Not happy, Jan…….

8 04 2017

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know I’ve been saying for quite some time that out of the ludicrous Lithium battery rush happening right now as a ‘fix it’ for all and sundry energy problems, a lot of disappointed people will surface. Well, one just has, and he’s one of the most high profile person in the sustainability movement.

I met Michael Mobbs almost certainly before 2010, which is the year I went working for the solar industry. He gave a public lecture about sustainability in Pomona at the Rural Futures Network; I wonder how that’s going now..? Mobbs has undertaken converting an old terrace house in Sydney to ‘sustainability’ by disconnecting from the water grid and sewerage. He also went grid tied solar, the whole project is well documented on his website, and you have to give him credit for doing the almost impossible…. in Sydney no less. I for one would never undertake such a project, it’s so much easier to start from scratch in the country! And that’s hard enough, let me tell you….

It now appears, Mobbs decided to also cut himself off from the electricity grid…. and it seems that didn’t go so well….

mobbsbatteriesOn Mobbs’ website, there is an “invitation to install & supply an off-grid solar system” It seems he had one installed in March 2015, but it’s not working as it should, or at least as Mobbs thought it should…..

Firstly, let’s start with what he got……. It’s a bit hard to tell from the photo, apart from the fact it is an Alpha ‘box’. From the blog, I also established that this comes with a 3kW inverter, itself a problem, it appears to be too small. Going to Alpha’s website, I cannot find the system Mobbs appears so proud of in the above photo; and let’s face it, two years is a long time in the world of technology. All the products on display say that the output of these cabinets is 5kW, but nowhere does it say it even features an inverter.  Solarchoice’s website shows a 3kW Storion-S3 cabinet, but not even it looks like what Mobbs has in the photo – it only has one door, the ‘new ones’ have two….. The inverter is called an AEV-3048, and perhaps the A stands for Alpha, and 3048 means 3000W/48V, but it’s all guesswork because finding information is a problem.

So why is a 3kW inverter a problem in a house with a claimed baseload of 86W, very close to what we achieved in Cooran actually…..

Another huge flaw with the Alpha system that I’ve recently become aware of also stems from the fact that all the energy first goes through the batteries: the Alpha system’s output is always limited to 3,000W regardless of the solar size; it can’t deliver above this. This is an extremely important point to understand because it affects the way I live and how I’m able to use my appliances. I’ll break it down in a way that’s practical and simple; prepare yourself to be blown away by this outrageous system limitation.

We’ve already established that the base load of my house is 86W. Let’s say I wake up in the morning, turn on a couple of lights in the kitchen because it’s still dark (20W), turn on the toaster because I’m in the mood for toast with butter for breakfast (1,200W), and my daughter (who happens to be staying with me) turns on her hair dryer while getting ready (1,500W) and she decides she needs to put on a load of laundry before she leaves the house (500W). Doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary, right? Well, we would be in trouble: all of the power would cut off, and the Alpha system would shut down because we would have exceeded its 3,000W limit. Regardless of the size of my solar system, I can NEVER exceed 3,000W of power consumption in my house while using the Alpha system. This was very hard to swallow.

Oh Michael…….  welcome to living off the grid!

Mobbs gives a brief description of how he worked out this baseload….

Step one, determining my total base load, wasn’t as easy as I expected, especially given the fact that I have three different monitoring systems that could provide me with the information. The Efergy and Wattwatchers systems confirmed what I already knew: my house’s base load was about 86W (60W for the aerator and roughly 20W for the fridge occasionally turning on).However, where I ran into problems was with the Alpha ESS reporting system: it was saying my base load was 257W, which is three times larger than the base load reported for the house.At first I thought this difference of 171W was the base load of the Alpha system itself, but their numbers just didn’t add up.

