You Are Now Leaving the Fossil Fuel Era

November 22, 2013



You don’t have to go far inside the headquarters of German battery storage company Younicos, or even their website for that matter, to find out what they are about. “Let the fossils rest in peace,” the logo suggests. Another sign at their technology centre east of Berlin proclaims: “You are now leaving the CO2 producing sector of the world.”

This sign is designed to mimic those which adorned the checkpoints that separated the various sectors of east and west Berlin before the wall was torn down. Younicos believe they have a technology that is equally disruptive, and can break down one of the last barriers to 100 per cent renewable energy: the need to run fossil fuel generation to control the “frequency” of the grid, and the other system services such as voltage control.

The company, based in Berlin Adlershof, on the eastern outskirts of the capital, is developing 10MW-sized battery parks, using battery systems that it says can stabilise the grid faster, cheaper and with greater precision that conventional generation.

It says that these systems can substitute 10 times the capacity from conventional generation – coal, nuclear and gas – and at a fraction of the cost. According to Younicos spokesman Philip Hiersemenzel, each battery park can be installed at around € 15 million, which means that for an investment of €3 billion, conventional generation in Germany’s 80GW would no longer be needed – at least for frequency and stability purposes.

This is critical is Germany. The sheer scale of their solar PV installations – it has more than 35GW – means that on some days it already produces more than half the country’s electricity needs. But baseload generators have to keep running for the sake of frequency control and system stability, this has caused spot prices to plunge well below zero.

For an 80GW grid, it needs about 20GW and 25GW of “must run” balancing to maintain frequency and keep the grid stable. Younicos says 2GW of its battery parks would render this need redundant. Around 200 of it battery parks could be installed around the country at a total cost of around €3 billion.

(Of course, that is not the only impediment to 100 per cent renewables – enough solar and wind power needs to be built, and other storage is needed, battery storage to respond to variations in load on a minute by minute and hour by hour basis, and longer-term or “seasonal” storage, which can take excess production and store it – synthetic diesel, hydrogen etc.).

Younicos’ claims are bold, but they are not impulsive. The company was founded in 2006 by executives at German solar manufacturer Solon, who were frustrated that the company could not raise finance for battery storage, which they saw as the next key development.

They have taken a long-term view. Hiersemenzel says that while other companies had legacy systems, and struggled to develop new ideas without thinking about those, Younicos did not have the same inhibitions.

It saw the sweet spot in the market in developing software, and has spent the past six years quietly going about the research, testing various battery storage technologies, and developing the proprietary software to make smart inverters to tackle this market.

In 2009, Younicos  started operating a 1MW testing facility at its headquarters (pictured), using office space abandoned by Solon. It is the first of its size in Europe. It features a 1MW/6MWh sodium sulfur battery and last year it added a 200kW/200kW lithium-ion battery array, and integrated it into the German frequency regulation market.

The €15 million technology centre uses weather data to simulate wind and solar output anywhere in the world. And it uses real power flows to test the systems, to test loads, and to test transmission and distribution issues. He says it serves as a training facility, as well as an education facility for journalists, politicians and bankers.

Younicos is privately held, although Samsung is at least one shareholder, having invested in the company when it took up its lithium-ion batteries. Another shareholder is Gildemeister, which manufactures the Cellstrom Vanadium-Redox Flow batteries.

It is installing a more conventional battery storage system on the island of Graciosa in the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean. Using the same combination of battery technologies as at their test centre, but at a scale of 2.7MW/10MWh, it will combine with 5.4MW of wind turbines, and 1MW of solar PV.

This means that 100 per cent of the output from solar and wind can be used, the island can be up to 70 per cent renewable by 2018, and save €18 million of diesel that needs to be shipped in by tanker on a weekly basis. The next step is to use “excess energy” to turn local bio waste into synthetic diesel from a back up system. That will mean that the island becomes 100% renewable and 100 fuel independent.

But the truly unique aspect of Younicos technology is in the battery park. It is currently building a 5MW/5MWh lithium-ion battery park in Schwerin, north of berlin, for a local distributor. It will be the largest commercial battery in Europe.

It is also providing its software for a 6MW/10MWh lithium-ion battery park in England, which will be used for peak shaving as well as other system services such as frequency control and balancing. Both these projects will be commissioned in 2014, and the company is currently in talks about its first commercial 10MW battery park.

