Going off the Grid, One Step at a Time

Home Energy Storage
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

During the North American Ice Storm of 2013, powerful winds, blinding snow, and sub-zero temperatures that swept across much of the central and eastern portions of Canada and the United States caused catastrophic damage. As rain and snow turned to ice, tree limbs were weighed down and splintered. Overhead power lines, unable to withstand the strong blast of winter, snapped.
When the storm finally dissipated almost four days later, thousands of businesses and households had sustained over $200 million in damage to their properties and vehicles, many with smashed windshields and roofs caved in by massive falling trees and other debris. Most tragic of all, 27 persons died. And although the storm had mercifully passed, countless homes, businesses, and entire apartment blocks across North America were left without power for days, leaving many freezing in the dark and wondering how long the nightmare would last.

Described as ‘catastrophic’ by the press and police, power crews scrambled to restore power. In the province of Ontario alone, an estimated 600,000 customers were without power at the worst of the storm. Many in the eastern provinces and states would not see power back on until well into the New Year, with many parts of cities and communities resembling ice-covered ghost towns.

With clean-up efforts continuing well into the spring in many municipalities, the Ice Storm made many homeowners realize that – in the event of another ice storm or natural disaster – they were on their own when it came to electricity. Not wanting a repeat of the winter of 2013, many stores were soon sold out of portable, gas-powered backup generators, some able to provide power for a few hours, others days. Fed up with increasing blackouts and not wanting to risk frozen water pipes and other damage to their homes, some homeowners opted for effective yet large and expensive permanent standby generators. Powered by natural gas, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), or even diesel, these outdoor units are wired directly to a home’s electrical panel, and start automatically when power goes out, turning off once power is restored.

From furnaces, ovens, refrigerators, and air conditioners to computers, televisions, stereos, Internet, lighting and more, our dependence on electricity is at an all-time high. With electric cars fast becoming a reality, the need for electricity will only continue to increase. Recognizing the need for dependable energy, manufacturers around the world are developing innovative systems which allow consumers to store energy in the event of another power blackout, ice storm, or hurricane.

Home energy solutions: the next generation
If home power units such as gas-powered standby generators represent the first generation of true home standby power, fuel cells represent the second. Fuel cells can save power in case of emergency as well as store power as a hedge against downtime on the energy grid. With rolling blackouts in summer and other short and long-term losses of electrical power becoming the norm, the time is right to investigate fuel cells and other forms of energy storage.

In just a few years Tesla Motors, Inc. – the American automotive and energy storage company spearheaded by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk – has achieved considerable recognition for its work with not only electric-powered cars and powertrain components, but its range of battery products.

Just as Musk aims to have Tesla automobiles eventually come down in price to be affordable to the average consumer, the company aims to introduce the Tesla Powerwall to households. Unveiled in 2015, the Powerwall is a highly effective lithium-ion battery product. Expected to be widely commissioned in 2017, the Powerwall is a home battery which uses electricity generated from a number of sources, such as solar panels. Since the Powerwall stores energy generated during the day and makes it available to homes in the evening, it bridges the gap “between peak solar and peak demand, allowing you to use your photons when you need them,” according to the company. And in the event of power loss or blackout, the Powerwall – when installed with solar panels – has the ability to power select appliances, or even an entire home. Best of all, the Powerwall enables homeowners to go net zero, meaning the total amount of energy used in the home on a yearly basis is about equal to the amount of renewable energy it creates. And since the unit is still connected to the utility grid, it can tap into that power for periods of peak energy demand.

Named after Serbian-born American inventor, physicist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, the company bearing his name is addressing home energy storage solutions head-on. Unlike present-day home batteries, which are bulky, visually unappealing, and require extensive wiring, the Powerwall is sleek, compact, easy to install, safe, and economical. Best of all, the device requires no maintenance, unlike many older energy products on the market.

From lead acid to lithium ion
Recognizing the shortcomings of earlier solar-powered storage systems – namely that they are entirely dependent on daylight and cloudless skies – the next generation’s abilities to tap into utility grids address this inherent flaw. Up until the late 1990s, solar system installations stored energy in banks of heavy and potentially dangerous lead-acid batteries on site, and users would draw power from these rows of batteries as needed. Over time, batteries have evolved to become lighter, smaller, and much longer-lasting. Unlike earlier generations of batteries, lithium-ion – also referred to as Li-ion and LIB – are fast replacing lead acid batteries, and are common in many consumer household products.

Within the past year, Li-ion and other batteries have been featured as part of installations, such as those at the Solar Power International show, in Anaheim, California, by SimpliPhi Power. An innovative technology company, SimpliPhi focuses on on-grid/off-grid applications, using batteries including the Lithium Ferrous Phosphate (LFP) to deliver superior, plug-and-play solutions. With products ranging from the Libertypak Big Genny – a rechargeable portable electric power supply generator of AC power which stores electricity from grid, solar, and even wind – to the PowerBank, a battery-powered AC generator and Uninterruptible Power Supply that stores electricity – SimpliPhi Power is one of a number of companies working on home energy storage solutions. Others, such as Orison, are using Kickstarter campaigns to fund products. Like Tesla’s Powerwall, the Orison is a home battery system that charges itself when energy rates are low, and only needs to be plugged into an existing wall outlet to function. And like similar systems, the Orison kicks in to power homes when energy rates are high, which optimizes energy costs and automatically switches to battery power to provide household energy in the event of a blackout. Unlike older generations of batteries, the sleek-looking Orison – available in a tower or panel – resembles a stylish lamp or piece of minimalistic wall art, has 2.2 kWh of storage, powers at 1.8 kW continuous, 3.5kW peak, and takes 120VAC, single phase.

Across North America and worldwide, solutions to minimize reliance on energy grids are gaining in popularity. In late 2015, privately-held company JuiceBox Energy announced the first installation of its 8.6 kWh Energy Storage System with Rising Sun Solar on Hawaii’s island of Maui, in the home of Rising Sun’s co-owner. “By installing the JuiceBox Energy system at my own home, I’m showing my customers that I believe this is an invaluable product for Hawaii homeowners who want to guarantee utility approval, keep the lights on when the grid goes down and improve the return on their investment in solar,” said Brad Albert, co-owner of Rising Sun Solar, at the time. “Feedback from customers who have seen this system has been extremely positive, and we have now started selling JuiceBox Energy systems to our customers.”

In Japan, the Nippon Electric Company, Limited (better known as NEC), is working on a range of residential energy storage systems which, like others, harness solar power for home use. And in Australia, the not-for-profit Australian Energy Storage Council has made advances toward the development of energy storage solutions. Representing a range of technology manufacturers, equipment providers, project developers, consultants, utilities, and other leaders in the field, the Council recognizes the need for encouraging best practice in the rapidly growing energy storage sector.

When it comes to old-fashioned power cells for household use, Tesla’s Elon Musk is not alone in deriding them for their inefficiency – using the words ‘suck’ and ‘bad’ on more than one occasion – and is intent on not only changing the perception of energy storage, but the functionality and appearance; after all, why does a battery have to be big, ugly, and black when it can be smooth, stylish, and as attractive as a piece of home décor? With products like the Powerwall and SimpliPhi’s Orison showing tremendous promise and rapidly gaining public support, and prices ranging from $500 to about $1,600 US, now is the time for homeowners to seriously consider these and other home energy savings products. And with household energy rates skyrocketing, the need for cheaper power will become just as important as having available, safe power in the event of another Hurricane Sandy.



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