Mobile Battery System Launches to Mend Swedish Grid

This article was originally published on greentechmedia.com on May 18, 2020.

Swedish battery maker Northvolt and state-owned utility Vattenfall launched a new modular and fully mobile energy storage system on Friday, one they say will be able to patch up stressed grids during a period of rapid electrification.

While the system has a more obvious role to play in replacing diesel generators at mines, construction sites and live events, its size means the mobile battery can perform nonpermanent functions for grid-connected assets as well.

The Voltpack Mobile System comes in units of 250 kilowatt-hours, which can be packaged into hubs with about five times that capacity, complete with an inverter and other necessary equipment. Multiple hubs can be connected in parallel.

Northvolt, which counts Volkswagen, Siemens and Vestas among its backers, is currently building its first battery gigafactory in Sweden. It’s been producing cells from its lab facility, but the Voltpack Mobile will be the first full-fledged system sold by the company.

Vattenfall sees a role for the Voltpack Mobile System in bridging the gap between Sweden’s rapid drive for electrification and the time it takes to get grid reinforcements through the red tape.

Sweden’s grids are already getting clogged up, and strict permitting requirements mean it can take five years to get work on upgrades underway, even with immediate economic growth up for grabs. 

“There are technology companies in the north of Sweden that want to establish new data centers, for example,” Torbjörn Johansson, head of Vattenfall Network Solutions Sweden, said in an interview. “But it can take five, even 10 years for a grid connection to get up and running.”

In such cases, the Voltpack Mobile could be installed to perform peak-shaving for the local distribution company along with all the other grid-stability services a fully loaded containerized battery system can perform. Despite having just 10 million citizens, Sweden is home to more than 170 different distribution companies.

Emad Zand, Northvolt’s president for battery systems, said the Voltpack Mobile could ease seasonal curtailment of renewables.

“If you have solar or wind that you know is going to be extremely active in certain periods of the year, you can have a battery asset there to even out the loads. You can optimize that asset,” Zand told GTM.

Sweden is aiming to have a net-zero economy by 2045, and by the end of this decade, it hopes to stop all sales of internal combustion engine cars. The biggest obstacle for those targets is the country’s power grid.

How Northvolt breezed through the valley of death

The energy storage sector is littered with companies that made bold promises but showed little progress. Northvolt, in contrast, is currently building a huge battery factory in Sweden and working on permitting a second factory in Germany.

The company has benefited from the backing of Vattenfall, which ranks among Europe’s largest utilities. Vattenfall was an early supporter of Northvolt’s bold ambition to build a multibillion-dollar gigafactory. The firm is one of several potential customers Northvolt partnered with in the early days of its development.

“It’s very seldom you can sit with a [Global] Fortune 500 company and have the expertise on your side that informs how they should proceed in the future,” Zand said. “So we’re not only asking them for funding and purchase orders, we were actually advising them on what the future strategy on batteries could look like. And that became a very fruitful collaboration.”

After a career at consulting firm McKinsey and some success as an entrepreneur, Zand was looking for his next focus when he met Northvolt’s CEO, Peter Carlsson.

“When Peter explained his ideas to me, it was like talking to someone who had been to the future and come back,” said Zand. Carlsson was quick to spot that batteries would be a major part of the automotive supply chain and Europe’s carmakers would need some regionalization. Plans for the first factory, known as NorthVolt Ett, were announced in 2017.

Northvolt has benefited from the EU’s decision to make battery manufacturing a strategic priority. The European Investment Bank gave Northvolt a €350 million ($380 million) loan. German automaker Volkswagen paid €900 million for a 20 percent stake in June last year. ABB, Siemens and Vestas are among its other backers.

Northvolt Ett (that’s “One” in Swedish) will complete the first quarter of production capacity this year. Zand said the project is on time and on budget. When fully ramped, the facility will have an annual capacity of 40 gigawatt-hours, making batteries suitable for both automotive and stationary applications.

Northvolt Zwei, in Germany, will be a joint venture with VW.

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