Vanadium Flow Batteries Revolutionise Energy Storage in Australia
BE&R have been closely monitoring the advancement of energy storage systems, from the initial adoption of lithium-ion batteries on offshore gas platforms to the integration of battery storage in green Hydrogen and Ammonia plants. Up until now, lithium-ion technology has dominated the field due to its lightweight and responsive nature, but vanadium flow batteries are on the horizon as the next significant advancement in energy storage.
On October 18th 2023, the BE&R team had the privilege of being invited by Michael Wake of The Green Energy Company to visit the AFB (Australian Flow Batteries) Henderson Pilot trial. AFB was testing a 200 kW.hr Vanadium Flow battery powered by a 100 kW Solar Wing.
The commercial and technical potential of this integrated technology is exciting. The key take-aways were:
- The 100kW solar PV (photovoltaic) panels were installed on retractable tracks, allowing them to be stowed in a 20ft sea-container in under 30 minutes, making them cost-effective and resilient for installation in storm-prone areas.
- The 200 kW.hr flow battery neatly fits into a 20 ft sea-container and has a 20-year lifespan, limited only by the standard electrical inverter, not the battery itself.
- Vanadium is the only significant exotic material in the battery system, providing a clear alternative to graphite, cobalt, lithium and nickel dependent battery tech.
- The cost of this unit is comparable to a lithium battery pack. As technology production scales up we expect costs to plummet.
- In the Pilot unit, a graphene capacitor type battery was added to test the handling of impulse loads – the short few second duration power spikes seen when starting large electrical motors.
Understanding Vanadium Flow Batteries
The technology for redox reaction-based flow batteries was developed and patented in Australia in the 1980’s. The catholyte and anolyte are tanks of liquid pumped past a simple carbon-coated exchange plate. While various redox chemistries have been proven effective, the original V2O5 solution remains the most reliable, transforming into V4/V5 in the catholyte tank and V2/V3 in the anolyte tank.
The advantages are immense: a high-capacity battery system without deterioration or fire risk, in contrast to the dendritic crystal growth that continues to be a main challenge with lithium-ion batteries. In a flow battery, ions remain in solution, rendering it as stable as a tank of seawater.
Though the liquid involves some level of hazard due to its strong acidity, the units operate sealed and do not generate gas. Flow batteries run cooler than lithium-ion counterparts, tolerate heat and cold better and avoid the high parasitic loads associated with cooling systems, resulting in a simpler and more cost-effective battery system.
Why Now is the Right Time
Until recently, flow batteries had been trailing behind lithium batteries in terms of power input/output speed. The BE&R Team enquired with Mark Reynolds from AFB about the circumstances regarding the delayed widespread adoption of flow batteries. His response was clear, that the affordability of Solar PV had significantly altered the dynamics. It has become so affordable that it can outperform the capital and operating costs of diesel-based power generators.
Moreover, China is now installing hundreds of MWs of Vanadium flow batteries to meet internal Chinese demand, leaving no capacity for equipment export. The cost of solar PV power, when utilized directly, has plummeted to approximately 2.5 cents per kw.hr, making it the most cost-effective power source. In contrast, transmission costs alone for power are usually quoted around 15 cents/kW.hr. The supply of vanadium will need to increase, with China being the largest producer, followed by Russia, and Australia also possessing substantial reserves.
Flow batteries do come with some drawbacks. Once installed and filled with liquid, a 20 ft container exceeds 15 tonnes in weight, occupying three times the space of a lithium-ion unit. It is worth noting that you can transport the flow battery to site first and then fill up the tanks. Due to the liquid nature of flow batteries, it’s advisable to avoid using them in vehicles like cars, trucks, or tractors. However, the positive aspect is that, despite the larger footprint per unit compared to lithium-ion, flow batteries can be stacked without posing heat or fire risks. As a result, the footprint of a large installation is approximately the same as an equivalent lithium unit. Dust accumulation can also be problematic, especially if the units are inadequately located, such as those around mine sites.
Drivers for Adoption
There are clear factors driving the uptake of flow batteries which include:
- Minimal operating costs for power, offering freedom from fluctuating fuel prices.
- Competitive advantage, providing more reliable and cost-effective power.
- Battery systems that can be moved, installed, and commissioned by non-electrical trades due to their plug-and-play design.
- Weather-resistant, enabling storage during storms and designed for the demanding Australian climate.
- Low capital costs, comparable to diesel plants.
- Meeting CO2 emissions regulations under the federal Safeguarding Mechanism.
- Generating carbon credits.
- Grid independence, as the units can be tailored to operate off-grid or assist in stabilizing the grid, especially in remote areas.
Applications and Future Potential
The potential for flow batteries in Australia is vast. They are ideally suited for remote sites that currently rely on diesel generators, eliminating the need for spinning reserve generators or enabling the construction of new power stations without the requirement for standby units. They are also a valuable addition for operations transitioning to electric vehicles, allowing for vehicle recharging with green power at night and cost-effective Solar PV during the day. With the affordability, low operating costs, and long lifespan of energy storage, the adoption of solar PV is expected to surge.
What about Individual Consumers?
There is a 20 kW.hr unit tailored for residential use now available, on comparable pricing to Tesla’s Powerwall. As adoption rates rise, price reductions are expected, promising quicker investment payback, especially as rebates for residential rooftop power diminish.
BE&R are deeply connected to the rapidly developing technologies that support the energy transition. By engaging with early technology developers BE&R connect our clients to leading vendors. Enabling confidence in selecting the right fit technology to succeed in economic and environmental performance.
In summary, the rise of vanadium flow batteries in Australia signals a promising shift in the energy storage landscape, offering cost-effective, reliable, and sustainable solutions for a variety of applications, from remote sites to residential and industrial sectors. As technology evolves and production scales up, the future of energy storage in Australia looks brighter than ever.
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Modification of Nafion Membrane via a Sol-Gel Route for Vanadium Redox Flow Energy Storage Battery Applications, Journal of Chemistry, Shu-Ling Huang, Hsin-Fu Yu, and Yung-Sheng Lin, 2017.
Vanadium redox flow batteries: A comprehensive review, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352152X19302798, Journal of Energy Storage, 2019.