The storage wars cometh

Electricity has hosted some of the biggest technology rivalries in modern history: Edison and direct current vs Tesla and alternating current, Gates and Microsoft vs Jobs and Apple. Now the stage is set for the latest duel between bitter rivals: Yu and hydrogen versus Musk and lithium ion.

Who is Yu? We’ll get to that in a moment. Rivalries feed off big egos, and they don’t come much bigger than Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and a smart, driven and successful entrepreneur. Musk is a ferocious advocate of lithium ion as the best way to store electricity. He uses Li-ion in his expanding fleet of passenger cars and in his household Powerwall storage devices.

Musk thinks lithium ion is the future of electricity storage and hydrogen is rubbish. He has publicly mocked hydrogen fuel cells as “dumb” on Twitter after rival Nikola Motors put them in its developmental zero-emissions trucks and commercial vehicles.

Li-ion uses the chemistry of the rechargeable battery to store energy, while the hydrogen fuel cell uses hydrogen made from electrical energy, in a process which reverses the process of electrolysis, combining hydrogen with oxygen to create water and electricity.

Musk argues that fuel cells will never be as efficient as storing electricity in a chemical battery. Yet the value of hydrogen stocks like Nikola Motors, Ballard Power Plug Power and Bloom energy have gone ballistic this year as the world has gone crazy for hydrogen. The technology is the subject of multi-billion dollar government programs around the world. This includes vehicles, stationary energy, transport and storage.

Hydrogen was cast as the star of the Federal Government’s Low Emissions Technology Roadmap released last month.

Now Australian based hydrogen storage technology company Lavo Hydrogen Technology is looking to take on Tesla’s Powerwall with its own hydrogen fuelled alternative. The UNSW based technology company is about to launch its new home hydrogen storage technology next month which will store three times more energy and cost three times more than the Tesla Powerwall.

The Lavo system is designed to be hooked up to one of Australia’s 2.5 million rooftop solar PV systems which will create the hydrogen stored in its cells. This will be used to power the fuel cell technology which can produce up to 40KWh at a maximum output of 5KW for 20,o00 cycles. The total unit weighs around 324 kilos.

At AUD$35,000 that’s three times the cost of an $11,000 Tesla Powerwall, which has a maximum output of 7KW with a total output of 14MWh, curiously about a third less of the energy stored.

Importantly, the hydrogen battery is much heavier than Li-ion, but then it doesn’t need to move around. And if the hydrogen battery was cycled 500 times a year it would still last 40 years. The Powerwall warranty lasts for only 3200 cycles. That difference in durability, if accurate, could make a big difference.

Yu is Alan Yu, the Chief Executive of Lavo, who hopes to sell 10,000 units a year by 2022. The Clean Energy Regulator reports that 27,o00 household batteries have been sold in Australia since 2014, with the market peaking at around 8000 units in 2019. 2020 sales have slowed, possibly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Household electricity storage seems an unlikely place for the next consumer product war. But then personal computers probably seemed a similar crazy battleground in the 1970s.