I do have a theory here, he may have got the sums wrong because he used to be grid tied, and maybe, just maybe, his figures did not include what was exported. But I’m only guessing. My main reason for thinking this is that he is running a conventional fridge, while we achieved our low baseload using a freedge which consumes 20% of the energy a conventional fridge does…. make no mistake, a conventional fridge’s ‘baseload’ is half or more of his 86W. He’s claiming 20W for his fridge (480Wh/day, 20W x 24 hrs), but I have never seen any fridge perform that well…. Most fridges today still consume a whole kilowatthour a day. So there could be another error there.

But it gets worse……

Now you see why I said that I probably made a huge mistake by purchasing the Alpha system when going off-grid. The simple truth is that the Alpha system is not designed to be used in an off-grid setting, and they have not implemented the necessary retrofits to make it work in that environment. However, during my recent research, I came across a product that is designed specifically to be used off-grid and shows great promise for high efficiency and effective energy management: the SMA Sunny Island system.

Bad news Michael……  the SMA Sunny Island is not designed for off the grid either, it’s made to work with other SMA grid tied units in a hybrid grid/backup batteries system.

Worse still, he also seems to have storage issues….

For the last few weeks, in the particularly cloudy and rainy weather Sydney has had to endure, Mobbs had to turn off his fridge (bloody fridges, they are a curse…) during the day to ensure that the house, which he shares with two others, has enough power for a “civilised life” at night-time. Worse than that, the system has a bug in it that causes it to trip out every couple of days. It seems flashing digital lights have become part of his life….!

“I’m running short of power,” Mobbs said complaining that the system that he has in place is delivering 1kWh/day less than he expected. “I thought this would be a walk in the park, but I appear to have tripped over.”

I’m seriously starting to think a lot of installers have no idea what they are doing. I recently related the story of my friend Bruce whose inlaws replaced a perfectly good system (because of a fridge no less!), and they were sold a Sunny Island, with I was told over the phone just two days ago, gel cells for storage……… completely not what either Bruce or I would have bought. Solar companies (including this well known one who shall remain nameless) have simply turned into salespeople selling whatever it is they have in stock off catalogues…….

Mobbs then writes……

The main difference between the Alpha and Sunny Island system: Sunny Island can send solar energy directly to the house when it is needed and completely bypasses the system’s batteries. SMA’s Sunny Island system not only extends battery life by not cycling all loads through them, but using solar directly into loads means items can be set to run on timers during the day, (washing, dishwasher etc) to maximise the benefit of an abundant afternoon supply of solar. It also has a larger peak design capacity than Alpha. For example, if you have a 4kW solar system, with the SMA units that would allow a potential delivery of 4kW of solar (in optimum conditions) directly into the house’s load + the 4.6kW of power from the batteries delivered by the Sunny Island controller (they can run in parallel to each other).  That’s a big potential 8.6 kW of continuous capacity to loads.  As I’ve already pointed out, in contrast the Alpha output is always limited to the 3,000W delivery of the battery inverter regardless of the solar size.

More bad news Michael…… this only works that way if you are grid tied with a hybrid system!

Michael also doesn’t seem to understand how off the grid works…

Alpha has an inefficient way of managing my solar energy (by diverting all of it through my batteries first), which decreases my battery life by constantly charging and discharging them…

Errr…..  Michael, that’s how battery storage works! Which is of course exactly why Lithium batteries are not good at this. Mobbs also wrote…:

Like any system that transfers and converts energy from one form to another, there are going to be losses. No system is perfect. However, as I started doing more research, I became aware of a key element of the way the Alpha system operates that may mean my decision to purchase it was a huge mistake: the Alpha system transfers all its incoming solar energy through the batteries before it delivers it to the house. When I learned this, I was devastated. One of the most important figures of merit in a system such as mine are the battery losses. If you put 1kWh into a battery it doesn’t all come out! There are losses associated with both charging and discharging. The higher the charge/discharge rate, the greater proportion of energy is lost and the shorter my battery life becomes. So, I repeat, all my energy is getting charged and discharged through the batteries before I ever even see it in the house. For someone living off-grid, this level of energy loss and battery depreciation is unacceptable, and I was never made aware of it by the installer.

