This isn't your standard AA battery and it isn't intended for your television remote. Standing at 7.5 feet tall with a 2.5 foot diameter base, the Sonnen Eco 5 battery that got delivered to Gonzaga Sustainable Energy (GSE) on Tuesday looks to be an instrumental tool in cultivating a carbon neutral self-sustainable energy system within the Gonzaga Office of Sustainability.
The Sonnen Eco 5 battery is a home solar energy battery that serves as an alternative to a shared power grid, which can hold a maximum of 5 kilowatt hours (kW-h) of energy to be used in place of an external power grid that previously took over the office's operating systems whenever the solar panels stopped generating power. GSE was officially able to purchase the Sonnen Eco 5 for the Office of Sustainability earlier this semester, and now the club waits for it to be fully installed so that GSE can start experimenting with the best ways to disperse that stored energy at times when the solar panels can't generate enough power.
“We wanted to get the battery to help store the energy which was being produced by our solar panels but that we weren’t using,” Nathan Harvill, the power team lead for GSE, said. “Solar panels create direct power when they’re on and can direct energy, but when the sun goes down you can’t use that energy anymore so the idea is to store the energy so you could use that later, or prolong the time that the energy is available when everybody is using power.”
The prospects of a personal energy storage device like a battery will allow the Office of Sustainability to become far more self-sufficient because it can store up to 5 kW-h of energy produced by the solar panel and then discharge that stored energy efficiently over the time when the building would normally revert back to relying on the external power grid.
The process of purchasing this battery has been about a year-long affair for GSE after the club originally applied for a request to purchase a Tesla model battery last October. Their presentation was approved by the university’s green fund, but the transaction was held up in its final stages after COVID-19 interrupted the traditional programming of the spring semester. This gave GSE time to reevaluate exactly what type of battery it wanted to pursue, and the club inevitably decided on the Sonnen Eco 5.
“There’s no cobalt in the Sonnen but right now Tesla batteries have cobalt in them and cobalt is a big issue for humanitarian reasons,” JJ Doria, president of GSE, said. “It’s not mined in good human conditions and that’s something we wanted to factor into this because battery materials are really important to understand right now. Just because it’s a battery doesn’t mean that it’s the most sustainable thing in the world, each of its materials are important things for us to understand.”
The Eco 5 has a power rating of 3 kW, meaning that it can expend up to that much energy at once, but it’s maximum power output won’t necessarily yield the most efficient usage of power within the office. The primary task for GSE once the battery is installed is to find the best means of using the battery in a way that would bring the office’s carbon emissions down to zero.
With the Sonnen Eco 5 still not being on campus and set up for use, the club has been dedicating its research this semester to understanding the properties of the battery and running varying projection models for how the battery might perform in different scenarios based on external data collected.
There are two broad differences in ways that the club can go about using the battery’s capabilities once it gets its hands on it, defined as load following and peak shaving.
Load following is when the solar panels are set to supply a fixed percentage of the energy needed at any given time during the day, with the battery supplementing the rest while simultaneously charging itself with the reserve energy being produced by the solar panels. Peak shaving is when the solar panel puts out a consistent base level of power in kilowatts throughout the day while the battery once again will supply the rest.
Both scenarios allow the battery to charge up during the process so that the building can be entirely sustained by the battery’s energy at night, but it’s a matter of figuring out which model cuts back natural gas emissions most effectively during the day that will help decide the optimal system of operation.
“We’ve been taking our data and applying it to those two methods to see which one is going to work better, and then we’re going to try those two methods and see which one actually performs more effectively,” Theo Labay, treasurer for GSE, said. “We’ve been preparing by researching what’s going on with the different methods because they are really complicated and technical.”
The plans that the club has for the battery aren’t ascribed to purely esoteric means either. The ultimate goal for GSE is to outline its results in a road map plan that articulates an algorithm for how to scale the productivity of a similar battery to all buildings on GU’s campus.
At the moment, GU’s campus is almost entirely sustained by a single Avista Utilities power grid, which feeds all of the campus’s operating systems using hydroelectric power, a renewable energy source that still affects the environment through how it’s produced. GSE’s hope is to one day see GU’s whole campus switch to solar energy usage, but before that’s a viable option, energy storage devices like batteries are required and need to be understood.
Along with the Sonnen Eco 5 serving as a gateway towards campus wide usage of sustainable energy storage systems, it is GSE’s hope that the battery can also serve as an intimate case study opportunity for some of GU’s academic curriculum down the line.
Doria says that he sees this battery’s purview extending beyond the scope of just engineering, as it possesses themes that students studying environmental studies, business and social sciences could all be cognizant of in their academic endeavors.
“[Sustainable energy] is not simply an engineering problem, it’s not just a business problem, it’s all one big problem that requires all of us to solve it,” Doria said. “The question is if Gonzaga is ready to take on the challenge of sustainable energy because something that all states need right now is a leader in sustainable energy and GU could be that leader.”
Asher Ali is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @asher_ali3.