Powering the future - breaking down barriers to renewable energy

3rd May 2017
Lanna Cooper
Powervault offers a product that can overcome a substantial barrier to the adoption of renewable energy for home power generation. However, delve a little deeper, and you soon realise that the technology also has the potential to completely disrupt the national power generation and distribution sector; as Breakthrough Funding discovered.

Powervault was formed by London-based SVDP (Sustainable Venture Development Partners), an organisation that drives the creation and growth of businesses with the potential to generate revenue through low energy or low carbon solutions. In less than six years, SVDP has built up an impressive track record. It has formed 15 businesses that have collectively raised over £250m of equity investment. It is also credited with taking the first crowdfunded business to exit, when SVDP-backed business, E-Car Club, was sold to Europcar in 2015. 

Powervault exists because renewable energy sources are necessary to decarbonise energy systems and to provide a long-term, sustainable, way to meet energy needs.

Traditionally, the downside to solar, wind and other renewable sources is that they are intermittent. To offer a viable alternative, the energy they create needs to be stored, so it is available whenever it is required. No matter how well-convinced consumers are of the merits of renewable energy, they won't adopt it if they can't boil a kettle after dark when it isn’t windy!

This intermittency problem has been one of the biggest barriers to renewable energy in the past; how do we access this new form of energy at any time of the day or night?

The obvious solution is battery technology. That’s not a new idea. But the technology, and also its price, have meant that battery technology was not viable. Historically it hasn’t been effective or efficient enough, and the price has been prohibitive where mainstream use is concerned.

So there is a need to make batteries work. Recognising this, globally there has been an enormous amount of investment, research and innovation in battery technology. As a result, we are now at a stage where the storage of energy, renewable energy, is starting to make real commercial sense. Powervault’s vision and direction come from the organisation’s Managing Director, Joe Warren. Before joining Powervault in 2014, Joe amassed more than ten years experience in the smart grid sector where he developed a passion for working in startups and bringing smart grid technologies to market.

Fundamentally, the Powervault is a battery based storage solution. It's roughly the size of a small kitchen appliance and, once connected by a qualified electrician, it can capture and store excess energy produced by the property’s energy generation equipment.

Control technology built into the Powervault tracks power consumption. If you are exporting energy - using less of the renewable energy than you are creating - then the excess is diverted to the batteries until they are fully charged. If, however, it detects that you start importing energy from the grid, then the control technology will start discharging power from the batteries into the home.

The current state of the technology in use today means that, typically, the excess energy stored during the day should cover most of the home's requirements through the overnight period, when renewable power is not being generated.

However, the power output is capped where hi-power items like tumble dryers are concerned, so the stored power is not consumed too quickly. When these devices are used their power is supplied in part by the Powervault and in part by the grid. This management of the energy drawn from the Powervault system is driven by the technology,  its capability and the associated costs; the current price of the higher power batteries and inverters, those needed to cover everything, would not merit the energy savings that would be made as a result.

However, with the pace of technology development, particularly around batteries, it won’t be long before that requirement changes.

Powervault offers the homeowner other benefits. Backup supply is an example. If there is a power outage on the grid supply, the Powervault will still be able to provide energy to power the property's essential equipment. If required the batteries can also be charged from the grid, storing energy during periods when the tariff is lower such as Economy 7, for use when the cost of grid supplied energy would be higher.


Smartening up the grid
These features alone make the Powervault a compelling product. But it's when you look a little deeper that you can see the wider opportunities. The potential created by the control technology and connectivity comes into play when you join the units together via a network, linking them up so they can talk to control centres, each other and the grid.

It is in this area where Joe’s experience comes to bear; where his vision is taking the Powervault to a new level and giving the business a valuable competitive advantage in a sector that is becoming increasingly competitive. The project is being developed as a piece of smart technology; to be an essential part of the smart home of the not too distant future.

Using a connection to the Powervault head office, individual units installed in user’s homes can be updated, automatically, with new software and firmware. It is also possible for the unit to be monitored, and any emerging issues can be addressed proactively rather than after a failure. The master control system can even adapt the individual unit's controls  based on real time information. If for example, the weather forecast suggests thick cloud cover the next day, the control centre could adjust a homeowner's Powervault system to store lower cost energy overnight, to minimise the lost advantage from the impending poor weather. Beyond the benefits created by this direct connectivity, when you connect the Powervault units to each other, across a grid, then a new set of benefits open up.

The first can help meet peak demand. For example, at halftime during a big televised football match, when everyone watching puts their kettle on there will be a spike in demand. The energy companies need to manage that by supplying more energy very quickly. Currently, this is achieved using costly hydro-electric or diesel generators. But, if there were a network of batteries, located across the country, all connected to the grid, it would be possible to draw on that reserve instead.

Further, the requirement to maintain a steady 50-hertz frequency across the grid is tricky to manage. However, with sensitive batteries in the system, it would be possible to continuously monitor the frequency, providing feedback and even absorbing some of that frequency.

And of course, Powervault units connected to each other—even across the current grid —could share or trade energy between each other. With the trend towards localisation popping up in an increasing number of sectors, will we one day see a model where each property, or cluster of properties has a dedicated energy generation, storage and distribution system? Will a ‘grid’ even be needed in a few decades time?

For the time being this new technology and the direction it is heading is not a terminal threat to the grid operators. Indeed it offers them several benefits, and isolating the grid providers would remove the platform needed to develop the technology stopping it in its tracks. So for the time being, this exciting new technology will be working in partnership with the current providers and their infrastructure. But it is clear that what we are used to today will change at some stage in the future—it’s just a question of when.

Powervault has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.

For more information, click here.

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