“The conventional generators will fight us on this , but they will lose.”  Hiersemenzel says.

“They will say they need to be running, need capacity market. But we have to choose between systems. Either you have one system optimised for nuclear and coal, or one for renewables.

“This is a choice  that should be made now. Just tacking on a renewables system onto an old one just makes it more expensive.”

Hiersemenzel compares the network operators to penguins on an ice shelf. Most are huddling together, waiting for a few individuals to jump into the ocean first, and see that they don’t get eaten by killer whales. Once the coast is clear, they will all jump in at the same time.

Hiersemenzel doesn’t think much of smart grids. “I don’t have a problem with smart grids, I just don’t see their business case. I don’t think we will use electric vehicles, smart phones or washing machines to stabilize the grid.

“We don’t need duplication of communications with normal grid. We should not let IT people get too much further into the grid, we should leave it as simple as possible.”

This graph below shows how their remote storage system works. The purple area is the key. When it is above the line, it is charging from excess wind and solar generation, when it is below the line, it is discharging to make up for the lack of renewables. Notice in the bottom graph how it smooths out the frequency issues for the local grid, which should operate at or close to 50 hertz.

30 Responses to “You Are Now Leaving the Fossil Fuel Era”

  1. You have duplicated or tripled the text with your cut and paste here, greenman. 🙂

  2. daveburton Says:

    “1MW/6MWh sodium sulfur battery” — hmmm… there’s that 6 hour figure for charge/discharge time again.

    I don’t know what sodium sulfur batteries cost or how long they last, but grid-connected lithium ion batteries seem crazy. They are way too expensive, and don’t last nearly long enough to make economic sense. No wonder Germans pay 3x what I pay for electricity.

    • Fascinating, Dave. Does your rooftop array pay for your mortgage and food every month?

    • Money has no meaning when you are trying to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Cost is something we can live with as long as it ensures some sort of reliable power source without CO2 emissions. I wouldn’t mind paying more, and so does it seem many Germans have learned to live with more expensive power.

      • Money has no meaning?  Money represents resources (imperfectly with fiat money, but still).  You only have so much in the way of resources to build your emission-free system.  If you fail to supply enough output, people will continue to dig black dirt out of the ground and burn it.

        If expensive power isn’t an issue, does that mean that the high cost of nuclear power isn’t an argument against it?  That’s just one of the questions raised in The Great Green Meltdown, which I’ll be referring to later.

        • Money has no meaning in the face of the consequences of further growth in CO2 emissions. What on earth are you going to do with that money if you cant even get food on your table? Perhaps it might dawn on people some day that we need to make sacrifices like upgrading our iCrap every 10 years instead of every year, stop travelling with airplanes several times a year, and just consume less in general. In the face of this, a 3x cost to energy prices is absolutely nothing if it means we can keep warm in the winter months, and have some power for essentials like cooking and perhaps some electrical public transit if needed.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          The great Green Meltdown is interesting, and points out the cognitive dissonance that some greens suffer from regarding certain issues like nuclear power (do remember though, they never said they were perfect or all seeing-all knowing supermen).

          However, it is a rather huge overreach to state “….green groups have lost whatever credibility they had to speak for the climate”, as does the very last line of Meltdown. Hyperbole lives!

          (And does also that mean only nuclear power advocates and deniers have “credibility to speak for the climate” now? Lots of luck with that).

    • philip64 Says:

      The reason Germans pay more for power at the retail end is that the government slaps a tax on it. Germany wholesale prices (without the tax) are the lowest in Europe. They also enjoy the highest grid reliability, followed by Denmark, with Spain not far behind – and all way ahead of the USA. That’s because in each case they have the highest proportion of renewable generation in their energy mix. The retail tax is a political choice designed to encourage energy efficiency. It could be lifted any time.

  3. redskylite Says:

    Politics and economics apart it is good to see a new generation of young scientific/technical and intelligent people like Alexander Voigt (CEO of Younicos AG), Clemens Triebel (CTO of Younicos AG) and Elon Musk (CEO Tesla motors) – going ahead strongly in new business arenas, I wish them and their businesses well. It is their inspiration (and people like them) which will move us on from the industrial revolution’s fossil fuel hungry days.

