The future of the global solar energy industry: An interview with Jonas Eklind of Azelio

According to the International Energy Agency’s annual report (Oct 13th 2020), solar power is now cheaper than electricity generated by coal and natural gas in most countries. This is kick-starting a profound global change from fossil to renewable energy, despite Covid-19, in which renewable energy is estimated to supply 80 percent of the total power generation in 2030.
The future of the global solar energy industry: An interview with Jonas Eklind of Azelio
Courtesy of Azelio.

Concurrently, declining costs have accelerated the interest in energy storage, encouraging the adoption of new storage technology in solar power systems.

Renewable energy storage provider Azelio has developed a solution for renewable distributed baseload to replace diesel gensets, storing renewable energy in recycled aluminium for around the clock use, thereby closing the gap in the global green transition.

The company's storage solution will enable it to supply renewable energy as affordable electricity and heat on demand and around the clock.

REM spoke to  CEO Jonas Eklind to discuss these matters in greater depth.

Can you give me a background to yourself and to Azelio and what it does?

My background is in energy storage. Before Azelio I worked as CEO of a battery company, working with more traditional energy storage, and before that I was CEO of a company that worked with energy storage and hydrogen.

My idea when I started in Azelio in 2016 was to create a system for distributed baseload, meaning that you can have renewable energy 24 hours a day.

Azelio had a technology then to convert thermal energy to electricity. So, what I initiated in 2016 to develop inside the company was a thermal energy storage solution. If you put that together with the technology to convert thermal energy to electricity, all of a sudden we have built this baseload system that can have dispatchable renewable energy 24 hours a day and the interesting part is that if you combine thermal energy with the converter that Azelio already had when I started with a Stirling engine, you can build a system for distributed installations, cost competitive to alternative solutions between 100 kilowatts and up to 100 megawatts.

So that was the idea we had in 2016 - to use the existing technology and to add on this storage pot and now we have launched it as a product. We have had it in operation since 2018 and we are right now installing our first commercial project. We have had a huge interest on the market and we have today a pipeline of requests that is about 20 billion US dollars, and we have signed Memorandums of Understanding for projects  of over a total value of about US$2 billion. It seems to be of great interest on the market because we have a way to store renewable energy at a very low cost and to make renewable energy dispatchable around the clock.

That was what I tried to do with batteries, but the cost was not good enough. It was too expensive. It was the same with hydrogen. The technology was just too complicated and the cost for the system just too high. What we have built now is a solution where if you want a 5 MW installation and you base it on solar PV for production during sun hours and production from our storage during night time or when direct production is not sufficient, you will get a solution that provides you with renewable electricity 24 hours a day for 93 euros per megawatt-hour levelised cost of electricity (LCOE).

I presume the renewable energy technology you work mostly with then is global solar. In terms of its deployment and the various financial aspects, can you give me a rundown of where the solar sector is at the moment?

The good thing with solar energy is that if you have good solar resources, the cost of a kilowatt hour from a solar installation is very low. If you want the cheapest electricity you can get, then you build a solar solar PV field in a sunny location, and that's the very positive thing with solar.

The negative thing, that we saw with our solution, is that you just have solar energy for a few  hours every day. You need to add on the storage unit, because you will never have solar energy in the middle of the night, nor in the evenings and morning's when demand is high in a normal location. Typically, the ratio is about six hours of good solar power and eighteen hours without good solar power. So, by combining the cheapest way of producing renewables, with solar PV, with our storage you can build a very cost-efficient baseload system for renewable energy 24 hours a day.

Is renewable energy still on track to supply 80 percent of power in 2030?

That will need a lot of storage unit storage capacity. A lot. Some countries, like Sweden, we are running most of our power from renewables, but you could almost say that we are cheating because we are using hydropower with large dams and you don't have to have pumps either because you can just collect the water from the mountains, but we have an installation in Morocco, and they have a lot of sun, they have good wind conditions and they have some hydropower. They have a goal of 52 percent renewables in 2030 and I would say they are doing very well with their transition. Last year, I was also in Pakistan, where we have signed an MoU. They also have good water, wind and solar but, at least last year, they had a 96 percent dependency on fossil fuels. I don't expect they will reach to 80 percent renewables in 2030. It is just not possible.

Which countries around the world are being the most progressive in your opinion?

I am not sure I can rank them, but you have some regions like in California, which has had a very big impact on renewables, but when you implement a lot of renewables without long duration energy storage, like we supply, you will build a lot of problems in your grid system, and looking at California. The price fluctuations is between 0.00 to at least $1,000 per megawatt-hour so extremely expensive for some hours, and you have limitations in the power level you have. So by adding a lot of renewables you will create a lot of new problems and we have worked several years in Dubai and there is where we install our first commercial project now. Some years ago, they said that without storage the penetration of solar power in Dubai could be not more than 8 percent. Around eight percent, it would create so many problems that the grid couldn't handle it. But by adding storage, that of course can go to 100 if you have real long duration energy storage.

