dam lies on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The power utility companies in both countries have had to curtail power generation at Kariba.
Kariba Dam houses the main electricity generators for Zambia (1080 MW), which represents 46% of Zambia’s installed generation capacity. Kariba also hosts 1050 MW of generators which contribute 47% of Zimbabwe’s installed generation capacity. The Zambian Power Utility Zesco has started 8-hour daily load shedding cycles, and the Zimbabwean power utility ZESA has introduced unbearable 16-hour daily load shedding cycles from 6 am to 10 pm! Zimbabwe’s blackouts have been made worse by depressed generation at the country’s aging coal power plants, along with network faults on its very old transmission and distribution network. Vandalism of power infrastructure, including cable thefts and siphoning of transformer oil, is also a major problem.
All these events have led to an unprecedented sales boom for the battery firms through their distributor and installer network. Kaloyan Dimov, CEO and Founder of Solar MD expects sales to hit 60 MWh in 2019 alone. To put that into perspective, since Solar MD’s launch in 2014, total sales to date add up to around 95 MWh. Solar MD’s battery packs start from small 3.7 kWh packs to 1.2 MWh containerized solutions, which are now available in most of Southern Africa including Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. As market awareness and trust of the three brands has grown, local solar Engineering, Procurement and Construction firms (EPCs) are now also incorporating more and more of the larger battery packs for diesel abatement in their installations at off-grid safari lodges, resorts, commercial and industrial (C&I) segments, as well as in rural minigrids. Another key market that has been growing steadily for the firms is the drop-in replacement for lead acid batteries that have reached their end of life.
The battery firms regularly co-host installer and distributor training sessions across Southern Africa. Through ensuring a strong local support network for installations, service, and back-up support, market awareness and acceptance is growing fast. As the companies scale, one hopes they can gradually explore the move to manufacturing the battery cells locally. Lithium, graphite, iron, nickel, manganese, aluminum, and even cobalt are all resources found in the Southern African region should they choose to add different flavors of battery chemistry. One thing is certain though, the storage market in Southern Africa is on the rise.