Features, Manufacturer Focus

Bringing clean stored energy to the fore

Bringing clean stored energy to the fore with Energy Renaissance

Energy Renaissance is set to operate Australia’s first lithium-ion battery manufacturing giga-factory. Billy Friend sits down with managing director Mark Chilcote to discuss the company’s energy mission to be a catalyst for sovereign supply and security of Australia’s clean energy storage systems.

Founded in 2015, Energy Renaissance has spent the past seven years building its technology and business planning to enter manufacturing at the ‘Renaissance One’ plant in Tomago, just north of Newcastle in the Hunter Valley. A few years ago, the company was told it wasn’t possible to manufacture lithium-ion batteries in Australia. Once operations are shifted at the start of next year, Renaissance One will be the first gigawatt facility in the country with the aim to expand to five gigawatts per annum whilst manufacturing battery cells.

Before the company’s inception, founder Brian Craighead’s conversations with managing director Mark Chilcote about the misuse of Australia’s resources sparked an idea to leave his successful business, to bring clean, stored energy to Australians.

With access to a high-talent pool of engineers, Chilcote and Craighead brought experts together to ask a simple question – what’s the best action to take for renewable energy?

At the time, Australia was almost completely reliant on wind and solar – with the exception of pumped hydro, there was no baseload renewable energy sources.

“Batteries hadn’t come to the fore yet and were a pretty obvious solution when talking to the right people,” Chilcote said. “We found problems with the current lithium-ion batteries in the Australian context: They weren’t manufactured with an eye on the hotter Australian conditions, they were a safety risk as the chemistries were prone to catching fire, it was difficult to install them in rugged, remote locations and there was a lack of cybersecurity and sovereign energy capability for the defence industry.”

Chilcote has over 25 years of experience in executing major lump sum risk projects in the power industry, most recently leading the Engineering & Construction business for UGL Limited. He joined Energy Renaissance in 2017, where he said it took around four years – and many frequent flyer points – to fully grasp the battery industry and technology providers.

“Pre COVID, manufacturing was a bit of a dirty word. It’s now more widely accepted that we should manufacture locally, but there’s still a lot of people with battle wounds from the exit of the car manufacturing industry, for example. The tide has turned but it’s still relatively slow in Australia.”

An over-reliance on raw commodities has been touted in this country for some time, but Chilcote sees an effective path ahead, of which developing a lithium- battery value chain can play an important role.

Nathan Berryman and Kristal Barlett, electricians at Energy Renaissance, have worked in the heavy and mining industries before moving to cleantech manufacturing
Nathan Berryman and Kristal Barlett, electricians at Energy Renaissance, have worked in the heavy and mining industries before moving to cleantech manufacturing

“My view is pretty simple. Mining is going to increase, but it will change. I think it will be less than ten years until the coal industry is insignificant. The continued environmental impacts we’re seeing like typhoons, earthquakes, bushfires will drive change and companies like Energy Renaissance will be the catalyst to drive this change.

“We’ll give long term supply agreements for people that then develop their businesses but we won’t go upstream. Australia is the only country in the world with all the minerals for lithium-ion batteries. For the transition, it will take government, miners, lithium- ion battery manufacturers, defence to all play a part.”

Renaissance One

Following the completion of an Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) co-funding program, the reality of Australia’s first lithium-ion battery giga-factory is only around the corner. Initiated to design, commission and operate a pilot lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant – dubbed Project ‘Apollo’– the pilot facility was designed to develop, test and document the technology, systems and processes and commence operations to supply to customers ahead of full-scale manufacture. The company currently operates at its ‘Apollo’ facility in Tomago producing up to 4MWh of batteries per month and serving customers across Australia.

“With the support of organisations such as AMGC, CSIRO and the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, we have been able to develop a world-leading lithium-ion battery for domestic and export use and soon, we hope to expand the impact of this program to add value to Australia’s abundant raw materials by embarking on cell manufacture,” Chilcote noted.

Completion of the pilot program was a crucial step in Energy Renaissance’s scale- up program before its moves into the custom-designed, 4,500-square-metre ‘Renaissance One’ manufacturing facility. The plant will produce up to 300 Mega- watt hours of energy storage annually, scaling to 5.3 Gigawatt Hours, or 5.3 billion watts, of energy storage per year via its ground-breaking battery system.

Completion of the pilot-facility program follows on from an earlier AMGC co-invested project where ER and CSIRO first developed a proprietary battery system (‘superRackTM and superPackTM’), which is a unique plug-and-play prismatic cell system. This is combined with the Renaissance BMSTM which is a CSIRO-developed cyber-secure battery management system comprising custom circuit boards, software, and wiring and gives ER a competitive advantage in the global battery market.

Renaissance superPaks used in the superRacks
Renaissance superPaks used in the superRacks

“First, we had to get product to market, in the field and operational,” Chilcote explained. “The battery industry is very immature and the interface between batteries and inverters is confused at best. We had a fairly steep learning curve on that interface. We didn’t have any problems with our batteries, but we did have a learning curve on the system.”

ER’s superStorageTM products will be the first lithium-ion battery energy storage system and battery management system that currently uses 92 percent of Australian components
for its manufacturing in Australia, with the company already supplying batteries to local customers for use in industrial and commercial applications. Its SuperStorageTM platform will monitor, benchmark and self-diagnose battery performance autonomously and efficiently, supported by human intervention to develop customer specifications and deliver customer service. Energy Renaissance has taken the learnings from its pilot program to avoid costly mistakes in its automation and robotics design.

