Interview: Kees van de Kerk, president, Flow Batteries Europe

BY BEN COOK:

  • Only 7% of world’s flow battery projects are in Europe
  • New flow batteries association launched to promote the technology
  • Flow batteries mitigate renewable energy unpredictability at ‘low cost’
  • Europe may be overlooking the benefits of flow batteries.

In the opinion of Kees van de Kerk, president of the newly established industry association Flow Batteries Europe (FBE), flow batteries enable you to mitigate the risk of unpredictability in renewable energy sources at the lowest cost.

Yet despite this, less than one in ten of the world’s flow batteries – rechargeable batteries in which electrolyte flows through one or more electrochemical cells from one or more tanks – are installed in Europe.

However, in an effort to raise the profile, and increase the deployment, of flow batteries, a group of industry players, research centres and start-ups established the FBE last month.

Energy Storage Report spoke to Van de Kerk about the benefits of flow batteries in comparison to alternatives, the need for a strong regulatory framework to boost investment in the technology, and the battle with “vested interests” to increase the uptake of energy storage.

Why was Flow Batteries Europe established? What need is it meeting?

Flow Batteries Europe (FBE) is an international not-for-profit association aimed at accelerating decarbonisation in Europe, and globally, by increasing the deployment of energy storage and flexibility solutions through flow battery technology. To accelerate decarbonisation we need to speed up the deployment of energy storage and flexibility solutions through battery applications with higher energy content. To achieve this, the FBE will engage and promote flow batteries with European and other relevant organisations.

Why is it important to develop a long-term strategy for the flow battery sector?

The only way to achieve decarbonisation goals and increase the use of renewable, and mostly intermittent, energy production is growing available energy storage capacity. The most frequently deployed battery technologies – which were designed mainly for mobile applications – are not able to serve some stationary applications without degrading very fast. These applications – so called high-cycle applications – are becoming more and more important and need to charge and discharge very often. Flow batteries provide an excellent solution with often the lowest overall ‘levelised costs of storage’. So flow batteries are the perfect solution for mitigating the risk of unpredictability in renewable energy sources at the lowest cost.

In what way do you want to shape the legal framework for flow batteries at the EU level?

For storage to realise its full potential, a robust regulatory framework is needed in order to provide investment security. In the European Union, the role energy storage plays in EU power markets is not yet formally recognised in a way that reflects the unique position of storage in the electricity market, that is as a generator and a consumer. In addition, every country has its own regulations which makes it a complex issue. By joining forces, the FBE members (including commercial flow battery companies, universities, R&D and supply chain partners) will have a stronger voice in Brussels.

What do you see as the R&D priorities for flow batteries and why?

The technology is still developing in terms of system design, efficiency and electrolyte applications. To increase stack and system efficiency, specific materials like membranes, felts and electrodes need to be improved. Furthermore, the technology needs to be scaled to achieve competitive cost levels.

Between 2010 and 2019, only 7% of the world’s flow battery projects were installed in Europe, with much more R&D and commercial support taking place in North America and Asia. Forming FBE is a great opportunity to ensure that Europe takes full advantage of this exciting, safe and efficient battery energy storage technology.

What are the major barriers to the increased deployment of energy storage?

There are vested interests that are limiting the speed of integration of energy storage both behind and after the meter. There is also a general lack of knowledge regarding different storage solutions and opportunities among some policy makers. In addition, as can be expected with emerging technologies, regulatory policy is lagging behind energy storage technology. Meanwhile, politicians still struggle with the definition of energy storage. There are multiple barriers, while coal and other fossil fuels are still a dominant fuel source in most counties because of their abundance, which makes them cheap and accessible. In that sense, a far higher tax on CO2 emissions in combination with the scrapping of all fossil fuel subsidies would be helpful.

For flow batteries, there are still some specific barriers such as the relatively small size of most companies, the limited number of batteries in the field, and the lack of standards and certifications which can lead to hurdles facing storage projects.

What are the main benefits of flow batteries?

Flow batteries offer significant benefits in long-duration usage applications and situations that require regular cycling throughout the day. Flow batteries may provide unrivalled cost certainty versus other emerging storage technologies on the market. Though flow batteries currently represent a higher upfront capital investment than a similar-sized lithium-ion configuration, they become more competitive when evaluated on a total cost of ownership basis over a 20 to 30-year lifecycle. The typical advantages of flow batteries include 15,000-20,000 plus battery cycles, little or no loss of storage capacity, and ramp rates ranging from milliseconds for discharge if pumps are running, to a few seconds if pumps are not.

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