South Africa needs to industrialise further and create more jobs and vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB) manufacturing presents an ideal technology for full localisation.
Energy storage solutions provider Bushveld Energy is seeking to build a local supply chain for its VRFB technology and is aiming to achieve “extremely high” levels of local content.
Bushveld Energy deployment head Frank Spencer tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly that the country is seeking to expand its renewable energy generation.
However, he points out that the challenge is that the grid is becoming constrained in many locations, which means that, despite the appetite for more renewable energy, the grid does not have the capacity to support this extra influx of energy.
“It is likely that the only way that these projects could be undertaken and connected to the grid is if storage also gets put into the project, to help smooth out the generation and the grid capacity.
“Ultimately, if we move towards 100% renewables as needed by 2050, there will be a need for many batteries to be deployed all over the grid, or to the municipalities, to stabilise and spread out that generation that comes from the sun and from the wind,” points out.
Spencer says that, in terms of local manufacturing of batteries, there is not much happening at the moment, with only a handful of battery assemblers that are assembling lithium-ion batteries.
He adds that most of those batteries are being sold into the residential space, where customers are deploying batteries to mitigate load-shedding, or even to get themselves off the grid by buying a large enough solar photovoltaic (PV) and battery systems to become independent of State-owned utility Eskom or municipalities.
“What we are trying to do is to take that a lot further and actually build utility-scale batteries that have significant local content, right from the ground up,” Spencer says.
He explains that their VRFB battery technology is uniquely suited for large batteries that are deployed on the grid.
Therefore, Bushveld Energy is pursuing building a value chain to provide all that is necessary to build batteries, with 80% or 90% local content.
Spencer informs that Bushveld Energy is building a factory in the East London Industrial Development Zone, called Belco, which will process vanadium into electrolyte, with electrolyte being the liquid that stores the energy. The factory is slated to start operations by March next year.
Moreover, it is also running a project this year to see what other components of the battery could be localised and procured locally from other suppliers.
The company has invested into some of the battery manufacturers globally to help them grow their activities. It is exploring how it can help these set up manufacturing facilities in South Africa.
Bushveld Energy is also pursuing project development – mainly, undertaking its own internal projects.
For example, Spencer highlights that at parent company Bushveld Minerals’ Vametco vanadium mine and plant, in the North West province, construction on 3.5 MW of solar PV generation and 4 MWh of VRFB storage will begin soon.
Spencer says this will be the largest battery of its type deployed; therefore, it will showcase how this technology actually works, and that localisation is possible.
Bushveld Energy will also work very closely with other project developers to help them understand what a VRFB is, owing to it being very different to the lithium batteries the market is familiar with, Spencer explains.
With the country still getting the majority of its electricity from coal generation, and the negative climate and health effects of that, it is critical that South Africa transitions to a clean energy scenario, in a just manner, he emphasises.
Therefore, as part of this, he noted the importance of creating jobs locally, and looking at building technologies locally – with storage providing considerable opportunities for local manufacturing, local beneficiation and local job creation, Spencer points out.
He mentions the biggest challenge faced being that of educating the market about the benefits of VRFB, before being able to scale this up to meet the expected growth of the storage market, and ensuring the South African benefits from this investment in renewable energy and energy storage.
“It is, therefore, about building the right infrastructure now, in terms of manufacturing, so that when the time to scale up does come, we're actually already well prepared to do this and to deliver the technology,” asserts Spencer.