On Energy Storage

8 07 2014

Having just written about the possibility of people going “off the grid”, I’ve decided to put down some of my ideas of where to go with this.  Twelve years ago, when I started building Mon Abri, going “off the grid” was not on my agenda, at all.  At the time, it seemed so obvious to use the grid as storage instead of expending untold amounts of resources to make batteries made a lot of sense.  After all, the grid was already ‘here’, and who knew that the powers that be would be so offended by the notion of giving up their centralised power system?  Or that they would spend ridiculous money ‘gold plating’ the distribution system and start charging connection fees?

I first came across Nickel Iron batteries at Geoff Lawton’s Zaytuna farm.  That was two and a bit years ago, and still then I was arguing with Geoff about the silliness of not connecting to the grid when it was right outside his gate…….  I guess I owe him an apology now.  He said the grid was evil, and I replied that only the way it was used was evil.  Well, the evil has risen as the devil now.  I don’t mind admitting I was wrong, and I will happily swap sides when necessary.

The fact remains of course, that whether we talk grid or off grid, it all takes energy and resources, and fossil energy to boot.  My aspirations of becoming totally energy independent (there’s no such thing, really…) are purely selfish, I will admit up front.  I, and you who is reading this I suppose, are in the enviable position of knowing what’s coming, and at least in my case, having the knowledge of how to deal with it.  Not many people do.  To say I am privileged in this regard is a total understatement.  But I am here to help, please take away whatever you need to know from my rantings on this humble blog.  it’s open source!

Lithium Iron Phosphate Batteries

I had forgotten about these Nickel Iron batteries until my Geeveston friend Monte started asking questions about disconnecting from the grid himself, and mentioned NiFe batteries….  I had already made up my mind to use Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries, but now I’m not so sure….. note LiFePO
batteries only have the Lithium in common with Lithium Ion ones.

These are commonly used in EVs because they are light and will cycle far more times than any Lead Acid battery can.  Longevity, for me, is a real issue, because I can see that far in the future replacing these batteries will be nigh impossible as resource constraints destroy industrial civilisation.  Some pundits claim that treated properly, these batteries can last 40 years, which is easily double what you’d expect from the competition.  Until that is, I started investigating the Nickel iron (NiFe) variety.  And what I found literally blew me away.  No wonder Geoff was praising their capabilities…..

Thomas Edison with his          NiFe Cell

Thomas Edison with his NiFe Cell

NiFe batteries are truly old hat.  Developed by Thomas Edison (yes…..  that old hat..!) in 1901, and it is claimed some of these batteries still work…..  Originally used as the energy source for electric vehicles, such as the Detroit Electric and Baker Electric. Edison claimed the nickel–iron design to be, “far superior to batteries using lead plates and acid”.  And just to prove some things never change, read here about the 100 year old EV that used NiFe batteries, and somewhat younger hybrid cars…..

Edison’s batteries were made from about 1903 to 1972 by the Edison Storage Battery Company in East Orange, NJ. They were quite profitable for the company. In 1972 the battery company was sold to the Exide Battery Corporation, which discontinued making the battery in 1975.  I am yet to find out why.  Nickel–iron cells were made with capacities from 5 to 1250 Ah. Many of the original manufacturers no longer make nickel iron cells.  They are currently manufactured in China, Ukraine and Russia as well as in the US.

I have sourced a supplier whose website is full of information (though one page mysteriously won’t open for me).  Their batteries don’t seem any dearer than the competition to me, and the durability is so much better that they could in fact be potentially far more economical.  I don’t know if these battery suppliers are just covering themselves, but their durability numbers are far more conservative than those quoted by the numerous enthusiasts I’ve found on the net suggest…  I also found this site for anyone interested…  and an Australian one here…    I’m sure one could find other sources.

Iron and Nickel are not that particularly rare, but of course they need mining, and we all know how destructive that can be….. and of course there is still the niggle we face of Peak Mining as discussed by Simon Michaux.

If you want my advice……  don’t wait for progress or prices getting cheaper, get in now or you’ll miss out.

Good luck……




10 responses

8 07 2014

I looked into NiFe batteries a couple of years ago and they seemed to me to be a good solution. There’s a Yahoo Group at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Edison_NiFe_Batteries/info — I collected lots of info on them and even got some sample chemicals to experiment with. One report I found talked about refurbishing some NiFe batteries that were about 80-90 years old. They worked just fine once they were refurbished. It was a commercial battery testing company who wrote the report, so it was legitimate.

