Clean Break poll: Solar tops as cleantech investment

A record 138 of you voted in the latest month’s Clean Break poll, which asked “What cleantech area offers the biggest potential payback for investors?”

Is it a surprise that solar PV/thermal related investments got the most votes — 40 per cent to be precise? Surprisingly, wind came in second with 20 per cent of votes, followed closely by biofuels with 17 per cent. I would have thought that biofuels would have been a close second to solar, given all the talk in the U.S. about independence from oil and all the venture capital investment flowing into the area. Battery technologies came in fourth with 15 per cent of votes. Another surprise. I would never have guessed that batteries would be behind wind, what with all the attention these days to hybrid-electric cars (plug-ins as well), pure EVs, and the need for utility-scale energy storage and better backup storage.

I have to say I’m also stunned that investment in water technologies ranked so low at just 5 per cent of votes. This is the sleeper. If we think energy is the big crisis today, just wait until countries begin to be invaded for their water resources.

Utility tests Zebra batteries in load-shifting project

I’ve got a story in today’s Toronto Star about a local utility called Halton Hills Hydro that is testing Zebra sodium-nickel-chloride batteries as part of an energy-storage system for demonstrating utility-scale loading shifting. Halton Hills Hydro will use the system to store energy at night when it’s cheap and dispatch it back into the grid during daytime peaks when market spot prices are at their highest. It’s only a small system — 100 kilowatt-hours — but can be easily scaled up beyond 1 megawatt-hours, the company claims. On top of peaking shaving and load levelling, the system could also be used for grid stability and to ease transmission bottlenecks so that infrastructure investments can be deferred. Coupled with wind turbines, it could bring “hardness” to wind energy output.

This is an encouraging development to see a utility begin to experiment with batteries as a way to peak-shave. Not only that, Halton Hills Hydro and its partners — including battery expert BET Services Inc. of Mississauga — have a grander vision of proving that the Swiss-made Zebra batteries can be used economically for a number of applications if volume production can be achieved. As you’ll note in the story, Swiss company MES-DEA only produces about 2,000 of the batteries a year, even though the technology itself has been around since the 1970s.

What Halton Hills Hydro and its partners want to do is negotiate a licensing agreement so that a manufacturing facility can be set up in southern Ontario to supply the North American market. The load-shifting demonstration project is the first part of a plan to demonstrate that the batteries work and to attract private investment in such a venture. Assuming about $100 million (U.S.) could be raised, the group estimates they could set up a manufacturing operation that would produce 100,000 Zebra units by 2015, making them economical for utility, industrial and even residential storage applications and some transportation uses.

Malcolm Shemmans, president of BET, believes the Zebra units are better suited than lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries for hybrid-electric or pure EV fleet vehicles, such as delivery trucks. In fact, his company is part of a consortium that was recently awarded funds from Sustainable Development Technology Canada to convert a Purolator Courier delivery vehicle into a pure EV using Zebra technology and later lithium-ion. He also says a company such as Railpower Technologies would be better off using the Zebra technology for its “Green Goat” locomotives than to use what it uses now: the cheapest lead-acid batteries available. Other applications include third-party retrofits to turn Renault Twingo cars into EVs, and a hybrid bus built from the ground up by BET that is battery dominant rather than ICE dominant, like most hybrid designs today.

Shemmans agrees that big advancements are being made in lithium-ion and ultracapacitor technologies but believes for vehicle applications these innovations won’t go commercial for many years. On the other hand, he says the Zebra battery is here, has been tested for three decades, and has a proven chemistry with good attributes: i.e. They’re safe to operate, tolerant to cold and heat extremes, relatively quick to charge, require virtually no maintenace, can be recycled and are made from inexpensive materials.

For a bit of an overview on the Zebra technology, check out this study from a university in Chile. Note the first page chart that shows the superior specific power of Zebra batteries relative to other technologies, including lead-acid, nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion. Click here for specs from MES-DEA.