In Sandy Lake, Ontario (population 2,650), the diesel fuel that powers this remote community a thousand miles northwest of Toronto costs around $9 a gallon. And even then, in its harsh northern climate, it provides electricity only some of the time.
"There's always problems, there's always power outages," grumbles Harry Meekis, capital projects manager for the Sandy Lake First Nation. "Diesel is the only source of service that we have right now. Whether that's affordable or not, that's the only source we have," he added.
Needless to say, they're looking for alternatives, and a Canadian mining company thinks it has found one in a new battery using the little-known metal vanadium.
Without any feasible storage options, renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels can generate power only when the wind blows and the sun shines. With storage, the power could be stored and distributed whenever needed, one of the reasons storage technology is being described as the "holy grail" in renewable energy.
Multiple battery technologies are being experimented with right now, including lithium and cadmium flow batteries, but Vancouver, British Columbia-based American Vanadium thinks vanadium flow batteries could have several distinct advantages, including durability and scalability.
The battery relies on an electrolyte compound made of a mixture of vanadium, a metal commonly used to harden steel, and sulfuric acid in a container that can continuously charge and discharge. Unlike most batteries, the electrolyte would not degrade over time because the anode and cathode aren't made out of competing material. And, since it's mostly made of water, it's nontoxic and can't explode, according to Ron MacDonald, executive chairman of American Vanadium.
Mining tomorrow, revenue today
American Vanadium has taken a two-pronged approach to bringing vanadium batteries to market. The company has bought the rights to a mountainside in central Nevada that's home to a uniquely pure vanadium deposit. It hopes to create an open-pit mine to extract the metal in about 18 months, once it has finished the permitting process with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The site, known as Gibellini Hill, contains vanadium deposits at 99.995 percent purity, according to MacDonald.
"Which means it's up to purity that we can put into battery market," he said. "The deposit is unique. Metallurgists are saying there's nothing else really with it."
American Vanadium's mine may not be operational for two years, but the company still hopes to start selling vanadium flow batteries soon. It has secured an offshore supply of electrolyte and recently signed a sales agreement with Austrian energy company Gildemeister for exclusive use of the company's CellCube technology, a scalable energy storage system.
Gildemeister is already selling CellCubes across Europe and Asia, with the battery storing energy in towns from Germany to Siberia to Saudi Arabia. This durability in a variety of climates was attractive to American Vanadium board members.
"Gildemeister has over 100 [CellCube] installations, and over 40 significant ones," said MacDonald. "They've really built it well, and they've built it for these climates."
American Vanadium has been marketing the battery to companies in New York looking for safe microgrid storage solutions after Superstorm Sandy, and recently had as many as eight quotes for batteries in the city, thought it's unclear how many are still on the table.
In the meantime, the company is forging ahead with another test run with big fiscal implications in its own country.
Courting remote communities
Earlier this summer, American Vanadium announced an initiative to put vanadium flow batteries in remote northern Canadian communities. Partnering with Robert Nault, who served as Canada's minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development from 1999 to 2003, it hopes to reach an agreement with one or more communities to test batteries there, using the battery to store renewable energy, most likely solar power, replacing the expensive diesel fuel that remote communities have long relied on for electricity.
"The cost of living is very high and food costs are high" in these communities, Nault said. "It's much more difficult to maintain a higher-quality standard of living."
Sandy Lake, near the Manitoba border, is one such community. For decades, the cheapest way for residents to get their diesel was to truck in an entire year's supply over the ice road that forms for about four to six weeks in the winter, a process that more than doubles the cost, hiking it up to around 2.40 Canadian dollars ($2.33) a liter.
This cost is often levied on the Canadian taxpayer, since the federal and provincial government are obligated to provide every Canadian with electricity. There are 78 communities in Ontario alone fully on diesel power, according to MacDonald, and these communities require on average CA$87 million a year from the federal and provincial government to subsidize their fuel costs.
What's more, the fuel is dirty and environmentally damaging, and does not perform optimally in the harsh environments of northern Canada, where temperatures can hover between minus 30 and minus 40 degrees Celsius for months. And with Native populations exploding in Canada -- growing at 5 percent a year, twice the Canadian average -- a reliable energy supply is more important than ever.
"Diesel not considered a clean energy; it is a dirty energy, and we're trying to get away from that as much as we can," said Nault.
Diesel has been known to leak into the ice and surrounding environment in transit, he said, which is one of many issues the fuel poses. The frigid climate also causes frequent brownouts in diesel-fueled northern communities.
"Some of the problems they have with diesel generation in the north is it's not reliable," he said, adding that the on-and-off problems with the power are not very compatible with modern appliances. "TV's don't last as long, microwave ovens, conventional stoves, all those things wear out quicker."
In Sandy Lake, community officials are ready to hear about any alternatives to diesel, including vanadium flow batteries. "That would be something that the First Nation would consider," said Meekis. "Actually, that's a really good solution to a community such as ours."
'Wide open' landscape for innovation
Matthew Mench, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who specializes in energy conversion and storage, has spent the past four years refining the vanadium redox flow battery. He said it still isn't near commercial scale yet.
"Vanadium itself is pretty costly, relatively, compared to other technologies," he said. "That would have a large impact on the ability to integrate vanadium redox flow batteries into the grids."
Mench described energy storage as "a very hot area right now." Researchers are also looking into making flow batteries using lithium, cadmium and nickel, which are cheaper materials but would wear down faster in a battery, according to Mench.
"We really don't know what the winner's going to be yet," he said. "The landscape is wide open right now."
Still, it appears cost could be the only thing holding vanadium batteries back. The battery is easy to repair if damaged. To scale it up, more power can be achieved by making the electrolyte tank bigger.
First Nations and other remote communities in northern Canada may be harder to convince, however. MacDonald said the company was hoping to have batteries installed in five communities by the end of next year.
"There's a long way to go to articulate the technology and how it works," said Nault. "They are going to have to do their own due diligence on this, and that is going to be a longer process."
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