Matt M. Casey 2016-04-20 18:39:56
When the sun sets on Port au Prince, Haiti, lights blink on at the Champ de Mars Plaza. The glow, powered by a lithium-ion battery bank from Saft, stands like an oasis on an island ravaged by natural disaster and poverty. Inside the plaza, children play soccer. Locals and visitors take evening walks. More than a few people sit and scroll through their phones; in addition to light, the Saft-powered installation provides Wi-Fi, a valuable commodity in Haiti. Outside of Champ de Mars, pockets of darkness settle between glimmers of electric light. Beyond the borders of Port au Prince, much of the island remains dark. “Haiti is a very challenging electricity market,” says Laurent Mahuteau, technical sales and program manager at Saft. “There is about 12 to 25% of the population that has access to electricity.” Which, of course, means 75 to 88% of the population do not have access to electricity. A Challenging Environment When the 2010 earthquake shattered Haiti, toppling buildings and killing hundreds of thousands of residents, the island was already in difficult shape. As a result, even those Haitians who had access to electricity paid a premium for it. On average, Mahuteau says, Haitians paid 25–30 cents per kilowatt-hour in a country where, in 2012, more than half the population lived on $2 per day. By comparison, the average American paid about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2011. Mahuteau says with prices so high and wages so low, most people who do have electricity use it for 10 hours per day or less. In addition, “Their electrical infrastructure is aging very rapidly,” he says. Enter Geninov Group. The Quebec-based engineering company won a competition to install the first photovoltaic power plant for Electricité d'Haïti, the country’s public utility company. The World Bank-funded installation includes about 350 solar panels on the roofs of buildings around the Champ de Mars area. Together, they deliver more than 100 kW of energy, but that power would be less useful without a battery—which is where Saft came in. The panels feed energy to a power conversion system supplied by Princeton Power Systems, which then transfers the bulk of the energy into a Saft Intensium Max 20E energy battery container. When the sun sets, the battery container jumps to life, powering the lights and Wi-Fi connection for two hours each night. Bringing It All In Installing a bank of lithium-ion batteries in a country with crumbling infrastructure sounds like an enormous and challenging task—and it is—but not as enormous or challenging as it might seem. Saft’s Intensium battery banks come pre-installed in 20-foot shipping containers. Mahuteau notes that some of his company’s competitors use 40-foot containers, which allow room for more batteries and related systems. Saft chose the 20-foot container because it’s more nimble and adaptable to challenging environments. “It’s a fairly small container, and we chose that size for the challenge of getting to very remote sites,” he says. The company has delivered similar battery containers to power utilities in Hawaii and train yards in Pennsylvania. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority installed an Intensium Max 20P container to capture and store the kinetic energy of braking trains. In Hawaii, the Hawaii Electric Light Company used an Intensium Max 20E container to store and release power generated by solar panels—an application and environment not dissimilar to the Champ de Mars project. Regardless of the environment, technicians onsite need only place the container on stable ground and connect it to the power conversion system. The real work happens well before the install date. In the case of the Champ de Mars project, a truck driver picked up the Intensium container at a Haitian shipyard. The shipyard took the container from a ship. The ship took the battery container from a port in Florida. Saft delivered the Intensium container to the port after assembling and testing the box’s components in Jacksonville, at the company’s flagship facility. Assembling and testing the container is a big task. The Intensium unit isn’t a single, giant battery. Instead, it holds three separate racks that, together, hold 10 “strings” (or stacks) of 29 battery modules. Each module holds 14 individual battery cells. In total, that’s more than 4,000 individual batteries that have to be properly connected, secured, and tested. Saft’s workers also install cabinets for each individual battery string, flooring for the system’s operators, and external doors that allow onsite technicians easy access to the system’s hardware. The complete package also includes computer systems and software to monitor and manage the container’s power output and a fire-suppression system to ensure worker safety. “I think Saft is very big on safety, and the container we have here includes a fire suppression system,” says Mahuteau. “It’s been fully vetted.” Saft technicians test each of the unit’s components on its own, but they also perform tests to make sure it will work with the project’s other major systems. While the Intensium container didn’t meet the power converter and solar panels involved with the project until it reached Haiti, Mahuteau says Saft already had a strong idea of how the systems would work together. Before Saft’s technicians even began assembling the Intensium unit for the Port au Prince project, the company’s engineers ran what he called “remote integration” tests. In effect, Saft simulated the inputs of the power converter and solar cells as well as how the Intensium would work with those inputs. What This Means for Haiti With the decrepit state of Haiti’s electric infrastructure, it might seem like a market ripe for new installations. Geninvov certainly thinks so. Prior to beginning work on the Champ de Mars project, the company installed solar panels at several other sites. But Mahuteau sees Haiti as a land of updates and upgrades. Many of the residents and business owners who have access to power on the island already have battery banks, he says. However, most of the existing systems use the technological equivalent of car batteries. “There is a fairly big asset or fleet of lead acid batteries,” he adds. In addition to having an energy density less than half of that of lithium-ion batteries, lead acid batteries suffer from a much shorter lifespan—rarely longer than 10 years, according to flywheel provider PowerThru. By comparison, Mahuteau predicts that the Intensium containers can run for 25 years under the right circumstances. His goal in Haiti, he says, is to replace those lead-acid batteries with Saft’s Lithium-ion systems. When more of the island’s energy storage infrastructure has entered the modern era and its power-generation expands, Saft may then shift its focus to new installs. And the Caribbean market? Haiti is not representative of the Caribbean market, Mahuteau says. The island’s physical and economic infrastructure are in unusually bad repair. Other island nations across the region present a much more appealing market for new installations. Electricity represents a particular challenge for island nations, Mahuteau notes. Old-line power plants tend to run on coal, oil, or gas—natural resources that islands tend to lack. Even with oil prices sagging to historic lows, importing the fuel still represents a logistical and financial hardship. Meanwhile, the price of solar and wind installations has continued a downward trend, making them attractive alternatives for countries like Puerto Rico, where Mahuteau says Saft is working on a 10-MW project. Puerto Rico and Caribbean countries with stronger infrastructure will also get greater longevity out of Saft’s Intensium installations. Due to Haiti’s load and discharge profile —charging all day, then discharging for two hours at night—Saft’s simulations predict that the Intensium Max20E container at Champ de Mars will reach the end of its life in about 15 years. “End of life” doesn’t mean that the battery container will no longer function at all, Mahuteau says. He considers an installation at the end of its life when the batteries have reached 60–70% of their original capacity. He expects that his company’s Puerto Rican installation—with its smoother load and discharge profile—will take 25 years to reach this point. In fact, the company feels so confident in this prediction, Mahuteau says, that they’re guaranteeing it. Batteries for All Saft’s role in the Champ de Mars project may burnish the company’s reputation, but it also represents another data point in an important and growing trend: battery-backed renewable energy. Right now, Saft has focused its efforts on the places where electricity is hardest to come by—island nations where importing fuels represents a significant hardship. But other firms have set their sights on more familiar, behind-the-meter markets. As each of these projects and initiatives prove their viability, they strengthen the case for building owners and property managers to reduce their demand on the electric grid. BE Matt M. Casey writes about science and technology.
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