Death of a Battery

Four 150 A-h 12-V golf-cart batteries

Four golf-cart batteries used in my off-grid home PV system. Each is 12 V, 150 A-h, thus 1.8 kWh of storage.

All the metrics looked great. The 2.7-year-old lead acid batteries in my off-grid photovoltaic system appeared to have settled into a consistent mid-life performance. Monthly maintenance (equalizing, adding distilled water) promised to keep the batteries in prime condition for some time to come. Based on cycle depth, I expected another 2.5 years out of the present set of batteries. Life was good.

Then, during my absence over the course of Thanksgiving weekend, one of the batteries expired. No forewarning. Just gave up. A previous post expressed an overall disappointment in batteries, now reinforced by this sudden nosedive.

In this post, I’ll show the metrics on my system detailing the demise of “Battery E.” The gruesome graphics are intended for mature audiences.

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Blow-by-Blow PV System Efficiency: A Case Study for Storage

A short while back, I described my standalone (off-grid) urban photovoltaic (PV) energy system. At the time, I promised a follow-up piece evaluating the realized efficiency of the system. What was I thinking? The resulting analysis is a lot of work! But it was good for me, and hopefully it will be useful to some of you lot as well. I’ll go ahead and give you the final answer: 62%. So you could peel away now and risk using this number out of context, or you could come with me into the rabbit hole…

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Battery Performance Deficit Disorder

Batteries fail—as certainly as death and taxes. Rechargeable batteries at least offer the possibility of repeating the cycle, so are in this sense more like recurrent taxes than death. But alas, the story cannot repeat indefinitely. One cheerful thought after the other, yes?  But wait, there’s more… Add to their inevitable demise an overall lackluster performance in battery storage technology, and we have ourselves the makings of a blog post on the failure of batteries to live up to their promises.

To set the stage, the specific energy of gasoline—measured in kWh per kg, for instance—is about 400 times higher than that of a lead-acid battery, and about 200 times better than the Lithium-ion battery in the Chevrolet Volt. We should not expect batteries to rival the energy density delivered by our beloved fossil fuels—ever.

A recent article in APS News reported on an emerging view that batteries are failing to live up to our dreams in the electric car realm:

Despite their many potential advantages, all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future. This was the perhaps reluctant consensus at a recent symposium focused on battery research.

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A Solar-Powered Car?

If you like the sun, and you like cars, then I’m guessing you’d love to have a solar-powered car, right? This trick works well for chocolate and peanut butter, but not so well for garlic bread and strawberries. So how compatible are cars with solar energy? Do we relish the combination or spit it out? Let’s throw the two together, mix with math, and see what happens.

What Are Our Options?

Short of some solar-to-liquid-fuel breakthrough—which I dearly hope can be realized, and described near the end of a recent post—we’re talking electric cars here. This is great, since electric drive trains can be marvelously efficient (ballpark 85–90%), and immediately permit the clever scheme of regenerative braking.

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Got Storage? How Hard Can it Be?

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The recent city-wide power outage in San Diego made me appreciate my small off-grid photovoltaic system using four golf-cart batteries to store energy for use at night. Unlike most San Diegans, I did not immediately eat the ice cream in my freezer, which trucked along under stored solar energy just like it does every night. Energy storage becomes more important as we transition away from fossil fuels—already its own energy storage medium—to more intermittent sources. But besides batteries—which offer a limited number of cycles and for some types require monthly maintenance—what other non-fossil in-home energy storage alternatives might we consider, and how much energy might we expect to store in each case? We will look at gravitational storage, flywheels, compressed air, and hydrogen fuel cells as possible options. Some might even cost less than $100,000 to implement in your home.

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A Nation-Sized Battery

As we look to transition away from fossil fuels, solar and wind are attractive options. Key factors making them compelling are: the inexhaustibility of the source with use (i.e., renewable); their low carbon footprint; and the independence that small-scale distribution can foster (I’ll never put a nuclear plant on my roof, even if it would make me the coolest physicist ever!).

lovely future of solar, wind, and honking-big battery

With full-scale solar in the desert southwest, and wind in the plains states, we're going to need a big battery (items not to scale!).

But solar and wind suffer a serious problem in that they are not always available. There are windless days, there are sunless nights, and worst of all, there are windless nights. Obviously, this calls for energy storage, allowing us to collect the energy when we can, and use it when we want.

Small-scale off-grid solar and wind installations have been doing this for a long time, typically using lead-acid batteries as the storage medium. I myself have four golf-cart batteries in my garage storing the energy from eight 130 W solar panels, and use these to power the majority of my electricity consumption at home.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate this fact. Compare this scheme to the dream source of fusion. Why do people go ga-ga over fusion? Because there is enough deuterium in water (sea water is fine) to provide a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy, and there are no atmospheric emissions in the process. Meanwhile, solar provides a source that will last longer (billions of years), produces even less pollution (no radioactive contamination of containment vessel), and is here today! It’s even affordable enough and low-tech enough to be on my roof and in my garage! People—we have arrived!

Storage works on the small scale, as many stand-aloners can attest. How would it scale up? Can it? Continue reading

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