How should we store solar electricity? How about as heat? A Swedish research team is storing solar energy in liquid form, but it is still a way off being commercially available. A competing technology using molten salt is already on the market and shortlisted for a major renewable energy prize. But there is already a much cheaper and already well-proven solution now being used in a brand new context.
Solar photovoltaic power it is increasingly being installed on buildings but a major challenge is that it is difficult to store so that it can be delivered when needed.
Storing solar electricity as heat is useful because the world uses more than twice as much energy in the form of heat as electricity. So for solar power to become ubiquitous, it needs to be delivered as heat more than as electricity – and round the clock.
Liquid solar energy
The solution of researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden is a chemical liquid that can tranport solar energy and then release it as heat whenever it is needed. The research, described in March’s edition of Energy & Environmental Science, describes how the team came up with a way of copying the means by which plants store solar energy – in molecules.
Transforming it into bonds between atoms in a liquid chemical makes it possible to transport it as well as store it.
“The technique means that that we can store the solar energy in chemical bonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” says Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team.
“Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 per cent of the incoming sunlight.”
The research project has come a long way since it began six years ago when the solar energy conversion efficiency was 0.01 per cent and the expensive element ruthenium played a major role in the compound.
Four years later, the system stores 1.1 per cent of the incoming sunlight as latent chemical energy – an improvement of a factor of 100, and ruthenium has been replaced by much cheaper carbon-based elements.
“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” Moth-Poulsen says.
“At the same time, we are demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”
The process is based on the organic compound norbornadiene, which upon exposure to light converts into quadricyclane.
The rooftops of buildings can take advantage of the benefits of installing both solar water heating and photovoltaic modules.
Typical efficiencies for photovoltaic modules are now at least 20 per cent. Solar water heating systems have an efficiency of between 20-80 per cent, depending on the application, location and the required temperature.
Solar water heating systems make use of the full solar spectrum, whereas photovoltaics can only harvest a much more limited proportion.
Some companies have used this difference to design hybrid panels which contain both solar water heating and photovoltaic cells, particularly since the water can be used to stop the photovoltaic panels overheating, making them more efficient. The downside is the expense.
The Swedish researchers think that one of the potential applications for their technology, when it has become more efficient, will be a new generation of hybrid panels that utilise the heat, which can be released from the liquid storage medium.
They say that combining solar water heating with their system allows for efficient usage of low energy photons for solar water heating combined with storage of the high-energy photons in the form of chemical energy.
Their simulations have persuaded them that these hybrid panels could be up to 80 per cent efficient. In terms of energy density they are comparable to a lithium ion battery.
The team will continue work on the technology to evaluate the potential cost and bringing it down by finding a way to mass produce the constituent chemicals, and to find a non-toxic solvent.
More than a pinch of salt
A totally different technology is from Sunamp, a British company that has developed its technology by collaborating with the University of Edinburgh School of Chemistry. It guarantees low-cost materials, exceptional long life, recyclability, safety and high energy density.
The technology has been shortlisted for the 2017 Ashden UK Awards alongside the work of the Passivhaus Trust and the Carbon Co-op, a community benefit society that helps its members to retrofit their homes.
Sunamp’s form of storage uses a salt as a phase change material. This absorbs and releases thermal energy during the process of melting and solidifying respectively.
Similar technology is used on a large scale with concentrating solar thermal power stations, typically located in hot, arid deserts.
In this case it is used for storing energy from photovoltaic panels, waste process heat, or heat from heat pumps and micro CHP (combined heat and power) systems, in order to increase efficiency.
How does it work? In the case of storing solar electrical energy, an electrical element connected to the solar panels heats up the salt, thereby melting it.
The salt is kept liquid in a vacuum-insulated container. When heat is required, cold water is passed through the liquid in a heat exchanger, absorbing the heat and causing the salt to re-solidify. The heated water passes to the tap and the salt is ready to be charged again.
Sunamp’s batteries come in various sizes and can be used in series, meaning they can be used in anything from small homes to large hotels, for example. They take up much less space than a hot water tank, can store heat for longer and are more efficient.
The battery can store heat at half the weight of hot water in a tank storing the same amount of energy. Whether they are cost-effective depends upon the location and pattern of usage.
The easy solution
Tenants moving into a new passive solar mini-housing estate in Wales – Pentre Solar, Glanrhyd, near Cardigan – have roofs covered with grid-connected solar panels and zero energy bills.
Dr Glen Peters, CEO of Western Solar, which is behind the development, has an ambition for his company to supply 1,000 homes and to work with housing associations and local authorities to provide sustainable, solar-powered social housing.
The occupants of the estate have been given a Nissan Leaf electric car to use collectively, charged by the solar panels on the roofs. So that’s one form of storage.
But the homes’ heating is provided in a surprising manner, using the best of old technology with new: solar electricity and storage heaters.
Storage heaters contain thermally massive blocks which are heated up by an element. They then release that heat gradually over many subsequent hours.
This form of energy storage was introduced to British homes in the 1960s and ’70s on a special tariff called Economy 7. Since nuclear power stations could not be switched off unlike other forms of electricity generation, these tariffs allowed people to use nuclear electricity at night – at a lower rate when national demand was low – to charge the storage heaters.
The problem was that by the time the heat was needed, the following evening, they were often too cool and many people subsequently removed them and installed central heating instead.
Here, the idea is to let the storage heaters be heated up during the day by the solar panels on the roof, meaning that they are able to provide adequate heating through the evening and night provided that there has been average sunshine (50% of a June summer day) during the day.
This may not be the case in the depths of winter and so the homes are also grid-connected. They export surplus energy when there is some – after the electric car and storage heaters have been topped up – and purchase it when not enough has been generated.
“Storage heaters are incredibly cheap,” says Glen, “and a well proven technology. Whereas the storage we had to start with in our prototype house – lithium ion batteries – were designated a fire risk and we had them taken out. They are also much more expensive – a couple of hundred rather than thousands of pounds.”
This sounds like a solar energy storage solution that deserves far wider application. Good luck to the other technologies, but if I was looking for energy storage for a house, I know which I would choose.