This is why I know there will be a lot of disappointed grid disconnectors. They have swallowed the idea that living off grid is just like living on it hook line and sinker, when it cannot possibly be. How long have I been saying solar has shortcomings?

If you’re going to go off the grid, first, you need to know exactly how much energy you’re consuming. Then you need to know what your peak power demand will be so you can size your inverter. Then, you must size your battery bank so that you can go on living through a series of cloudy days without your batteries falling over. Accurate climate data is really important. And if you ask me, any off the grid system should be tailor made for the household, not all fitted in a box…..

The comments on Mobbs’ blog are interesting, including one from Alpha who obviously can do without the bad publicity and are suggesting entering into consultation….. well if you ask me, the time for consultation is before installation, not after it’s established the gear does not perform as needed….

Furthermore, and this is most important, get batteries that can be flattened and recharged for as many times as you like, almost forever if you go the way of Nickel Iron batteries……

At least Mobbs is aware of what his system is doing, but most consumers don’t. They will buy these cabinets, not understand what the monitors tell them, and the Lithium batteries will be cycled to death, failing early without a doubt, driving incompetent solar companies broke and giving solar power a really bad name. Plus, let’s face it, by the time all these systems die, you won’t be able to get replacement bits in a post collapse world….

There is one more issue…… on his blog Mobbs shows..:

In 1996, I installed 18 solar panels, each with 120-watt capacity. It reduced the amount the house took from the grid by more than 60%. Since then, I have installed 12 additional panels, bringing my home’s total system capacity to just over 3.5kW. mobbs panels

In addition to the roof solar cells, the house uses sunlight to heat water through a standard solar hot-water system. The environmental savings achievable by using solar hot-water heaters are summed up by Gavin Gilchrist in his book, The Big Switch:
“If all the electric water heaters in Australia were replaced with solar ones, greenhouse gas emissions from Australia’s households would be cut by one-fifth.” One fifth is one mighty big saving!

The Bottom Line… I am saving hundreds of dollars every year not paying electricity bills by powering my household appliances using the Sun. 

I totally concur re the solar water heaters. Amazingly, I have friends in Geeveston who have one, and they hardly ever boost, which is astonishing considering how everyone was telling me how poorly solar would work in Tassie.

BUT…… all those original PVs were replaced when Mobbs cut the cord and increased his array size from 2kW to 5kW…… they were only ten years old, and as Prieto pointed out recently, the early retirement/replacement of PVs and balance of system can drive the ERoEI of solar to negative territory….. I can’t find mention of what happened to the obsolete 120W panels for which it might be hard to find compatible equipment.

One last thing……  his baseload of 86W is clearly wrong if a 3.5kW array can’t drive it. Our electricity habit was run for years on just 1.28kW, and I intend to now do it in Tassie with just 2kW. I rest my case.


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……

Why our next project is off-grid

17 10 2013

“Off-grid” or “off the grid” can mean lots of things to different people, especially if they are as diverse as Americans versus Australians.  I think the term probably started in the US.  I’ve always thought of the term as meaning not involving or requiring the use of mainstream sources of energy, but some definitions have wider meaning….

Off-grid is a new adjective which describes the situation of not using public utilities such as electricity, gas, water and mains sewerage. A truly off-grid home or building is completely autonomous in that it operates independently, not relying on any central supply of power or water.

I have to say that after seeing how much it costs now to be connected to the water grid and sewerage, I am very pleased we are not hooked up to either of those…  According to the definition above, we already are off-grid to a large extent, but for the purpose of this essay, I will mean not being connected to the electricity grid.

