Opinion Canadian energy-storage startups get global traction
Tyler Hamilton works with cleantech companies from across Canada as an adviser with the non-profit MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.
Something unexpected is happening in India. Utilities that used to sign 25-year contracts to purchase coal-based electricity are beginning to get nervous.
They're still buying the dirty power. The difference now is that they won't get locked into a contract longer than 10 years, believing that energy storage combined with inexpensive solar and wind power will soon become more economical than the coal-fired equivalent.
"The interest there right now in energy storage is just huge," says Himanshu Sudan, president of Toronto-based battery-system provider eCamion. "Not a day goes by that we don't get an e-mail from an Indian business that wants to work with us. Right now, we're not able to keep up with the volume of requests."
India has pledged to triple the amount of renewable energy on its grid by 2022, and by 2027 expects renewables will overtake coal as the dominant source of power. It also wants to go big on electric vehicles, including an outright ban on the sale of gas and diesel-fuelled cars that's supposed to kick in by 2030.
But Mr. Sudan says the country's grid is so fragile that it won't achieve those ambitious targets – inspired in part by its commitment to the two-year old Paris climate-change agreement – without embracing energy storage on a large scale.
Energy storage is critical for the growth of renewables because, simply put, the wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun doesn't always shine. The only way to get much larger amounts of renewables reliably into a country's electricity mix – and give coal the boot – is to capture that clean energy when it's available, and dispatch it when it's needed most. A wide range of technologies can be used to store and manage this energy, everything from big batteries and flywheels to fuel cells running on renewable hydrogen and systems based on compressed air or pumped water.
It's a market reality not unique to India, and Canadian energy-storage startups stand to benefit. A recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that the global market for energy-storage technologies will double six times between now and 2030, leading to investment of more than $100-billion.
"This is a similar trajectory to the remarkable expansion that the solar industry went through from 2000 to 2015," according to the report.
Pension funds and sovereign funds are starting to get in on the action. NRStor, the Canadian energy-storage developer, recently secured a $120-million debt facility from Swiss-based investment house SUSI Partners AG to help fund industrial and commercial storage projects. That follows a deal with the Labourers' Pension Fund of Central and Eastern Canada, which has committed up to $200-million in project capital to NRStor.
More capital flowing to energy storage and renewables means less investment in new thermal-power plants, a trend that's already starting to hit big equipment suppliers such as Siemens and General Electric.
Siemens, for example, recently announced plans to cut nearly 7,000 jobs in its power and gas division, which sells turbines and other equipment for thermal-power plants. One board member went so far as to describe the market as "burning to the ground."
The move away from coal and conventional thermal-power generation is spreading. At the COP23 climate-change talks in Bonn, Germany, last month, Canada led a coalition of 20 countries that have committed to phasing out coal-fired generation by 2030, and the group aims to expand to 50 countries by next fall's climate meeting in Poland.
Canadian startups such as eCamion are pouncing. In Australia, where Elon Musk's Tesla just built the largest grid-connected battery system in the world in less than 100 days, the market looks so strong that Toronto-based Hydrostor is developing its first utility-scale storage plant.
Company CEO Curtis VanWalleghem says the project – an underground system that uses compressed air and water to store and dispatch power on demand – will lay the foundation for future expansion across the island continent.
"The value of energy storage is rising, and Canada is definitely in a good position," says Derek Lim Soo, founder and CEO of Peak Power, another Ontario-based company. Among its strategic investors is Osmington, a commercial real estate company controlled by David Thomson, chairman of Thomson Reuters.
Peak Power offers "energy storage as a service," using Big Data and machine-learning algorithms to manage how any energy-storage technology interacts with the grid and the consumption patterns of its customers. The idea is to help commercial-building owners lower their electricity bills and utilities bring more resilience and efficiency to their operations as more renewable sources are added.
Mr. Lim Soo says Peak Power has benefited from falling energy-storage costs resulting from the growth of electric vehicles and the related scale-up of lithium-ion battery manufacturing. His company already has projects on the go in New York and Massachusetts, and groups from Australia, India and Britain have reached out wanting to learn more.
"They all have the same issues – aging energy infrastructure, rising peak demand, the need to integrate more renewables," he says. "This area is going to boom."
Hydrogen storage is also getting a big bump as regions such as Europe and Asia turn to fuel cell technologies for both grid and transportation storage. Earlier this year, Mississauga-based Hydrogenics was contracted to supply 1,000 fuel-cell power modules for hydrogen buses in China. This followed a deal with Alstom to power the first hydrogen passenger train in Germany and supply technology for a hybrid wind-hydrogen power plant in Thailand.
CEO Daryl Wilson says momentum is building, but cautions that Canadian companies won't reach their full potential overseas if they don't get stronger support, including better access to capital, within their own borders. "It's very critical to demonstrate success at home."