Energy technology startup JLM launched a new battery aimed squarely at the solar-plus-storage market, which the company expects to grow rapidly this year.

The Phazr battery continues JLM’s tradition of Z-happy nomenclature, but it functions differently than its predecessors. This thin rectangular battery, 20 inches by 10 inches, clips directly onto the back of a solar module. Just as Enphase microinverters popularized a distributed model for solar power conversion, Phazr takes a distributed approach to storage.

The Rocklin, California-based company contends that the distributed architecture enables big savings in the soft costs of a storage purchase: the design and labor of installation, as well as operations and maintenance. The company had previously served residential and commercial storage markets with its Solarz modules and Energizr battery line, but with the new "MicroStorage" product, it is tackling utility-scale solar-plus-storage for the first time. The first production run will ship end of March.

Battery cell and module manufacturers are racing to cut the cost of production with ever-larger factories. JLM, with its 80-person workforce, can't do much to affect battery price besides sourcing batteries from those big producers. Instead, according to co-founder and CEO Farid Dibachi, his company targeted those non-battery costs that enlarge the total cost of ownership.

"Phazr is really a solid attempt at eliminating or dramatically reducing those costs," he said. "Solar-plus-storage is here to stay, and if solar is deployed one panel at a time, why can't we deploy storage one panel at a time?"

Installation ease

Each Phazr has a tiny footprint as far as battery systems go. At 20 inches by 10 inches, it occupies the footprint of a skinny briefcase or a widescreen laptop, and weighs only 15 pounds.* Currently, there are two models: one designed for 60-cell solar panels that provides 300 watts power and 650 watt-hours of energy, and one designed for 72-cell solar panels at 350 watts and 810 watt-hours.​ That's about 2.3 hours of duration.

To install, whoever is putting in the solar panels just clips the Phazr onto the rack, much like installing an Enphase microinverter. The solar module then sets down on top. This cuts out the heavy lifting and more nuanced electrical work required to install many batteries. Customers attracted by low battery prices won't get sticker shock from the cost of the install, which can be significant -- the industry average is around $150 per kilowatt-hour just for installation costs at large scale, Dibachi said.

The install cost for Phazr is approximately $500 per kilowatt-hour all in. That includes parts and labor. The batteries utilize the same inverter as the solar, so no additional inverter purchase is necessary.

If the idea of sticking a battery under a solar panel on a hot roof raises some red flags, Dibachi has some answers. The batteries don't face direct sunlight, he noted, adding that they would be exposed to greater heat in a garage in Phoenix, Arizona at the height of summer. But just in case, the Phazr is internally insulated and equipped with distributed temperature sensors; the system shuts down if it exceeds 50 degrees Celsius.

They also use a lithium-iron-phosphate chemistry, which is known for improved safety in its materials and thermal behavior compared to typical lithium-ion chemistries.

The concept of designing to cut installation costs has been gaining traction as battery prices fall and soft costs become more noticeable. Enphase approached this by making a distributed battery product in manageable 1.2 kilowatt-hour boxes. Tesla's second-generation Powerwall took on a more boxy form to allow for easier handling and ground mounting, unlike its more glamorous, turtle-shell-shaped forebear.

Modularity also translates to greater customer choice: The homeowner can pick exactly how much storage capacity she wants, rather than choosing a one-size-fits-all option, or stacking several identical batteries next to each other. You can use one battery per panel, two per panel, or decide you don't need them everywhere and equip just a subset of the solar installation.

We've seen modular battery systems from the likes of Enphase and Mercedes-Benz, to allow scaling up capacity as a family's needs grow, or to offer more precise capacity options. This appears to be the first product to place the modular battery at the point of solar generation. The closest analogue may be the SolPad Home, an all-in-one solar panel and battery for rooftop deployment, but that won't be out for a while.

In the field

In use, Dibachi said, the Phazr adds efficiency through the company's patent-pending "Symmetric DC Regulation." This allows the solar modules to send power to the battery and the house or grid simultaneously.

The system uses one inverter for solar power and battery power, simplifying logistics and lowering cost. If the load doesn't need all that's being produced, JLM's software can route the needed solar power through the inverter and into the house while sending the remainder into the battery as DC power, to be converted later when needed.

