A record year for installation of rooftop solar around the country only makes the case for residential storage more pronounced. Owners of PV systems are slowly getting a taste for batteries, mainly of the lithium-ion variety, but they are still widely considered expensive. That attitude may change as tariffs and rules are changed to make solar self-consumption the far better option over exports.

One way or another, storage is coming. Masses of it.

An Australian technology that places in one big box all the kit you need to produce hydrogen at home and then convert it to electricity may one day be a contender to compete against rivals in this fast-growing market.

Sydney-based company Lavo (pronounced Lar-voh) claims its solution is the first commercial-ready hydrogen energy storage system in the world designed for residential homes and businesses.

“Australia has one of the highest penetrations of rooftop solar and an abundance of sunshine and to really push energy independence out we need a very good and sustainable way to store that,” says Matthew Muller, Lavo chief marketing officer.

The hydrogen hydride alloy used in Lavo is based on a technology that emerged after WWII, where hydrogen molecules attach to metals such as magnesium or aluminium. Professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, chief scientist and executive director of Lavo and lead researcher in hydrogen technologies at UNSW, has been researching hydrides for more than 20 years. Muller says Aguey-Zinsou has “cracked the code” with the alloy used in the Lavo storage system.

“The compound mix that we’ve achieved is maximising the ability to store the hydrogen and doing so at an economical cost,” Muller says.

Big business

The batteries, which are nearly 1.7 metres tall and 1.2 metres wide and weigh 196kg, contain a water purifier, an inverter, an electrolyser, four hydride cells and a fuel cell. The round-trip efficiency is about 50%, meaning that half the solar energy (or mains electricity) that goes in will be stored.

Muller says the 50% efficiency measure will improve along with refinements of the hydride and advances in electrolyser and fuel cell technology. “We’re working with our wonderful partners at [electrolyser maker] Enapter and [fuel cell maker] Nedstack to increase the efficiency of their transactions in this whole system,” he says.

The company claims a Lavo unit is good for 20,000 cycles, having put the technology through “accelerated tests” under laboratory conditions at UNSW. “We monitor the rate of hydrogen uptake/release and the evolution of the crystalline/microstructure of our alloy,” Professor Aguey-Zinsou told EcoGeneration in an email. “We then utilise a range of characterisation techniques to verify and predict the evolution of the microstructure. The latter determines the long-term behaviour of the metal alloy and its hydrogen storage properties.”

Professor Kondo-Francois Aguey-Zinsou, chief scientist and executive director of Lavo and lead researcher in hydrogen technologies at UNSW.

Big ticket

As with all first-of-its-kind gear the Lavo batteries are expensive, with a $34,750 price tag for the first model. Over time, and as efficiencies are further fine-tuned, Muller expects to the price will one day begin with a two.

Producing and storing hydrogen at home is a big step when the solar battery storage market is in its early stages. The Lavo solution is also physically large and capable of storing, at 40kWh, arguably more than enough energy for household needs. But consumers are a variable bunch and many of them are hungry for electricity.

“I believe our target markets early on will be those in regional, remote areas and those with larger energy needs, such as a pool or electric vehicle, or [sites in hot parts of the country] that rely on air-conditioning through the summer,” Muller says. “This will be extremely beneficial.”

Solar-equipped eco resorts and dairy farms are two prime contenders for Lavo, he says, where early morning and evening loads are out of whack with the PV generation curve.

Lavo will initially target the residential, commercial, off-grid/backup diesel and telecommunications towers markets, which it values at $2 billion in Australia and $40 billion globally. Microgrids, edge-of-grid systems and off-grid solutions will also be suitable, Muller says.

The company is negotiating with state governments over whether Lavo will qualify for subsidies.

Monsieur Lavoisier

Lavo is named in honour of French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who gave hydrogen its name – and is credited by some for its discovery – before he was executed in 1794 by a regime that knew better.

Muller is also head of strategy at Providence Asset Group, which runs an infrastructure fund targeting around 40 community scale solar farms, an early stage venture capital fund (which holds the Lavo investment) and two research projects with universities around hydrogen and how AI might enable the delivery of renewable energy.

Providence is the primary shareholder in Lavo in a joint-venture with UNSW. With global investment in hydrogen forecast to increase from $US150 billion to more than $US2.5 trillion a year by 2050, the joint-venture partners will be hoping for a slice of the action.

The company hopes that by 2025 it will have created 1,400 Australian jobs, including R&D, manufacturing, installation and maintenance.

The system is slated to be available for advance purchase by November and ready for installation by June next year.