As part of its push into grid-scale electricity storage, Altair Nanotechnologies is looking to supply its lithium-ion batteries to support a 1.4-megawatt solar project on the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

That's according to Joe Heinzmann, senior director of energy storage solutions for the Reno, Nev.-based battery maker, who was in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday at a sustainability conference sponsored by Wesco.

AltairNano has supplied some grid-sized batteries to utilities, notably, two 1-megawatt trailer units to help utility AES regulate frequencies on the grid, he said.

But the Lanai solar project presents some further challenges that underscore the massive potential for grid energy storage to integrate intermittent renewable power generation sources like solar panels and wind turbines into the electricity grid, he said (see Green Light post).

The idea is to back up a photovoltaic solar array that can see sags and surges of almost 1 megawatt in power production caused by the fast-moving cloud cover coming in from the Pacific Ocean, he said.

"We've seen some amazing jags up and down," he said, based on research AltairNano has done into solar maps provided by the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

And that will require energy storage that can both discharge and charge very quickly and deeply, he said – something that traditional lead acid batteries, now being considered for the project, may not be able to do, he speculated.

The solar project is being built by Castle & Cooke Hawaii, which owns almost all of the island of Lanai – an outgrowth of the history of the island as a pineapple plantation of the Dole Fruit Co. (see Pacific Business News).

San Jose-based SunPower Corp. will supply the solar panels and Satcon is working on supplying the inverters.

While utility Maui Electric Co. runs an oil-fueled generator on the island, Castle & Cooke would like to replace that with solar panels that could provide up to all the island's power needs. But that won't happen without some kind of storage.

Lithium-ion batteries are seeing increased use in power-oriented grid energy storage projects – that is, supplying big jolts of power to the grid for limited periods of time, rather than supplying steady power over the course of several hours.

Lithium-ion batteries – and indeed, most battery technologies – are still considered to be too expensive for such longer-term, energy-oriented grid storage purposes.

One exception is sodium sulfur batteries. NGK Insulators of Japan, which now holds a near-monopoly on the technology at commercial scale, has seen hundreds of megawatts of its sodium sulfur batteries installed by Japanese utility Tokyo Electric, France's EDF, the Abu Dhabi Water and Electric Authority and – to a much smaller extent – U.S. utilities American Electric Power and Xcel Energy (see GridPoint to Manage Wind Power Battery Storage).

But for shorter-term power delivery services like frequency regulation, lithium-ion batteries could soon become a primary technology, according to John Kluza, the author of a grid storage research report from Greentech Media.

Lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems is arguably ahead of AltairNano in the space, he added. The Watertown, Mass.-based startup, which is eyeing an IPO (see Green Light post), has delivered several megawatts of trailer-housed batteries to AES, and has an agreement to deliver up to 16 megawatts more.

A123 may soon be asked to build a 32-megawatt battery for Southern California Edison, if the utility succeeds in securing a $25 million DOE stimulus grant to fund the project to better manage power from wind turbines it's building in California's Tehachapi mountains (see SoCal Edison Wants A123's Biggest Grid Battery Ever).

Both A123 and AltairNano make lithium-ion batteries that are different from the lithium-cobalt batteries commonly used to power things like laptop computers (see Green Light post).

A123 makes lithium-phosphate batteries, which are among the safer lithium-ion battery chemistries, but don't hold as much energy.

AltairNano, on the other hand, makes lithium-titanate batteries, which also provide more safety with some sacrifice of energy storage.

AltairNano's batteries can also charge more quickly than other lithium-ion chemistries, Heinzmann said – a key selling point for applications like those it's seeking to fill on Lanai.

Image via brewbooks / Creative Commons