NEC has big plans for energy storage

After buying A123 Energy Solutions, Takashi Ohara of NEC talks to Energy Storage Report about his company's plans for grid-scale, grid-edge and domestic battery energy storage in the USA, Europe, Asia and in developing economies, such as Africa and India.

After buying A123 Energy Solutions, Takashi Ohara of NEC talks to us about NEC’s plans for battery energy storage in the USA, Europe, Asia and developing economies like Africa and India.

When NEC announced it was going to pay USD$100m for A123 Energy Solutions, it was clear that the lithium-nanophosphate battery manufacturer was well and truly back after bankruptcy and a spell of developing its business under the ownership of Wanxiang. As well as cementing the future of A123 after a few tumultuous years, NEC’s purchase represents a huge investment in the future of energy storage. The giant Japanese multinational already uses batteries from AESC, its joint venture with Nissan. Similar to the units used in the Nissan Leaf, these battery storage systems have been used by NEC for both utility-scale storage – a 2MW system has recently been commissioned in Italy by Enel Distribuzione – and in the residential storage market in Japan. The company has also been using batteries from third-party suppliers in a trial with Acea in Rome.

The company’s interest in energy storage was made clear by Hideki Niwaya, vice president of NEC’s smart energy business unit, who told the Wall Street Journal that NEC expects global sales of energy storage systems to utilities to grow from less than $2bn in 2015 to about $6bn by 2020.

Takashi Ohara, executive specialist in the smart energy business unit at NEC, took some time out to talk to us in more depth about NEC’s plans in North America, Europe, Asia and developing economies for grid-scale, grid-edge and domestic energy storage.

Energy Storage Report: What are NEC’s plans for A123 batteries? Are prices likely to go down?
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Japan adds backing to energy storage

NGK is known for the development of sodium-sulphur (NaS) batteries, Sumitomo are currently working on vanadium redox flow batteries.

NGK is known for its sodium-sulphur (NaS) batteries. Sumitomo is working on vanadium redox flow batteries. Photo credit: NGK Insulators

In a week where continued fears over radiation leakage call the future of the country’s nuclear fleet into question, there is at least one piece of good energy news coming out of Japan. NGK Insulators and Sumitomo Electric Industries have both been chosen by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to find ways of driving down the costs of energy storage.
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60MWh redox flow battery order

In 2012, Sumitomo completed a demonstration power generation and storage system at its Yokohama Works – using the world’s then largest vanadium redox flow battery and Japan’s largest concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) units.  Photo credit: Sumitomo Electric Industries, Ltd.

In 2012, Sumitomo completed a demonstration power generation and storage system at its Yokohama Works – using the world’s then largest vanadium redox flow battery and Japan’s largest concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) units. Photo credit: Sumitomo Electric Industries, Ltd.

According to a report in the Nikkei, a Sumitomo Electric Industries vanadium redox flow battery will soon be helping Hokkaido Electric Power to store electricity in order to stabilise its grid network. The 60MWh device will allow Hokkaido to add increasing amounts of renewable energy to its grid, which serves millions of customers in the northernmost of Japan’s four major islands.
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Japan gets ready for fuel cell cars

Another indication that the dream of a hydrogen energy economy is slowly becoming a reality is the news from The Japan Times that the country is preparing to launch and support fuel cell vehicles. Toyota and Honda plan to release mass-market fuel cell vehicles in 2015 and Nissan will follow suit in 2017, says the article. Toyota officials are also claiming vehicles will retail at below ¥10 million (USD$97,400), increasing competition.

Of course, refueling infrastructure is vital to support the new vehicles. And by 2015, 13 Japanese companies, including automakers and oil distributors, aim to establish a total of 100 hydrogen supply bases, mainly in major cities. Currently, hydrogen stations cost around six times the price of an equivalent petrol station.

Japan’s big investment in energy storage

Less than a year ago, and a couple of months after the tsunami-fuelled nuclear crisis that engulfed the country, the Japanese government announced a three-year programme of subsidies for renewables-related technologies. Of this, reports The Lithium Review, around 20 billion Yen, or roughly USD$212 million or UK£140 million is being spent on stationary lithium-ion battery energy storage.

One of the key subsidies is to cover one-third of the cost of domestic systems and fuel adoption of energy storage at a household level. This is in addition to the attractive feed-in tariff (FIT) offered to home owners who want to sell any excess energy – from renewable sources like solar – to the grid.

Companies were not slow in taking the bait.

Panasonic currently offers systems that range from 4kW residential units, to full megawatt-scale power plants used to stabilise energy produced from solar and wind farms.

Kyocera has gone into partnership with Nichicon to produce a new domestic energy storage system, using Samsung’s SDI lithium cells. The two companies are hoping for first year sales of 10,000 units.

NEC, Orix and Epco Corp. have set their sights much higher. Their joint venture is aiming for 30,000-50,000 Japanese homes to adopt its residential energy storage system in the first year of sales, with 100,000 more homes every year after that.

Toshiba has also got involved – and is offering the 6.6kW eneGoon battery back up system, which integrates the company’s own SCiB cells.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s not surprising. Despite uncertainty over the future of its proposals, Germany has voiced a similar compromise to domestic subsidies and FITs.

And as in Germany, the commitment to energy storage makes a lot of sense. For example, Japan has a burgeoning domestic solar market. Not only that, but both Toshiba and Kandenko have announced investments in large solar plants only this week.

Yuasa faces new battery problems

It’s been widely reported that lithium-ion car batteries produced by GS Yuasa, the same Japanese company that supplies batteries for the grounded Boeing 787 jetliner fleet, have overheated in the last few days.

The problems this time are with lithium-ion batteries used in Mitsubishi’s iMiEV electric vehicle. The company revealed that two such units had caught fire on the assembly line during testing.

No one was hurt in the incident, that took place on 12 March this year, but it has knocked a sizable chunk off of Yuasa’s share price. Marc Birtel, a Boeing spokesman, has stated that test flights aimed at restoring grounded 787s to service will not be affected by this new issue, the company having been assured that “the battery in question is fundamentally different from the 787 battery both in its construction processes, design and chemistry.”

ITM Power sells factory to Japan

UK-based ITM Power produces equipment for the production and storage of hydrogen, mainly for use in the fuel cell market. The company has just announced that it has sold a plant based on its HPac platform to an as-yet unnamed company in Japan.

This is ITM’s first factory sale in Japan, leading Dr. Graham Cooley, ITM Power’s chief executive, to comment: “Japan is an important territory for ITM Power as it is seriously committed to the adoption of hydrogen as a transport fuel. We will be engaging more significantly with Japanese markets in 2013.”

Toyota stores power with old batteries

We’ve already heard of electric vehicle manufacturers suggesting the use of their old batteries in domestic and other immovable energy storage solutions. It has been mooted as a way of keeping down the (rather large) total cost of ownership, and makes a lot of sense when sub-optimal batteries designed for cars will still have plenty of capacity left for other uses. Now Toyota has taken the idea and run with it.

Starting in April this year it will sell an electricity management system that uses recycled nickel-metal hydride batteries from hybrid vehicles to Toyota vehicle dealers throughout Japan. The units will weigh nearly one metric tonne and have a 10kWh capacity.

The car giant claims that it will allow the dealerships who use it to halve their spend on electricity and that the systems will be usable in conjunction in a whole host of applications, including building energy management systems, solar carports, solar power generation and LED lighting.