The evolution of the other solar market | RenewEconomy

The evolution of the other solar market

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A camping trip highlights why the age of the solar-boosted lithium-ion battery has arrived.

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Solar Business Services



So, you finally have your dream campervan.

After decades of planning, you’re finally on the road. It’s jammed to ceiling with superfluous junk, the kids are whipping up road-trip funk to be feared and you have your fridge, water and solar systems installed. You are living the dream and your simple task is to drive tens of thousands of kilometres and keep everything running perfectly in the most remote country in the world.

Don’t tell her how nervous you are, just smile.

This was my reality just a few years ago and I learned some valuable lessons about “that other solar market” – mobility.

The mobility market includes campervans, caravans, boats and some industrial applications and is a subset of the wider remote generation market. For years it has been a small but stable opportunity that has grown steadily as solar prices have fallen, fuel costs have risen and technology has helped create better solutions. Over the years I’ve helped design and install many systems and worked with hundreds of businesses who are involved.

The evolution of this other market just keeps on happening.

On our trip of a “mobility” lifetime a few years ago, the inevitable happened; our battery failed. We have a pretty good little set up; solar laminates embedded into the pop-top roof, a backup mains charger, an intelligent alternator charger and a dedicated second battery.

However, as the relentless top end heat and our consumption increased on our holiday, the fridge energy use increased dramatically, pounding our poor little battery into submission. It took me a little while to understand and confirm what had happened and even longer to justify my alleged expertise and preparation to my frustrated family.

Replacing the battery was easy enough but the real solution was adding more capacity. Problem was, I had nowhere to fit a larger battery due to the essentials of life such as large bags of knitting, an entire library of books and ToyWorld’s entire catalogue. We battled through.

The other day I was chatting to someone who has been specialising in mobility and remote generation for almost 20 years. Chris McClellan from Enderdrive tolerates me nagging him because he’s intrigued by my electric motorcycle, but that’s another story.

What I learned from Chris was that Lithium batteries are already changing his world. It’s real now.

Chris was at pains to point out that on his assessment, the most obvious and beneficial market to use Lithium batteries first, is where the weight and energy density are most valued; in mobility. Over the last few years Enerdrive have designed, developed and constructed a uniquely Australian solution using Lithium batteries and that’s where they have focused.

They tell me they spent a lot of time looking for the right chemistry; (there are around 30 different Lithium based chemistries in the market) and ultimately settled on Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) as offering the best combination of cycle life, safety, price and performance.

The second was the crucial safety and management controls needed. “Lithium batteries behave completely differently to lead acid, and we have dedicated years to designing controls systems that really work, and cell management systems that maximise life and ensure they are safe.”

Lead acid batteries can be dangerous because they contain corrosive acid and emit explosive gas. Lithium batteries don’t have these issues but can catch fire if you don’t have a really intelligent and robust Battery Management System (BMS). Chris’ team developed a BMS in conjunction with their suppliers that have built in redundancy, various protection modes and constant monitoring.

“This is the hardest part of the whole equation and where our experience in remote generation was invaluable. You can get cheap Lithium cells but the BMS has to be of outstanding quality, chemistry matched and reliable. We had to develop this in house to get it right”

Had this battery been available on my infamous trip, I could have added at least 25% more capacity in the same space but the trick is I could also double the discharge level, so I actually have more like 50% more available capacity and, it’s around 20% lighter for the same capacity. In a motorhome, boat or portable application that’s adds big value and frankly, my beer would have been colder, longer.

Couple all this with a far simpler information flow, more advanced controls and you start to understand why Lithium has indeed arrived.

Source: Solar Business Services. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. Miles Harding 7 years ago

    Hi Nigel,

    I am surprised that caravanners are so slow to ditch lead acid, Particularly when lithium, like these:
    are available and about the same price as top-end ‘yuppy’ lead acid batteries that WILL let you down after only a few deep cycles to flat. Why would anybody buy them these days?

    Now for the second act…
    The solar fridge is one thing, but kicking the petrol habit for the entire trip is the real challenge for the future. In the world of ‘Mad Max’, the one the ‘Mad Monk’ is guiding us towards, this will be only way to see the countryside.

  2. Miles Harding 7 years ago

    Hi Nigel,

    I am surprised that caravanners have taken so long to ditch their lead acids, particularly when there are products like this:
    It costs less than high end ‘yuppy’ lead acid batteries that WILL let you down after only a few full discharge cycles.

    I do think that the “Enerdrive” system you link to is unnecessarily complicated. and most of its safeguards are not necessary on 12 volt LiFePO4 systems. The above battery is sold as a drop-in replacement for sealed lead acid types. All I would suggest that only a low voltage cut and good charge regulation are all that is needed.

    See here for an example:

  3. Pedro 7 years ago

    I visited EV works and checked out the lithium batteries they use in their EV car conversions. Very impressive. A 1000Ahr cell weighed about 30kg and easily half the volume, with discharge and recharge characteristics that are phenominal. It begs the question why hasn’t the off grid market cottoned on. As Nigel would know lugging a 1000Ahr lithium battery is way better than lugging a 1000Ahr lead acid battery up a goat track.

  4. Motorshack 7 years ago

    I can only laugh reading stuff like this.

    I once spent seven years living in various vehicles – that is the genesis of the name Motorshack, by the way – and I can’t see the point of any of this. The essentials of decent shelter are a warm, dry bed and some place to safely store a meal or two for a few hours. For the latter, a ten-dollar plastic picnic cooler will do fine, and it will never break down. For entertainment there is the car radio, and the existing dome light for reading in bed. On the rare occasions that the battery gets low, the solution is to start the car and let it idle for ten minutes. In seven years I don’t think it happened three times. These days you could add an IPod and a Kindle, which, of course, have their own internal batteries that can be charged from the cigarette lighter.

    And then there is the money.

    Even a minimal land yacht will set you back $30K to $40K, and the average wage-slave cannot swing that without a bank loan, so add in enough interest to double the effective purchase price over three to five years – during which time you will be too busy being an indentured servant of the bank to go traveling more than two or three weeks a year.

    And when you do get on the road, the kids will have their noses glued to the screens of their game consoles, Mom will be reading a magazine, and Dad will be in a constant panic that something vital will break and turn the whole family into buzzard bait from one second to the next. All at a cost of about a thousand dollars a day.

    Yes, indeed. Really living the dream.

    In contrast, the most expensive vehicle I used was a 1991 Honda Civic that I got for $800, and that routinely went more than 40 miles to the gallon on the highway, and better than 30 around town. The bed frame was $30 worth of plywood and foam rubber, and the cooler, as already noted, was ten bucks. Cash on the barrel head for everything. The bedding I already had. Nothing special there at all.

    Conservatively, I spent well over a thousand nights sleeping in that vehicle, so the cost per night was well under a dollar.

    Strictly speaking the cost of buying and running the car was something I would have done anyway, even if I had been living in conventional housing, so the marginal cost of also sleeping in it was more like five cents a night. Round that to the nearest dollar, and you get an effective cost of zero.

    Last, but hardly least, gold-plated camper vans are precisely the sort of grotesque extravagance that is rapidly destroying the planet on which we all depend, and using over-engineered lithium batteries will not change that fact in the slightest.

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