Lancaster Wind Systems, others bank on power storage
A handful of Canadian firms zero in on renewable energy's biggest challenge
George Roddan and Neil Simmonds were looking for a way to make yachts run more efficiently when they stumbled on a potential green energy motherlode.
In response to rising diesel prices, the founders of Richmond, British Columbia-based start-up Corvus Energy Ltd. set out to design the marine equivalent to a hybrid car. They wound up fielding calls from trucking companies, manufacturers and the renewable energy industry, all of whom were eager to learn more about a novel battery technology capable of providing diesel-grade power to heavy machinery.
“It was a little bit overwhelming and there was some anxiety,” recalls Grant Brown, the firm’s marketing director. “We’re all marine guys and didn’t know much about the oilfield, energy or trucking markets.”
The founders have learned quickly. The privately held battery-manufacturer hired its first full-time employees in May 2010. Since then, it has spent some $3.5 million locking up intellectual property rights on a hybrid propulsion system for the commercial shipping industry – far and away its core business, according to an annual report, with expected sales of $8 million for fiscal 2011.
Grid- and standby-power applications are a growth market. By 2014, Corvus hopes business in both niches will comprise one-third of total sales. If the numbers pan out, the added sales could help alleviate an old challenge for proponents of renewable energy.
As more of the stuff hits provincial energy grids, bright minds and savvy businesses are racing to patent ways to make the sun and wind just a little less variable. “Energy storage is one of two or three ways to balance supply and demand,” says Andy Reynolds, portfolio manager of clean energy and carbon management with Alberta Innovates Technology Futures (AITF). “In the past [power] supply was designed to be constant because that was cheapest.”
The emerging power landscape is changing that dichotomy. It has propelled companies like Corvus into the renewable energy segment. The company’s 6.5 kilowatt per hour (kWh) batteries cost about $10,000 and can be packaged together to create multiple megawatt packs. Being able to store the electricity generated from a photovoltaic solar panel or from a wind turbine would allow the energy to be kept until it can be sold during peak demand.
In addition, since the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing, saving the electricity for when it’s needed would mean developers could potentially build smaller wind farms or solar arrays. “You can reduce the size of a wind farm if you can store energy,” says Brown at Corvus. “In order to get firm power of 100 kilowatts (kW) you might need to install 500 kW, but with storage you could keep the capacity at 100 kW.”
“In solar and wind power, storage makes a huge impact,” he adds. “Storage has always been the Achilles tendon of the whole industry.”
Battery technologies have played a modest role in Alberta’s oil and gas sector for years. Companies have used solar module systems in remote locations to power well-site monitoring equipment and pipelines. “Battery-based systems tend to cost more, but if you don’t have power lines you need to put batteries in,” says Dave Kelly, partner with SkyFire Energy Inc., a solar engineering, construction and procurement firm based in Calgary. “It all depends on how big the battery banks are, but we’ve done them for as little as $200. The big ones could be $20,000 or more.”
The grid-tied solar power market in Alberta, while growing, is considerably smaller. Kelly got a taste for solar power as a child in rural Manitoba when his grandfather circulated water from a backyard swimming pool through black pipe on the roof to keep the water warm. He started in the industry 11 years ago when solar panels were still a novelty. “We were doing two or three grid-tie systems a year and we were doubling the capacity in the province,” he recalls. “When I started there was maybe 100 megawatts and now there’s 50,000 megawatts across the world.”
Solar power tied to Alberta’s grid makes up just 910 kW of that global capacity. Kelly says most batteries are used as a backup system in rural parts of the province, rather than as a primary component of a solar panel system. He says storing energy generated from solar panels would have little impact on the grid, not least because solar makes up less than one per cent of Alberta’s electricity mix. “In some jurisdictions where it comes closer to 20 per cent, it’s more of an issue. I’d love to have that problem,” Kelly says. “There’s a much bigger impact on the wind guys.”
It’s a reality Leduc-based Lancaster Wind Systems Inc. knows well. The company launched in 2008, but it isn’t looking to batteries to create electricity storage from wind power. Instead, it’s developed a hydraulic system that stores electricity generated from wind turbines by compressing nitrogen. “With the current system of producing energy with wind power, you only produce when the wind is blowing,” says Ted Tuazon, senior vice-president at Lancaster. “Usually it’s during the night when the price is low, so if you can store the energy and use it when the price is high, it’s more worthwhile.”
Lancaster has developed its storage apparatus over the course of a decade. The technology started as an experiment in chief executive Dave McConnell’s garage. Trials continue on a closed-loop system that compresses electricity generated from a wind turbine into nitrogen using a hydraulic process for storage in high- and low-pressure transmission lines.
The apparatus is designed to allow for base-load generation from a limited number of wind turbines. As this magazine went to press, Lancaster was applying for funding from Alberta’s Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation and from Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
Funding would help Lancaster prove its concept on a pilot, and hopefully, a commercial scale, Tuazon says. “First we just have to prove it can produce smaller kilowatts with smaller pressures,” he says. “How much can be stored will depend on the storage tank size. The bigger the storage area, the more time it can be stored for.”
At AITF, Reynolds has been studying energy storage intensely. The reason is burgeoning supply. Wind power comprises just a fraction of Alberta’s total electricity capacity – 893 out of 13,600 megawatts – but it is growing quickly.
Last year Canada placed sixth globally in terms of new installed wind capacity, according to the Global Wind Energy Council. More than 1,200 megawatts of new capacity was added to provincial grids, representing some $3.1 billion in direct investment, according to the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA). Another 1,500 megawatts is expected to come online this year in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, putting Canada on track to surpass 10,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity by 2015, CanWEA says.
All that power sets up a potentially lucrative market for companies in the business of storage. “Renewable energy is inherently variable, so we’ll have variable supply and demand,” notes Reynolds at AITF. It’s one reason the provincial research agency has spent the better part of a year analyzing the economic feasibility of energy storage with existing technologies.
Batteries and compressed air storage are promising, Reynolds says, especially as advances in lithium-ion technology make the former that much cheaper. Canada as a whole is an unlikely home for natural energy storage because the country is awash in hydroelectricity, he adds. “It’s really only Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia who rely on coal,” he notes.
And even there, an old challenge persists. “There’s a bit of a capability gap,” Reynolds says. “We can have all of the technology we like, but if we don’t know how to integrate it, then we never will.”