The future of: renewable energy storage

We speak to Dr Jonathan Knott form ISEM about renewable energy storage

“The Future Of…” series asks a variety of UOW experts and researchers the same five questions, to provide insight into the potential future states of our lives, communities and world.

Dr Jonathan Knott completed his PhD at the University of Wollongong in 2017 and is now an Research fellow for the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials (ISEM). He holds the role of Project Manager for the S4 project, as well as several other key programs.

What are you researching or working on in 2019?

I work at the ISEM on the $10.5 ARENA-funded Smart Sodium Storage System (S4) Project. We’re translating some of the ISEM’s innovative research on next-generation sodium-ion batteries into near-commercial demonstrator products for use in renewable energy storage applications. This project will conclude in early 2020, and in 2019 we’ll be installing our first sodium-ion battery pack in the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre’s Illawarra Flame House here at the Innovation Campus. This pack will be the culmination of a lot of work scaling sodium-ion battery development from the lab bench into pilot-scale production, which we’ve been undertaking with our Industry Partners in the S4 Project.

We’re also hard at work developing an innovative Energy Management System (EMS) that will be installed with a larger sodium-ion battery pack at Sydney Water’s Bondi Sewage Pumping Station, located just behind Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach. This EMS will be the brains of an integrated renewable energy generation and storage system – consisting of solar PV panels installed on the roof of the station and our sodium-ion battery pack. It will help Sydney Water meet their energy resilience needs at this site.

I’m also continuing research I started when undertaking my PhD studies here at UOW, looking at developing and optimising superconducting Fault Current Limiters for use in electricity grid applications. These devices will become increasingly important in helping network operators maintain grid stability as more renewable energy generation resources – such as wind and solar farms – are brought online.

As you can see – I’m all about energy!

What are some of the most innovative or exciting things expected to emerge from your field of expertise over the next few years?

Advances in energy storage technologies – from the fundamental electrochemistry through to innovative ways of applying energy storage in products – have led to an explosion in opportunities and applications. There are thousands of researchers all around the world working on developing materials that can store more energy per kilogram (known as ‘energy density’) and that can charge and discharge at phenomenal rates. Batteries based on these materials – such as lithium-air batteries, sodium-ion batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries and many more – will make storing and consuming renewable energy cheaper and more readily available, which will in turn open up more even more opportunities and applications.

In addition to innovative materials to store renewable energy, there’s also some novel solutions being developed to re-purpose end-of-life electric vehicle batteries for renewable energy storage applications. This is a great example of an innovative solution that – from early results – looks like it will also be a commercial success.

One area where we see huge potential to making a big impact to the renewable energy storage sector is in developing energy management systems to control, monitor and optimise energy generation, storage and consumption within a system. There are currently many providers and seemingly almost as many unique (and largely incompatible) software solutions, which makes it hard for consumers to get a full-picture understanding of how their system is working – and perhaps more importantly, how they are using their energy.

What are some of the things readers should be wary of over the next few years?

It is a very exciting time in energy storage at the moment, it seems every other day there are news articles and touting the next breakthrough. Unfortunately, there is a long road from lab demonstration to commercial product, and it can be tempting to get caught up in the hype of a technology that may be a technical marvel but that falls down in the commercial space.

Another point to keep in mind is that renewable energy storage solutions for residential applications are still only on the cusp of being economically viable in many applications. All batteries have a finite lifespan (usually measured in number of charge/discharge cycles), and in many cases that lifespan is up before it is possible to recover the cost of the battery. This may be perfectly fine for someone looking to be an early adopter of renewable energy storage, or for someone who is interested in taking control of their energy generation and consumption – those looking to save money on their power bills may end up being disappointed. That said, much of the research and development in the energy storage space is either directly targeted to reducing the cost of storage (or has it as an indirect benefit), so in the future the economic benefits of installing energy storage will likely be much more clear-cut and compelling.

Where do opportunities lie for people thinking about a career in this field?

One of the most exciting parts of being in this field is it is so broad, there’s a slice of work that just about anyone can get into. Within the S4 Project we have an array of chemists, material scientists, production engineers, design engineers, power engineering researchers, programmers and many other professions all working together to build a sodium-ion battery solution for renewable energy storage. On any given day these experts will be synthesising novel battery chemistries, writing computer code, developing machine learning control strategies, designing battery architectures, communicating our latest findings with stakeholders and the public, writing scholarly articles – along with many other activities. The one thing that ties everyone on the team together is the desire to translate the fantastic research being undertaken at UOW (and with our partners) into outcomes with real impact on the Australian and international environment and community.

What’s especially motivating is that Australia is at the forefront of many renewable energy technologies – with researchers and industry developing a huge range of energy storage solutions for specific applications and industries. While joining ISEM to undertake PhD studies with one of our internationally-renowned energy materials researchers is one way to kick-start a successful career at the cutting edge of renewable energy materials research and development, there are also significant opportunities for software and mechanical engineers, tradespeople, marketers and many other professions to get involved in developing and commercialising renewable solutions.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer our readers based on your expertise?

There has never been a better time to really think critically about energy usage and how renewable energy generation and storage could be employed to provide resilience, reduce reliance on the grid, and to allow more control over the generation, storage and consumption of energy. From tiny houses up to manufacturing plants, renewable energy generation coupled with storage already has the potential to provide resilience and economic benefits for residential, commercial and industrial energy consumers.

My advice to readers is to consider how renewable energy generation and storage could be implemented in their homes, businesses or communities – and what impact that will have on their lives (and pocketbooks) now and into the future. I would also encourage readers to engage with UOW and ISEM – we love to talk all things energy storage and show people around our amazing facilities out here on the Innovation Campus!

DR JONATHAN KNOTTFor more from Dr Jonathan Knott you can visit his UOW Scholars profile, which links to his papers and publications.

ISEM: For more information about ISEM Visit here

S4 PROJECT: For more information about the S4 Project Visit here