  4. “I don’t have a problem with smart grids, I just don’t see their business case. I don’t think we will use electric vehicles, smart phones or washing machines to stabilize the grid.”

    Electric vehicles are certainly capable of doing it (see the Vehicle-to-Grid Demonstration Project first), at least at the current scale of the task.  Leveraging the existing batteries is only good sense.

    The real problem is that the all-RE grid, with the “negative load” characteristic of most of its generation, multiplies both the power and the duration of the regulation inputs required to achieve balance.  Putting scare quotes around “frequency” doesn’t make the problem go away.  The area under the difference curve between RE supply and grid demand must be dealt with somehow.  Surpluses, to storage… and when storage is full or its peak power-handling capacity is reached, spilled.  Deficits, from storage… and when storage is empty, (a) start something else (what?), (b) shed load, or (c) blackout.

    A 6 MW, 10 MWh storage system can supply 5 MW for all of 2 hours.  Nights last much longer than that, especially in high-latitude winters.  Calm spells can last days.  10 MWh over 2 days is about 200 kW; supplying 5 MW over a 2-day calm spell (with overcast) requires 240 MWh, or 24 such modules.  If your goal is only to keep running long enough to fire up the lignite-burning boiler, well… you’re not very climate-friendly, are you?

    “The conventional generators will fight us on this , but they will lose.” Hiersemenzel says.

    Conventional generators aren’t designed to ramp fast, and lose efficiency when run off-spec.  Hiersemenzel is right to push non-rotating systems for regulation.  But regulation is the handling of supply/demand imbalances lasting just fractions of the 15-minute planning blocks used by system operators.  Feeding a grid from non-schedulable generators means imbalances lasting days, which requires massive batteries.  The backup systems need to be sized, not for average variations, but for the peaks.  Those peaks get truly immense in an all-renewable grid.

    A recent announcement by a player in the zinc-air market claims to have a systems price of $1000/kW, $160/kWh, 75% round-trip efficiency in a 1 MW unit (40-foot cargo container).  6 hours of time-shifting storage from the early morning hours to the afternoon/evening peak is $1000/kW capital plus 4/3 the cost of the overnight generation; not bad.  But building out to carry a grid over a 2-day lull would cost 48 hrs * $160/kWh = $7680/kW just for the capital cost, which is on the order of the first-of-a-kind EPRs and 3 times China’s cost for an AP-1000.  Then there’s the cost of charging it.  Getting truly cheap energy to fill it means that feed-in tariffs have to go, and all RE generators have to be paid the spot price.  You have to have enough that your 2-day battery is fully charged when you need it, meaning you will have periods of full storage and surplus capacity leading to zero prices.  Who will be able to afford to buy and install RE under such circumstances?

    The nuclear operator is going to be able to charge that battery every night and be there with power on tap every day, carbon-free.  The wind farm with a 6-hour, $1000/kW backup battery has just doubled its capital cost, and all it does is give enough time to cold-start a combined-cycle plant to carry through the lulls.  You’re still burning fossil fuel.

    As the authors of The Great Green Meltdown note, these contradictions are starting to bite, and bite hard.  We are down to the crunch, and those who are declaring the need to cut carbon emissions on the one hand but effectively promoting fossil fuels on the other are going to be the second-biggest losers in the shake-up.  The biggest losers, of course, will be those selling coal, oil and natural gas.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      At gigawatt(-hr) scale storage, I don’t see any of the current battery technologies being affordable. Something cheaper, more low-tech is needed.

      The most feasible one of which I’m aware is Isentropic UK’s argon & gravel-based PHES.

      • EOS claims to have a $160/kWh battery, so 1 GWH of storage would go for $160 million.  (And of course, it could also function as spinning reserve.)

        I’m skeptical of Isentropic’s efficiency claims, but you can’t argue that their storage medium is either scarce, expensive or difficult to handle.  Maybe someone will invent a sodium-air battery just to eliminate the zinc; it’s not as if we can run out of halite on this planet.

      • greenman3610 Says:

        we don’t need gigawatt storage, yet.
        in the meantime, Germany is now devoting the policy focus to storage that they once did to solar. California likewise.
        Look for giant leaps.

        • For batteries in particular, rated cost per kwhr based on power and time (V x Ahr) is ok for computing EV range or backup duration, but not for computing storage cost. Then the number of cycles matters. Perhaps this measure should be correctly named cost per kWh-cycle as opposed to cost per kWh-installed.

