Eco Soul Power owner and director John Ryan-Knight is meeting a lot of demand for off-grid solar PV systems – and everyone wants battery storage, he tells EcoGeneration.
You’re based on the Sunshine Coast. What sort of work do you do in the area?
Mainly off-grid, which I’ve been branching into over the past few years. My business has been predominantly grid-connect over the past 10 years, but everybody wants batteries and off-grid [has taken off]. Queensland being so vast I do a lot of travel as well, including Darwin in the next few weeks and out west [deeper into Queensland]. There are a lot of regional communities, where people prefer to go off-grid, and also a lot of residential places doing large off-grid hybrid installations.
If they’re going off-grid then it sounds like your customers know a bit about batteries?
Yes and no. Everybody wants batteries, without a doubt, but cost is a major factor. When you start talking about cost with people they will back away pretty quickly. Generally my customers are off-grid for a reason: either they haven’t got access to mains power, or they don’t want to be grid-connected because they’re annoyed with the grid, or they can afford it because they’re at the higher end of the market. The ones who can afford it spend a fair bit on batteries.
Are you mainly retrofitting batteries or also installing solar at the same time?
Not necessarily. A lot of the people who do have solar look at the options of adding batteries but the ones with the [Queensland solar bonus scheme] 44-cent tariff [which closed in 2012 and lasts until 2028] won’t find any financial gain to do that. I’m finding for a lot of customers if I do any grid-connected systems we automatically put hybrid inverters in so they are battery-ready. Everybody’s waiting for the time when the batteries are going to be cheaper.
How long do you think that will take?
It’s happening now, I guess, but without any government subsidies I think within the next 12 months or towards the end of the year we’ll see dramatic drops in battery prices. It’s the early adopters who will spur that along. The more batteries we sell the cheaper they’re going to get. There’s a big influx of lithium ion batteries into the market now.
What sort of storage are you installing?
I worked with an importer of Aquion batteries for the last 2.5 years – but not any more [the company filed for bankruptcy in February]. I thought it was a great battery and it still is, so hopefully it will be back one day. Now I’m working with Ecoult, the CSIRO battery.
Any reason why you’re avoiding lithium ion?
From the outset I wasn’t sure about the safety of lithium ion. I wouldn’t put it in my own home. When Aquion came in I got involved because it’s a benign substance, completely harmless and safety is paramount. But they went and my next option is going back into lead-acid, so I chose Ecoult’s technology, with their ultracapacitor battery. Again, they’re fully recyclable. I think we’re going to have problems recycling lithium batteries in the future. For what I do, off-grid situations, I don’t think lithium is there yet.
Do battery customers understand concerns about safety?
Safety is a real worry for people. And installers bear a lot of responsibility for their jobs, so we’ve got to be confident with that. I think a lot of the hybrid jobs are going lithium, mainly because of the price factor. There are a lot of companies selling inverter-and-battery packages, and that is purely price-driven. They’re really going down in price. A lot of them are toys, really, in my opinion.
What have you learned along the way about sizing batteries for systems?
A lot of guys have been slung into the battery industry not really knowing what to do. So, yes, sizing is the biggest issue. A lot of systems get installed and the customers don’t really know what they’re getting. They’ll be sold a battery based on capacity without taking into account the depth of discharge and what the actual usable capacity is, and being disappointed when they’re not getting an outcome. Same with off-grid systems, when people are sold systems that are nowhere near what they need. It’s crazy what’s going on out there. A lot of the larger companies are employing salespeople who have really got no knowledge in the field, then they employ installers to put in a system they haven’t designed. That is a major issue. I see it every day, people paying a lot of money for systems and not getting what they wanted.