Lithium-ion battery technology has fundamentally changed the way alternative energy suppliers innovate solutions to overcome many of Africa’s business challenges.

That is one of the points to emerge during the alternative energy track of the XON and NEC Summit recently held in Limpopo Province, which included Magnus Coetzee, MD of XON Alternative Energy (Pty) Ltd.

Lithium-ion batteries, the same technology used in mobile phones, electric vehicles and laptops, are overtaking lead acid batteries, which were developed in the 19th century, in many applications such as telecom backup, rural electrification, grid stabilisation and renewables integration.

The service life of lead acid batteries is seriously degraded when the battery is required to perform deep discharges, or when subjected to many partial discharges without full recharges. To maximise lead acid battery service life, designers are forced to use only a small portion (45% or less) of the available battery capacity, tightly control the operating temperature, and limit the number of charge and discharge cycles.  And even with these measures, the service life of lead acid batteries can be a few years or less.

NEC’s high quality lithium-ion batteries are able to deliver their full capacity and cycle continuously over wide operating temperatures with two to 10 times the life of lead acid batteries. The vastly superior cycle life, reliability, safety, and power performance of lithium-ion batteries now allows alternative energy providers to re-architect their solutions with the battery and renewables as the primary power source.

Add to this the new management systems built to look after battery banks, which are built on open standards and can therefore incorporate existing infrastructure, and which enable people to manage the temperature and amperage of individual cells in batteries, and you get resilient and robust energy solutions.

“With that functionality and technological advancement that improves the cycle lives of lithium-ion batteries we’re able to build power and energy solutions from the battery up using the grid and generators as backup or top-up sources of power, which massively expands the scope of applications where it becomes practical to begin using alternative energy as a business enabler,” says Coetzee.

Bridge-to-backup solutions are one of the most crucial for businesses that consume lots of energy in areas where grid supply is unreliable, such as manufacturers and mining operations.

“Diesel generators for large scale operations can take between one and three minutes to start up and begin feeding the amount of power these operations require,” says Coetzee. “Batteries can kick in immediately to provide a bridging power solution for those minutes, which would otherwise cause an interruption of systems potentially resulting in loss of work in process (WIP), increased safety risks and lost productivity. In many cases, a momentary power loss can cause many hours downtime due to hours long restart procedures. With the continuously falling price of alternative energy systems, hybrid power solutions using renewable generation with fast-acting, high power lithium-ion batteries become even more attractive from return on investment (ROI) and operational profitability perspectives. The ability to scale from tens of kilowatts to multiple megawatts means even the largest businesses can take advantage of the opportunity.”

Additional applications include peak shaving, which consists of using batteries during peak energy loads and peak grid cost periods of the day to reduce overall electricity bills. Another is a behind-the-metre solutions ranging in size from 30kW to 5MW. All of these solutions are plug-and-play (in the context of this industry) and scalable. Units are essentially containerised and can be added in modules to suit specific applications.

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