Canadian companies help fuel the market for clean energy storage systems

By Arman Kazemi

February 12, 2015

A small number of B.C. firms have joined the effort to produce battery systems that would allow clean energy developers to compete with traditional utilities, one of the biggest hurdles facing the market deployment of renewable energy.

Lithium-ion and other energy storage systems have been successfully deployed in large, commercial-scale projects to help businesses offset grid energy during peak periods when utility rates are at their highest. But these technologies can be expensive, and many consumers can’t afford storage systems to supplement their rooftop solar systems.

As new and cheaper storage technologies are being developed, consumers both in Canada and the U.S. can expect costs associated with renewable such as wind and solar to reach grid parity across the board in coming years.

Indeed, according to a U.S. study, the market for so-called solar-plus-storage is expected to grow to over USD $1 billion by 2018. A Vancouver Sun article last week profiled a few of the home-grown players contributing to this growth who are developing the storage systems that could see renewables become a much more viable alternative to incumbent fossil fuels.

Companies such as ZincNyx in Vancouver and Corvus in Richmond are part of a global market worth over $10 billion, according to the article. But, much of the economic impetus for storage technology continues to come from markets like China, Germany and California.

Of particular note is a storage system ZincNyx is developing called the flow battery, which stores energy as electrolytes in a liquid concoction (hence “flow”) as opposed to the electrode material, the approach used in conventional batteries.

The upshot of flow batteries, according to the MIT Technology Review, is that it depends on relatively inexpensive materials and requires fewer resources to increase the size of the tanks housing the fluid, providing exponentially more capacity with relatively little extra cost.Thus, “the more energy storage [that] is needed, the better the economics become,” according to the MIT article.

While their commercial availability may be a few years away, some public utilities have already begun experimenting with integrating energy storage systems into the grid. For example, in 2013, BC Hydro set up the Battery Storage Energy project in Field, B.C.

The project involves a 1MW storage substation that functions as an alternate power supply for the remote town of Field during outages as well as complementing available supply during peak periods. The batteries are charged during low-demand periods when excess energy is readily available.

Although small in scope – especially when compared to California’s mandated 1.3 GW of energy storage by 2020 – the B.C. project is the first of its kind in the country.

Together with local battery developers, the initiative could pave the road for much more ambitious storage-grid integrations, further reducing the cost of renewable deployment and making renewables cost competitive with existing energy producers.

And, with the help of companies likeZincNyx and Corvus, the technology may not even have to be imported from abroad.

Photo Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory