RedFlow demo system installed in Florida

Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) is hoping to revolutionize solar energy, starting with a single battery.

That battery, purchased for $30,000 from an Australian company, captures energy created by solar panels and saves it for a cloudy day. Using state funds, FGCU started testing the battery this month to see if it can make solar energy reliable enough to power entire cities.

Solar energy is cheaper and cleaner than fossil fuel or nuclear energy, but it produces only when it’s sunny, said Joseph Simmons, chair of the renewable energy program at FGCU. Therefore, solar panels must be connected to a backup energy source. Homes often connect their panels to the Florida Power & Light grid as backup. The problem is, that becomes less feasible when used on a large scale, Simmons said. If solar panels’ power of a whole city went out, the surge of energy that would be sucked from FPL would probably result in blackouts.

The only other option is to build extra fossil fuel plants to supplement the solar energy, which seems counterintuitive, Simmons said.

If this new battery is successful, it might make solar energy practical enough to power everything.

“The value of the energy is enhanced if its reliability can be guaranteed,” said Steven Hickey, who came to FGCU from Australia this month to install the battery.

Hickey is head of battery testing for Redflow, a company pioneering a new type of energy storage. The concept of using a battery to store solar energy isn’t new — but the way Redflow does it is, he said.

Miguel Castillo, vice president of Solar Power Contracting in Fort Myers, said most people who choose solar power for their homes use the FPL grid as backup.

“The batteries give you a lot of maintenance,” Castillo said. “It hasn’t been perfected yet.”

Hickey’s goal is to do that. The 2-foot by 1-foot battery installed outside of Holmes Hall in FGCU is cheaper, longer-lasting and more efficient than traditional batteries, he said.

Traditionally, lead acid batteries are used with solar energy. They generate power through a reaction that causes their electrodes to gain and lose electrons. This process is taxing on the electrodes, making them wear out quickly. The new Redflow batteries’ electrodes are left intact because the reaction is instead powered by an electrolyte solution.

Also, a lead battery’s charge cannot be fully diminished without harming the battery. A Redflow battery can be drained completely repeatedly with no harm done.

It would take 24 lead acid batteries to equal the output of one Redflow battery, Hickey said. His batteries are under warranty for about three years. Energy produced by Redflow batteries is also about one-eighth as expensive as energy produced by a lead acid battery, Hickey said.

Eventually, a battery and accompanying equipment to power a typical home should be sold for $10,000, Simmons said. Until then, the battery (one of only eight in the U.S.), will undergo tests at FGCU. The battery is hooked up to solar panels that power between 5 and 10 percent of Holmes Hall.

Up next on FGCU’s list of experiments is compressed air energy storage. Instead of using a battery to store solar energy, this method uses the energy to compress air in a large tank. When the sun goes down, the air is let out through a turbine to power a home.

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