When we first connected to the grid with our first solar array, I wanted  to make a point.  Being the 400th grid tied solar house in Queensland makes us pioneers.  Today, there are 285,000!  Had we built at Mt Nebo as originally planned for the system which I bought before I even started building, we would have been even further up he list.  Compared to the cost of solar today, back then it really was an extravagance.  Like $500 for 64W panels, when today that sort of money will buy you 500W!  Or a 1500W inverter (that admittedly was also a stand alone inverter and battery charger) costing $5000…. when today you can buy portable inverters of that capacity for under $100, and grid tied devices for $350…!

The main reason, however, for my wish to go off-grid after being a campaigner for grid tying, is that I can see the writing on the wall for the grid once the brown stuff hits the fan.

Recently, Tristan Edis wrote in Climate Spectator:

The ‘Declining Demand Death Spiral’ is a story that has captivated many involved in the electricity sector. Imagine a downward spiral where electricity businesses chase their tails increasing prices to recover large fixed investments, which prompts customers to install solar and reduce demand, which is followed by further price rises followed by further demand drops and ad infinitum until the rich start going off the grid with batteries leaving the poor like pensioners behind.

He then adds….

It is massively overblown for two reasons:

1) The foreseeable change in network charges due to solar demand reductions is not big enough to spur other people to spend several thousand dollars on solar and batteries;

2) The available evidence suggests a small difference in uptake of solar according to income levels.

That’s all very well, but I know quite a few people who hate the way Campbell “can’t do” Newman has trashed the Feed in Tariff in Qld, and the power companies themselves so much, they are already contemplating waving their middle fingers at the grid very soon….  One commenter who is obviously also an installer left this comment”

I’ve received numerous enquiries from rural households wanting to disconnect from the main-grid. Interestingly, even when advised it is not economic, some households still want to proceed as they ‘dislike’ their electricity provider so much that they are prepared to pay a premium to not have to deal with them anymore. Hopefully, the retailers will continue to confuse and annoy consumers, so this niche market keeps growing.

For me who wants to move to Tasmania, however, the clincher was this little news item which I have seen nowhere else:

THE state government must consider selling Hydro Tasmania ahead of costly maintenance demands and sliding profits, a Tasmanian energy consultant has warned.


Despite posting a record $238 million profit last week, Mr White said the business was likely to soon be faced with huge repair bills for its ageing infrastructure and had already flagged a drop-off in profits due to plans to axe the carbon tax.

But will this be a problem for just Tasmania?  As the financial system grinds to a halt over the next few years (boy I wish I had a crystal ball…) and fuel, or rather cheap fuel runs out to power the helicopters which fly the HT power lines in the valley below us all the time to monitor potential high tension grid problems,  how long will the grid remain reliable?  Of what use is a grid tied solar array when the grid is down?  What is the point of generating all that power, the costs of which you have already paid for, if you can’t use it when you need it most?

Until recently, we had back up batteries for the odd time this happened, and as luck would have it, no sooner had I sold the batteries, we had to endure a five and a half hour blackout while we waited for the power lines that were all over the road just a few hundred metres away to be fixed….  After nearly ten years of uninterrupted power, it came as a rude shock, believe me…!

All sorts of things go wrong in blackouts.  We couldn’t get water from our taps.  The fans in the compost toilet stopped working, slowly filling the house with unpleasant odours, and of course no lights apart from candles and torches….  Luckily for us, our fridges are so efficient that when the power came back on, the main fridge didn’t even cut in!  Imagine what might happen to the eggs in our incubator though if we suddenly had a lengthy blackout in the middle of an incubation?  How compromised would those eggs be if they were allowed to cool down for any length of time…..?  While I had good reasons to ditch the old battery/inverter system, I miss the security of uninterruptible power already.

As the price of grid power goes up, and renewables come down, Tristan’s “death spiral” may well become real.

And yes, I acknowledge that even if we do end up with a good stand alone system in Tasmania, eventually it will all end up being for nought as post collapse it will become impossible to repair or replace failing components.  That will be our children’s problem I’m afraid……..