          • It’s relatively simple to divide price by lifetime energy throughput to get a figure in cost per kWh (there’s a graph showing the variation in throughput with depth of discharge for Optima Yellow Tops in an old post at The Ergosphere; dang, how did almost 10 years go by so fast?).  This is complicated by issues of calendar life and amortization cost, which involves interest and the actual lifespan of the cells in use.

        • we don’t need gigawatt storage, yet.

          Then why is the 1.872 GW Ludington pumped storage facility upgrading to nearly 2.2 GW?

          • greenman3610 Says:

            remember that was built to back up nuclear plants.
            absolutely its a plus for the utilities, and any new storage is a help for grid stabilizing, but its wrong to say we cannot continue to deploy renewables without large scale storage at this time. We are a long way from an absolute need for more storage, if indeed it is really needed. There are models that don’t include large scale storage.
            Since the Germans are pushing storage, I would say it’s more likely that will become part of many plans going forward.

          • remember that was built to back up nuclear plants.

            It wasn’t built to back up anything.  Ludington was built to allow Palisades and the Donald C. Cook plants to run at their best rate even on evenings and weekends.  Ludington allowed a lot of other, smaller, dirtier capacity that would otherwise have been used for peaking to be left off.  It displaced more expensive fuels with uranium and let combustion plants run fewer hours, saving on maintenance.

            This is the situation with RE, writ small.  With RE, the production is not merely un-dispatchable, it’s irregular as well.  You either need something like (a) plenty of storage to buffer this production against need, or (b) a hard cap on the peak capacity of RE to avoid over-supplying the grid.  This is why you see claims like “could be 30% renewable without X, Y and Z”, but nothing approaching the 98% carbon-free (78% nuclear) of France.

            it’s more likely that will become part of many plans going forward.

            Only if batteries get cheap enough.  Pumped hydro and CAES have been in use for years, but have not taken off.  There are reasons for that.

            Thing is, a battery you cycle every day because you have nuclear power to charge it every night is economic at a much higher price than one that gets charged only when the weather sees fit to let you.

          • greenman3610 Says:

            “It wasn’t built to back up anything.  Ludington was built to allow Palisades and the Donald C. Cook plants to run at their best rate even on evenings and weekends”

            pardon my loose use of the phrase “back up”.
            In fact, its much more complex than that, and has to do with changes during the day of what electricity has the best price.
            As far as the average person needs to understand, these types of storage firm up the grid, and cushion outages.
            main point. storage is not new, we are developing many new promising technologies that store differing amounts of power, and they are rapidly becoming cost competitive with the mainstream solution, gas turbines.

      • Here is some very real world food for thought.

        Click to access 39_39ES30HD_HIQAPa.pdf

        This unit is composed of Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries that are also for sale individually. The raw cost/kwhr is about $0.10/kwhr or possibly less if the batteries are discharged less than 70% DOD. See the curves of cycles vs DOD. Cycle life goes all the way out to 10,000. At 80% DOD, it’s 2000 cycles. At 60% DOD, it’s 4000 cycles. This way, the cost/kwhr is lowered substantially. That means this unit can make you money charging at night and selling during the day. There is some overhead for the battery charging unit. The inverter is the same for any solar installation, but also adds to cost. If you look at the whole unit at $11950/34kwhr and 60%DOD, 4000 cycles, it comes to $0.147/kwhr.

  5. Someone noted that the cost of FLA batteries was about $0.20/kwhr. If your area has peak metering rates greater than that number, it makes economic sense to have a few hours storage. This is true even if you charge from the mains. From a system perspective, economics are dictated by which is cheaper, additional peak generation, distribution, and grid or local storage. You would think this represents a great opportunity for utilities, if they were smart enough to recognize it. It looks like local solar is already cheaper than local storage, but the two make a nice combination. This would be a boon in Texas, because it is struggling with demand growth, blackouts, and peak demand problems. The greater the peak demand grid issues, the greater the solar and storage benefit to the power system. Not that in Germany, with such high solar penetration, local solar PVC has begun to displace some pumped storage because it is cheaper for reducing peak demand. The timing is right.

  6. […] You Are Now Leaving the Fossil Fuel Era | Climate Denial Crock of … […]

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