This improves efficiency and lowers cycle count compared to hybrid inverter systems, Dibachi said, because it reduces unnecessary trips for the electrons where power is lost to round-trip inefficiency.

The symmetric system allows for greater control over the solar generation. At the end of the day, the company notes, solar generation drops off and might be insufficient for powering a house. The Phazr could send the last drops of solar into the house while also discharging the battery to keep the lights on. The gains might be incremental compared to the status quo, but they add up, Dibachi said.

"You have to really build a system from ground up that says, 'What does the customer want?'" he said.

It's not yet clear how much of a draw this functionality will have for consumers. It may be hard for them to envision or calculate the relative savings of Symmetric DC Regulation versus an alternative setup.

Some other benefits are easier to quantify. The batteries only charge from solar, not from the grid, so they necessarily meet the renewable supply threshold needed to claim the federal Investment Tax Credit. Furthermore, the distributed system ensures there is no single point of failure for the storage system. If one unit stops working, it doesn't take out the rest of them. A technician can swap out the faulty unit as needed.

To cap it all off, JLM offers a 20-year warranty, on the long side for batteries.

Taking on utility scale

The unveiling of "MicroStorage" simultaneously launched JLM's pursuit of utility-scale contracts, after having focused on the residential and commercial segments. The company had previously installed almost 200 storage systems, nearly all of them connected to solar.

Plenty of storage companies have started with one segment and moved to another, like when Sonnen branched out from home batteries to add a commercial solution last summer. Here, though, JLM is pitching a whole new approach to storage while trying to reach a new audience.

"It’s going to be an uphill climb," said Brett Simon, energy storage analyst at GTM Research. "In this industry, you don't want to make things harder for yourself. [...] They're just going right out of the gate saying, 'We can do it at residential, commercial and utility scale.'"

On top of that, JLM has other product lines to stay on top of, including small wind, solar and energy management. That's an asset in that it allows the company to offer combined packages, but it also requires savvy management of several distinct markets.

That's not to say JLM is entering the new market unprepared. It recently recruited Ardes Johnson, formerly director of sales at Tesla Energy, to lead sales of utility-scale solar-plus-storage. And it chose a market that's heating up right now, as declining costs in solar find a partner in declining costs in batteries. 

Companies from both the solar and the storage industry are coalescing around the concept of pairing the two technologies, and the distributed MicroStorage marks a differentiation from the pack.

That carries the risks of an unfamiliar technology. Utility-scale buyers used to dealing with centrally located container boxes full of batteries will need to be convinced to take a chance on slapping a bunch of little batteries on hundreds or thousands of solar modules instead. 

It's easy to see how clipping a dozen micro-batteries on a rooftop installation would be easier than installing a 200-pound battery, but when the distributed batteries cover an entire landscape, the case isn't as immediately clear.

Dibachi insists those labor cost savings still apply at the massive scale. The installers setting up the solar plant already have to cover that ground. "You are adding the task of tightening a couple of additional bolts for each panel that is being installed," he said.

When integrated into the solar install, the inclusion of Phazr requires minimal additional effort and no additional specialized skills. Wiring up all the batteries in a container onsite takes time and specialized labor. Most of the battery integration work for Phazr occurs in an automated manufacturing line, driving economies of scale compared to more hands-on installations.

If a Phazr fails out in the field, JLM's software will flag it and a worker can walk out, unplug the problem unit and replace it with a new one. That might mean more time spent getting to the battery than if it were in a central container, but less time spent dealing with the electronics.

JLM has surveyed the budding field of solar-plus-storage and addressed the challenges it saw in an unprecedented way. Whether or not it resonates with customers will become more apparent in the months to come, as we learn more about the system's real-world performance. If buyers are willing to take a chance on something new in exchange for lower cost of ownership, this could work. 

The micro trend first appeared in the world of solar inverters with Enphase. Module-level power electronics have since gained a significant foothold in the market, particularly in residential solar, but the debate over centralized vs. decentralized configurations has not been settled. Now it will unfurl anew in the realm of storage. 

Taken to its logical conclusion, the decentralization pitch offers a clean and elegant solution for the future: a factory-made, mass-produced product that both generates power from the sun and stores it. Today's dualistic conception of solar-plus-storage may prove to be just a stepping stone.

*The article previously stated the Phazr weighs 25 pounds, but it has been corrected to 15.