However, once I realized that gigantic capacity supercapacitors were coming, I abandoned the idea of using NiFe. The new supercapacitors will be coming very soon now, hopefully by the end of the year as I am legally unable to disclose info about them until they are officially announced. They will be much more environmentally-friendly and will displace most batteries as they are cheaper, lighter and hold more charge. You can charge/discharge/recharge supercapacitors millions of times without degrading them, while battery charge cycles are numbered in the low thousands at most. NiFe has the advantage that they don’t wear out like regular batteries, but they do require constant monitoring (fluid levels) and periodic overhaul every few years to keep them in good shape. I would recommend waiting for the supercapacitors as a much better and cheaper solution for energy storage.

10 07 2014

Quite a few years ago I realised that I was in a continual “wait until” situation. Wait until I finished my studies wait until the mortgage is paid off, wait until I can afford a new car, wait until whatever. When I realised this I started doing things when they became necessary.

I installed PV while it was still expensive because I could see that power costs were going to go through the roof. I borrowed money to install it but my perception was right and it has paid off.

For some time I have been convinced it is time to go off grid and had decided on NiFe batteries because they would not need to be replaced during the life of the PV. With many years of daily generation figures I have been designing the system to not need a fossil fuelled generator.

With your news about gigantic capacity super capacitors I see the possibility of another “wait until” situation. I can wait a short time but not more. I must get things fixed as soon as possible to allow a reasonable transition to what comes after the inevitable collapse.

10 07 2014

My biggest gripe with so called super capacitors, is that unlike the 100 year old NiFe battery technology, it’s totally unproven as yet. And if you buy such a system, and it fails post TSHTF….. you’re rooted.

10 07 2014

Good point, Mike. It would be possible to salvage battery components and solution to refurbish NiFe batteries, while you would definitely have a problem with supercaps. However, you should be able to buy cheaper storage in supercaps than NiFe and thus maintain an inventory of spares to replace any that fail after a potential TSHTF event.

10 07 2014
Terry J Wall (@terryjw7)

Thanks so much.. bloody good info~~

9 09 2014

My local expert solar installer claims their wildy varying voltage is a problem for most charge controllers and inverters. Plus, low energy density and high $/kWh of energy stored…

21 05 2015

As we approach the possibility of moving to Tassie soon now, I have revisited this whole battery storage idea, and actually contacted the IRONCORE people for advice. This is what Dave Bartlett had to say about the “wildy varying voltage”..:

There is alot of misinformation about NiFe batteries including the concern your friend has about the voltage.

NiFe have a working voltage range of .9 volts per cell up to 1.7 volts per cell.
(36v to 68v for a 48volt battery bank) however the majority of inverters do not have a working voltage range such as this and so you are not able to utilise the full storage capacity of the NiFe cells.

We can supply an inverter that can utilise the majority of the NiFe battery working range and as such you will obtain far more value for your money than you will from lead acid battery.

21 05 2015

So he’s calling the wide-varying voltage “misinformation” but then saying it’s real and a problem for the “majority of inverters”. Riiight. They provide an inverter that deals with it, of an unspecified brand and cost. So if we want to use mainstream inverters like Sunny Boys or Fronius…

Also, the charge controller must deal with the different working voltage range. Do they have a special charge controller too?

No thanks in general.

21 05 2015

Just did some quick research…. inverters are no big deal, Latronics and Xantrex make inverters off the shelf that will work with NiFe batteries, and it looks like Outback chargers will go to 68V, and another called Dingo to 70V! These can be customised to suit the batteries no big deal…

21 05 2015

I’ve just spoken to the guy on the phone, and he said ANY inverter would work, but they recommend Victron devices only because they are able to operate at any voltage that the batteries would throw at it. As in 9V in a 12V nominal size bank. So the system would still work fine when a convetional LA or Li battery bank would be dead flat… The Victrons are a quality unit built in the Netherlands, will have to do more homework….

For charging, he recommends Outback charge regulators, which is what I was going to use anyway…….

Another plus is that because you literally don’t have to worry about killing the batteries by discharging them to near 0% DOD – because they NEED to be worked according to him – I will be able to buy a battery bank half the size I was initially anticipating….. so I’m sold. watch this space!

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