Courting remote communities
Earlier this summer, American Vanadium announced an initiative to put vanadium flow batteries in remote northern Canadian communities. Partnering with Robert Nault, who served as Canada's minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development from 1999 to 2003, it hopes to reach an agreement with one or more communities to test batteries there, using the battery to store renewable energy, most likely solar power, replacing the expensive diesel fuel that remote communities have long relied on for electricity.
"The cost of living is very high and food costs are high" in these communities, Nault said. "It's much more difficult to maintain a higher-quality standard of living."
Sandy Lake, near the Manitoba border, is one such community. For decades, the cheapest way for residents to get their diesel was to truck in an entire year's supply over the ice road that forms for about four to six weeks in the winter, a process that more than doubles the cost, hiking it up to around 2.40 Canadian dollars ($2.33) a liter.
This cost is often levied on the Canadian taxpayer, since the federal and provincial government are obligated to provide every Canadian with electricity. There are 78 communities in Ontario alone fully on diesel power, according to MacDonald, and these communities require on average CA$87 million a year from the federal and provincial government to subsidize their fuel costs.
What's more, the fuel is dirty and environmentally damaging, and does not perform optimally in the harsh environments of northern Canada, where temperatures can hover between minus 30 and minus 40 degrees Celsius for months. And with Native populations exploding in Canada -- growing at 5 percent a year, twice the Canadian average -- a reliable energy supply is more important than ever.
"Diesel not considered a clean energy; it is a dirty energy, and we're trying to get away from that as much as we can," said Nault.
Diesel has been known to leak into the ice and surrounding environment in transit, he said, which is one of many issues the fuel poses. The frigid climate also causes frequent brownouts in diesel-fueled northern communities.
"Some of the problems they have with diesel generation in the north is it's not reliable," he said, adding that the on-and-off problems with the power are not very compatible with modern appliances. "TV's don't last as long, microwave ovens, conventional stoves, all those things wear out quicker."
In Sandy Lake, community officials are ready to hear about any alternatives to diesel, including vanadium flow batteries. "That would be something that the First Nation would consider," said Meekis. "Actually, that's a really good solution to a community such as ours."
'Wide open' landscape for innovation
Matthew Mench, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who specializes in energy conversion and storage, has spent the past four years refining the vanadium redox flow battery. He said it still isn't near commercial scale yet.
"Vanadium itself is pretty costly, relatively, compared to other technologies," he said. "That would have a large impact on the ability to integrate vanadium redox flow batteries into the grids."
Mench described energy storage as "a very hot area right now." Researchers are also looking into making flow batteries using lithium, cadmium and nickel, which are cheaper materials but would wear down faster in a battery, according to Mench.
"We really don't know what the winner's going to be yet," he said. "The landscape is wide open right now."
Still, it appears cost could be the only thing holding vanadium batteries back. The battery is easy to repair if damaged. To scale it up, more power can be achieved by making the electrolyte tank bigger.