US battery maker SimpliPhi Power is making a renewed push for Australia’s booming residential and commercial battery storage market, with plans to ramp up sales of its range of modular and plug and play lithium ferro phosphate battery systems.
The California-based company’s CEO Catherine Von Burg visited Australia last week to review sales so far, weigh up the market’s potential, and to meet with utilities about possible grid-scale storage applications.
In an interview with One Step Off The Grid last week, Von Burg said SimpliPhi’s journey to this point had been fairly slow and steady, with an almost singular focus on battery R&D.
Now, however, she is keen to promote the key strengths of the home grown technology: safety and reliability. Not the sexiest marketing angle, perhaps, but the timing is bang on.
As it happens, Von Burg’s visit to Australia coincided with the news that strict new battery installation guidelines were being considered by Standards Australia – restrictions that could see lithium-ion battery storage devices effectively banned from being installed inside homes and garages.
The controversial proposal – which has since been played down by Standards Australia, while being recommended, separately, by Queensland state regulators – comes as authorities race to bring battery safety standards up to speed with consumer take-up of the technology, driven by Australia’s high solar uptake, soaring electricity prices and falling PV tariffs.
Of particular concern to industry watch dogs are lithium-ion batteries which, thanks largely to a series of explosive hoverboards and a bad batch of Samsung phones, have been cultivating a reputation for thermal runaway – or catching on fire.
But while these fires are giving lithium-based batteries a bad name, Von Burg says they actually have very little to do with lithium and everything to do with cobalt, the cheap – and by some reports controversially sourced – mineral that has become an essential ingredient of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
For these reasons, SimpliPhi doesn’t use cobalt, opting instead for the more stable chemistry of lithium-iron phosphate, or lithium ferro phosphate, that is also used by fellow US battery company Enphase and German’s Sonnen, among others.
“Our philosophy has always been, why take renewable energy and store it in something toxic, and then add onto that the risk of thermal runaway and fires,” Von Burg told One Step. “We’re trying to educate the consumer. Particularly considering regulatory policy issues stand to impact the industry.”
But while Enphase and Sonnen’s batteries are manufactured by a third party, SimpliPhi’s particular proprietary take on LFP has been built from the ground up by the company’s CTO, Stuart Lennox, and are still manufactured entirely in the US.
Lennox’s battery odyssey started in his garage in the early 2000s, with the quest to find a quieter, cleaner and more portable power solution for the film industry, in which he then worked.
“The idea was to provide the means to shift from diesel fossil fuel generators, and lead acid batteries, to something that was lightweight, safer, quieter,” Von Burg said.
Having started out using lithium-ion with cobalt, Lennox soon transitioned his batteries to lithium ferrous phosphate, finding it to be more suitable for the sometimes rigorous demands of the film industry, as well as for new markets, like disaster relief.
The final product is a battery chemistry that claims to have eliminated the risk of thermal runaway, to have no need for ventilation or cooling to prevent heat build-up, to operate at 98 per cent efficiency for over 5,000+ cycles, with up to 100 per cent depth of discharge, a 10-year warranty, and 80 per cent savings in operating cost per kWh.
SimpliPhi’s batteries have even got an honourable mention from the US Department of Defence, for their documented zero failure rate in all deployments around the world since 2010, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
“In these cases, our batteries are sitting in boxes in the middle of the field, in temperatures that sometimes top 49°C,” says Von Burg. “We have never had a fire. We have the validation.”
But Von Burg is careful not to demonise all lithium-ion battery technology, either. As this Washington Post article reminds us, without it “smartphones would not fit in pockets … Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical.”
The chief problem, no matter the chemistry, is badly made batteries using cheap components.
“Any battery is dangerous if it’s built cheaply; built badly, and without a BMS (battery management system),” she says.
Looking beyond the chemistry, SimpliPhi also boasts an impressive portfolio of modular battery storage solutions, that can be scaled up or down easily for a broad range of different needs.
For the residential and small commercial customers, a product to look out for is the Access – a plug and play integrated solar and storage solution in a box for on-grid or off, in two sizes, 6.8kWh or 10.2kWh.
“We have a product line that can satisfy any kind of use case,” Von Burg told One step. “We have a tag line: ‘power on your terms’. It’s about empowering people whoever they are. At whatever spectrum of the grid.”
On cost, Von Burg was reluctant to give a per kWh estimate for the Australian market, but it’s safe to say SimpliPhi’s batteries will sit somewhere in the premium price range for now.
“Price is constantly coming down for us… but we are a product that has a superior product profile.
“But when you (measure cost) over the battery’s lifetime, by the time you have that battery for 15 years, cost per KWh is so much lower that other batteries, because of the levelised cost of storage.”
“Customers need to ask, what really gives you value for the dollar?” Von Burg adds. “Can you put a price on inherent risk?”