Nick Rosen | |
spotlight on Vanadium

A big wind turbine or array of solar panels is all very well, but you need to store the power you generate, else its wasted. Battery technology has barely advanced in the last century. The base standard is still lead-acid, but that may be about to change.

Although fuel cells will not take off any time soon because companies have not cracked the safe production of hydrogen, a new Vanadium battery has been launched which might change the economics of renewable energy and off-grid living. VRB Power Systems Inc. ( of Vancouver makes large scale power storage units based on “flow” batteries. The technology involves pumping an electrolyte that contains the metal vanadium through a membrane. This causes a chemical reaction that releases electricity, and the flow can be reversed to store power.

Unlike lead acid batteries, flow batteries don’t wear out and the units are “scalable,” so merely adding more units and fluid tanks means they can store more power for longer periods. A unit the size of a refrigerator can hold enough electricity to power a domestic home. One that fills a football-field size building can store the power from a mid-size wind farm.

The company is still tiny and prices are too high for an individual home, though a community might afford one, but analysts are saying this is the year sales will take off. VRB has sold several small-scale systems, including one to the Canadian Government which is assessing it in the hope of ordering many, but the recent completion of a manufacturing plant in Richmond, B.C., and a key deal in Ireland has got the attention of analysts.

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The Irish sales agreement, signed in August, calls for VRB to supply $6.3-million worth of the storage units to the Sorne Hill wind farm near the northern town of Letterkenny. The batteries will store power at night when the wind blows hardest and electricity usage and rates are low. They will deliver power to the grid during the day, when it is needed and the farm can make more money from higher daytime rates.

VRB says a vanadium flow battery is an ideal complement for a diesel generator or a wind turbine in off-grid communities in the North, for example, to help even out peaks and troughs in the electrical load. It has a much lower ecological footprint than lead or Cadmium batteries.

The feasibility of mass production depends on supply of Vanadium, which has a yo-yo price and has slipped recently to around $8 a pound, The ferro-vanadium market is estimated to be around 65,000 tons a year, a fraction of the 1.2 million tons of nickel traded annually and infinitesimal alongside the billion-ton-a-year iron ore market.

Russell Stanley of Clarus Securities Inc. says “We believe VRB Power is on the cusp of fully commercializing its battery technology. The company’s technology “is the ideal energy storage solution for wind power applications,” he added.

Jon Hykawy, an analyst at Research Capital Corp., has projected VRB revenue of $23-million in 2007, and says that is now “feasible” because of contracts in the pipeline. For 2008, Mr. Hykawy projects VRB will generate $115-million in sales, and earnings a share of 11 cents. He has a 12-month target of $1.40 on the stock, a level that would mark a significant jump from the current price of about 50 cents a share. Another analyst, MacMurray Whale of Sprott Securities Inc., is also enthusiastic about sales in Ireland, and suggests the potential market in that country for power storage systems could be as high as $2.7-billion (U.S.).

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