Engineering groundwork for the AUD 20.3 million ($15.9 million) Yadlamalka vanadium flow battery near Hawker, South Australia, is now moving toward completion. With production of the 41 Invinity VS3 battery modules now ramping up for delivery later this year, pv magazine Australia recently caught up with Matt Harper, chief commercial officer of Invinity Energy Systems, to talk tech.
Invinity was formed when two vanadium redox flow battery companies – U.K.-based RedT and North American innovators Avalon Battery – merged in April 2020. At 2 MW/8MWh, Yadlamalka Energy’s storage solution is Invinity’s largest solar-powered vanadium flow battery to be built to date. It is co-located with a 6 MW solar PV array on land held by the Yadlamalka Land Trust, adjacent to Yadlamalka Station.
Yadlamalka, a 1,000-square-kilometer sheep and cattle farm 60 kilometers north of Port Augusta, is the family property of Andrew Dorman, a former senior director of McKinsey & Company and an entrepreneur with a passion for investing in new technologies that help to combat climate change. Dorman is the main investor in the Yadlamalka Energy project, which is also supported by an Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) grant of AUD 5.7 million.
pv magazine Australia: This is the largest vanadium flow battery to be constructed by Invinity to date, and perhaps the largest of its type in the world. Is this a demonstration case for the capabilities of vanadium flow technology?
Matt Harper: It’s certainly the first example of a project, close coupled with solar, where we are operating as a direct producer of electricity onto the grid. Most of our projects to date have been in behind-the-meter applications where we’re installing our batteries in service of electricity users or companies who are trying to decrease their electricity costs, so they’re using the battery to offset peak tariff period utilisation, or they’re looking to more effectively manage their own solar generation, say on the roof of a factory.
You’ve said that grids increasingly powered by renewables really need a diversity of storage technologies. Why do we need more than lithium ion?
The fundamental difference between a lithium ion battery and a vanadium flow battery is that in vanadium flow batteries, you don’t have the same cycle-charge degradation that you see with other technologies. You know, when you charge and discharge your cell phone battery, in two or three years you’ve lost 20% or 30% or 40% of the charge. In terms of building large-scale, heavy infrastructure for the electricity grid, you need something more durable. It doesn’t mean that lithium ion batteries aren’t good grid participants. They are tremendous for replacing so-called peaking power plants, that are required to dispatch for a few hours on maybe 50 or 100 days of the year to meet the absolute highest demand on the grid.
But we’re focused on working exclusively with renewable power, in this case solar energy, and taking a portion of that generation from the middle of the day to shift it, every day, into the evening peak period, when that electricity is most in demand and is most valuable. And because we don’t have that sort of degradation every time we charge and discharge the battery, we can do that every day of the year to match the 20- to 30-year life of solar or wind-generating plants colocated with the battery.
How much more expensive are vanadium flow batteries compared to lithium ion?
They’re slightly more expensive today for the initial capital cost, but if you look at the cost of every megawatt-hour delivered by the battery over its lifetime, they’re significantly less expensive.
Why do you think we don’t have more of them in the grid to date? Is the technology just new and untested?
The technology was actually invented at the University of New South Wales back in the late 1980s. But it’s really only in the last five to 10 years that there have been significant deployments of vanadium flow batteries to commercial industrial facilities. Bringing any new technology into the grid to serve a large part of grid users’ needs takes a long time. Think about solar power: Solar panels were invented, or first built in large numbers, in the late 1970s, early 1980s, but it took three decades before they started to become a meaningful part of the generation mix on the electricity grid. Similarly, lithium ion batteries were invented in around that same time frame, and it’s really only in the last five or six years that lithium batteries have become a big part of the energy mix. We argue that the vanadium flow battery is complementary to these two types of devices, that it takes over where lithium leaves off in terms of providing that day-to-day very long-duration cycle. But when it comes to the grid, no-one wants to be first.
How is Yadlamalka’s grid connection progressing?
We are in the middle of the regulatory process. The advantage that we have in this case is that we can serve multiple applications within this one site. For example, not only are we taking solar in the middle of the day and deploying in the evening when it’s needed. The battery will also participate in some of the regulation services that help the local grid maintain frequency, voltages and sufficiency of energy 24 hours a day. From the grid operator’s perspective this project is hugely beneficial. It may be a new approach, so there isn’t necessarily a crystal clear regulatory path for us to go down, but our interests and the interests of the regulator are very well aligned. So, where we don’t necessarily fit the common mould we’ve been able to come to an effective resolution that’s acceptable for everyone.
Are you generally supporting the National Electricity Market, with this battery, or is there a local need for energy-shifting at Yadlamalka?
It is very much a local set of constraints that pushed in this direction. Originally, the landowner wanted to install solar and found that it was going to be difficult to connect to the grid because of some of the local capacity constraints. What our battery is allowing him to do is to modulate when that power flows out onto the grid and therefore get a larger solar project installed in the local area.
What does it mean to Invinity to have ARENA support this project?
First of all, we’re enormously grateful for their financial support. Without their contribution, it would have been much harder to make the project come together. There’s a higher degree of risk that comes along with a project like this, especially with some of the regulatory hurdles and new-technology integration challenges. The other aspect is that on my side of the world, up in Canada, ARENA has a tremendous reputation for its ability to nurture the adoption of new and emerging technologies onto the grid, to help advance sustainability and greenhouse gas targets while at the same time building an economically stable future energy system.
Do you expect that ARENA’s publication of the results of this project will validate the deployment of vanadium-flow batteries at scale on the grid?
It’s one of the things we’re most excited about. It’s all well and good for us to go to the market and talk about the things that we’re doing, but for us to be involved in this project with a third party agency like ARENA who are independently observing, recording and publishing the results of the project is a huge piece of external validation.
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