Lithium-ion batteries in Renewable energy resources – such as wind, water or solar solutions – hold great promise. They could provide energy while overcoming Africa’s infrastructural challenges. But this energy would still need to be stored. Lithium-ion batteries might provide a solution. The Conversation Africa asked Bernard Jan Bladergroen about the challenges and opportunities.

What are lithium-ion batteries and what are its benefits?

Lithium ion, or Li-ion, batteries are a type of rechargeable battery. They are a popular choice because when well looked after, they can be drained and charged literally thousands of times which makes them superior to commonly used lead acid batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries – like other batteries used to store energy – act as a buffer between power generation and consumption. The batteries are charged when power is available from, example, a wind turbine, solar panels or the grid, and then provide power when it’s not.

If Lithium-ion batteries could be manufactured in Africa, on the appropriate scale, they would become cheaper and power users could rely more on renewable energy than they do now. This would open the path for clean, sustainable energy, mitigating the effects of climate change. It could also boost economies.

Africa already has part of the solution: photovoltaic (PV) panels are common and the energy they produce in South Africa is approximately  40% cheaper than that generated from fossil or nuclear fueled power stations. The main drawback of PV power is that it can only really be generated between 5-7 hours daily (depending on what part of the continent one is located. That’s not when most people need to use it, so it has to be stored cheaply.

Lithium-ion batteries have been commercialized elsewhere in the world. Why not in Africa yet?

Li-ion batteries are used in many commercially available products, like power tools, toys, electric bikes, laptops and mobile phones. Large Li-ion battery packs in home and grid-power applications are becoming rapidly more popular in many countries, including Africa.

There are only a few Li-ion battery factories in the US, Poland, South Korea, Japan and China. Most of the companies that run them work closely with electric vehicle manufacturers and consumer good production sites. Some of the top 10 companies manufacturing the batteries include; Panasonic, Toshiba, Samsung SDI, LG-Chem and Tesla.

There are a few small companies in South Africa who assemble battery packs using imported cells. And, to the best knowledge of the author, there’s only one facility on the African continent that has the capability to produce Li-ion battery cells at pilot scale: the University of the Western Cape’s Energy Storage Innovation Lab. The lab has already been laying the groundwork for industrial Li-ion batteries assembly. Though I cannot say with certainty that Li-ion cells are not being produced elsewhere in Africa, it would be hard for a commercial plant to go unnoticed as it would have to be very large to be profitable.

freedom won lithium-ion battery installed in Accra

There is huge opportunity. South Africa has almost 80% of the world’s known reserves of manganese – an important component of the most popular battery. Because the companies that produce Li-on batteries have deep pockets, and because the price of manganese is relatively low, they have been able to import it from South Africa.

A growing market will eventually justify the creation of a local battery production plant. But to produce batteries at a competitive price, a large scale facility with an investment of at least $1 billion is required. Only in a facility that produced millions of excellent quality cells per day would the cost per cell be able to compete with cells produced on other continents. It will be challenging to raise the required capital in Africa.

What would be the major challenges in commercializing Li-ion across the continent?

To achieve commercialization across the continent, the cost of a Li-ion battery system needs to be lower than any alternative energy storage system. Currently, Li-ion batteries cost between $500-$1000/kWh, significantly more than Lead Acid batteries, but since they last much longer than Lead Acid, they can offer a better deal.

The desired shift away from our unsustainable fossil-fuel-based economy can be realized when we produce Li-ion batteries that last many years and cost as little as $300/kWh. Economy of scale is crucial to achieve these costs.

The electrification gains could be huge. Renewable energy – such as wind or solar solutions – combined with an energy storage device that could deliver electricity at the cost of electricity from a power station would be a game changer. And because Africa’s power distribution network is still underdeveloped, investors in the device could see returns sooner than in regions with a fully developed transmission network that’s already paid for.

Why do solar street lights fail in Ghana ?Why are our streets so dark? Why are we not seeing working solar street lights in our streets today?

The answer is simple: some stand-alone solar street lights cause more problems than they solve. In some cases they don’t solve any problems at all.In Ghana a lot of streetlights are installed during  the election year ,streets are kept lit constantly and then all of a sudden the lights go out and never come on again.In recent times regular streetlights have been replaced with stand alone solar streetlights and some of them are quite fancy.

Smart Solar Street Light installation in Antigua and Barbuda

The real question is still whether this technology is economically feasible right now or whether we should wait for technology to evolve further before we take the inevitable plunge.The question of feasibility has reared its head due to bad decisions on the implementation of inadequate solar
components combined with “quick fix” solutions versus sustainable, long-term solutions.
The solar street light is a prime example of this. How many solar street lights have you seen that are not in working order? If you haven’t seen any solar street lights at all, it may be that the local municipality has not been convinced of the feasibility of these systems because so many systems have failed to date.
The solar street light is mostly sold as an LED street light with a battery box and a solar panel mounted on top of a 6 – 9 m pole. This is known as a “stand-alone” solar street light. The theory is that the solar panel will charge the battery during the day and, at night, the light will use the power stored in the battery to provide light.This idea should be considered a match made in heaven and a solution to many problems: streets lights use a lot of electricity and eliminating even only half of this consumption would lighten the strain burden on the grid. LED has a much longer life expectancy, so maintenance costs on the lights should
be minimal. So why do we not see this exciting development in our streets today? The answer lies with a combination of quality and longevity and with an understanding of the products.

Victron Energy’s highly efficient, ultra fast MPPT Solar Charge Controllers provide more efficiency in solar street lighting

The lighting units use quality components. The solar panels are 24% efficient (about as good as you can get commercially) and the LED lights are among the best at 160 lumens per watt (lm/W). The more lm/W a lamp produces the more efficient it is.A traditional incandescent light is around 15 lm/W, an energy-saving fluorescent bulb is around 60 lm/W. Easy then to see the attraction of solar power for free and lamps that are over 10 times as efficient as old fashioned bulbs – all which nicely meets companies requirements for improvements in sustainability and efficiency.

EnGoPlanet Inc ,a New York based company chose to use Victron Energy’s highly efficient, ultra fast MPPT Solar Charge Controllers, plus Victron batteries together with lighting options such as:

  • Wireless internet connection for remote control and management.
  • Smart Cameras.
  • Sensors for collecting various environmental data.
  • Mobile phone charging stations.

Their Smart Solar Street Lights are used in the Kuwait project, where 140 units have been installed. Petar Mirovic, CEO of EnGoPlanet tells me that the success of the project has interested other oil companies too, such as Saudi Aramco who are considering an installation of over 1,000 units in the coming months.

Well – that all sounds to me like a recipe for success!