And before, like a couple of years ago, everybody talked about storage but what they meant was more regulations of power, the power Peak handling or frequency regulation to have the stability in the grid but not real energy shifting, because if you want 24 hours a day renewable energy then of course you need to store a lot, especially with solar because you will just have solar six hours a day, and that is not enough to store in some batteries for peak shaving where you have power for a couple of hours. You need to have power for 18 hours. And that's what’s happening now - there are technologies coming along for a real long duration energy storage.

So in in which countries around the world Azelio have a presence where you're really making a difference with this?

Looking where we have installed, we have installed systems now in Sweden, in Morocco, in Abu Dhabi and soon in Dubai, but we are right in the beginning of our transition into a commercial company.

We will initiate volume production this year, and we will initiate volume deliveries this year, and looking where we have signed agreements, to two billion US dollars in potential projects, they are mainly for the MENA region, for North America, but then  mainly the southern part and the West Coast part, Mexico and California, and Latin America and also India. So it's more a combination of different geographies for different applications. Looking at California, we have mainly signed with projects that are connected to the grid but where the end user has a lot of problems with price variations and with the limitations on power.

Looking in the MENA region, it's very similar, but looking at the projects in Latin America where we have signed, that's very much for replacing diesel generators in off-grid applications. A lot of mining applications where mines are running pumps, water pumps and these pumps are powered by diesel generators and to replace them you need a baseload system because they are running 24 hours a day, and you need a decentralised solution because they are around 500 kilowatts, maybe two megawatts, that you need in each location. Then you can put Azelio there together with solar PV and then all of a sudden you can power these pumps fully by solar energy 24 hours a day. So it's very different in different locations in the world.

What do you think are the main challenges involved in this?

So far it has been the cost for the long duration energy storage. We provide now a solution that can compete with the alternatives. The biggest challenge has always been the cost, because a kilowatt hour that's cheaper than the other is better by definition, and if it's produced by a diesel generator it is of course a disaster for the environment, but as it’s cheaper it still stands as the best one. The biggest difference between a diesel generator and all type of renewables is that for renewables, you can see that you are more or less buying fuel for your whole project for 30 years, because you are making investments in technology that brings you all the power you need and you have no cost running cost. So if you look at powering water pumps in the mine, you need to put up the higher capex in year one, if you buy an Azelio solution and PV, instead of buying a diesel generator, and then the diesel is much more expensive to run, compared to our solution, so after four, five years, you have made a return on your investment and the Azelio solution is cheaper to run, but of course they want you to need to buy a more expensive system and if you cannot think how the next year looks, and the year after that, can I really finance that investments even if it's very good for my financial part of the company and it's very good for the world, still you need to get money to buy it. So what's really happening now, I could say, and that's a trend for just the last year, is that a lot of financers are putting up services, Energy-as-a-Service EAAS. So what they do is they put up the investment, I buy the equipment, they sell the kilowatt hour to the end user. The cost from our system is less than half the cost from a diesel generator when you compare the kilowatt hours.

So the EAAS financier, they will buy our system, and then they will sell the kilowatt hour to the end user for 75 percent of their actual cost of today, and then everybody is happy. We are happy, the financers are happy because they are earning a lot of money, the end user is happy because they will lower the cost for electricity and the globe is happy because they are decreasing the CO2 emissions.

What kind of innovations are appearing in the storage sector at the moment?

One thing is of course a thermal energy storage, like we represent and there are two different types. One is to just replace heat, you store renewables and you use it as heat, or you can do it as we do, you store it as heat and transform it back to electricity, as you can use it then as electricity. Then you of course have all new versions of the batteries - what you call flow batteries - that's also something that really happens, so you have a different battery chemistry and a different battery concept, but it’s better for long duration energy storage. Then of course you have hydrogen. That's a very important carrier of energy, but why I wanted to join Azelio, not trying to build the distributor baseload based on hydrogen, because the cost is too high for distributed systems, but for more centralised systems where you want to equalise the wind production in Europe, then hydrogen will be extremely important.

How do you see Azelio’s role in this sector developing over the next five to ten years or so?

We will start to deliver this year. We have production targets of 6,000 of our TES.PODS (the name of our storage solution) in the next year, and 17,000 in 2023 and 35,000 in 2024 and that will have a huge impact in the transition to renewables and it will of course change Azelio from a development company to a global commercial industrial company. 35,000 of these TES.PODS will mean a couple of billion US dollars in potential revenue, so it will definitely change Azelio, and Azelio will also change the renewable energy industry as we provide this cost efficient way of long-duration area storage.

I had the opportunity to be at New York Climate Week before Christmas and was on the panel debate there, and the conclusion of that panel was very interesting because technologies will not compete when it comes to long duration energy storage, because all technologies will be needed. Every technology has its place, has its benefits, but every technology also has its drawbacks. To build an energy system, you will need a lot of different technologies. What we are doing is that we will replace the whole worlds dependency on fossil fuels, and you cannot do that by just one technology. You need one technology that's, like we are, good for decentralised baseload and another is good for centralized base load. Another one is good for short duration, like five six seven hours, other technologies are good for saving energy over one week to the next month, or storing for one day, saving it for one month and then dispatch it, or storing the energy for the whole summer through to the winter, and you need a lot of different technologies to build the system.

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