“Buying an automated system wasn’t going to be useful unless we knew how to do it manually. We spent a lot of time assembling and manufacturing manually in the Apollo project and now we’ve taken the learnings from that and with the help of Bosch, we’ve engaged them to do our automation system design.”

The collaborative project, worth $1.47 million, was supported through a $525,072 co-investment administered by AMGC and matched by Energy Renaissance, with project partners contributing a further $427,681. Project participants include CSIRO, ATB Morton and Maccor. Energy Renaissance forecast $95.7M in revenue directly related to this project (excluding the larger Renaissance One facility) over the next 5 years. Energy Renaissance will move into the new facility at the end of this year and expects to be fully operational around March 2023.

Local supply

After looking at locations all around the country for its flagship facility, Tomago was chosen because of its proximity to a deepwater port and university in Newcastle as well as CSIRO’s energy hub. Energy Renaissance gets custom steel fabrication from nearby in Newcastle, circuit boards from Penrith, NSW, plastics from Queensland and the components in its batteries are all sourced from local suppliers.

superRack batteries stored at the Tomago temporary facility

Leveraging local suppliers and supply chains, the company’s aim is to offer products that are as close to 100 percent Australian content as possible, with the company already at 92 percent as it relies on imported battery cells that are not currently manufactured in Australia. This number wasn’t achieved overnight, said Chilcote.

“18 months ago, we were 100 per cent import, buying basically everything out of China” Chilcote said. “We made a priority list of what we would onshore. We picked Australian suppliers with an attitude and belief in themselves with a long-term vision.”

To demonstrate this journey, Chilcote referenced a partnership with Academy Sheetmetal, a family owned Newcastle sheet metal manufacturer.

“When we first approached them, they were around three times more expensive than China,” he said. “Like us, they weren’t willing to accept this, so we did a lot of value engineering with them and changed the design to suit their machinery. Off the back of that, they have bought new equipment and robotics to be more efficient and we are now almost sole-sourcing the metalwork from them.”

Printed circuit boards and injected moulded plastics are also sourced locally, but computer chips will continue to be imported in the foreseeable future, said Chilcote. Part of Energy Renaissance’s next step is to manufacture battery cells using the raw materials Australia is lucky enough to possess. The company is hoping to confirm financial investment decision on the battery cells in June of next year and begin manufacturing after 12 months at the Renaissance One factory.

“We’re trying to build up both the local industry and the industry in Australia. So in the near future, we’ll have a production of energy that’s not only cheap, but we’ll also have sovereign supply and sovereign security of our energy storage systems,” Chilcote explained.

“So the problem we’re solving is if we can make clean energy cheaper and more reliable, then we help Australia bridge the gap between fossil fuels today and renewable energy tomorrow. The vision back in 2015 was all around Australian products and people and reducing the impact of the environment – we’ve never swayed from those two pillars.”

Dr Jens Goennemann, managing director of AMGC said Energy Renaissance is proof positive that Australia can be a world leader in the renewable energy industry.

“Energy Renaissance’s approach typifies how we should be seeking to move away from our reliance on raw commodities and tap into our abundant human, commodities and manufacturing prowess to transform it into complex goods for local and export markets,” said Goennemann.

“Energy Renaissance didn’t stop when they developed a battery for hot and humid climates, they embarked on commercialising the technology and we are pleased to have been there to assist them – they are a shining light for others to follow.”

Developing lithium battery technology

Part of the superStorage platform, the battery management systems (BMS) developed in collaboration with CSIRO has three attributes which separate it from systems bought off the shelf. First of all, to satisfy government and defence contracts, the BMS is the only known cyber-secure system in the world. The BMS is more accurate than counterparts, which lends itself to the future of ‘energy as a service.’

“If you’re going to be trading through a battery, then it needs to be very accurate and it needs to know when it should trade. We will use machine learning so the batteries learn when to trade,” Chilcote said.

The third unique advantage of the Energy Renaissance solution is particular attention to cooling to make the batteries far superior in Australian conditions. “The temperature of the battery is important, but what is more important is the consistent temperature of the batteries,” he added. “The BMS is designed to anticipate batteries at the top naturally heating more than those at the bottom to solve this problem.”

Battery powered milk

Fourth-generation dairy farmers John and Rochelle Pekin and owners of the Nikep Dairy Farm have felt first-hand the impact of the price of grid electricity in recent times. Adding to the financial pain, the farm initially had an unreliable grid electricity supply that required them to have a backup diesel generator to power its operations, especially in the afternoons as high-power demands from around the farm’s location meant it was most vulnerable to brown outs.

John and Rochelle Pekin from Nikep Dairy Farm installed Energy Renaissance batteries.
John and Rochelle Pekin from Nikep Dairy Farm installed Energy Renaissance batteries.

Working with Energy Renaissance, the owners had a 250kW rooftop solar system and a 520kWh Renaissance superRackTM installed, which now provides 95 per cent of the farm’s energy requirements. The Nikep Dairy Farm is saving $70,000 every year on energy and fuel bills, but John Perkin said the switch wasn’t just based on finances.

“Investing in clean energy goes beyond economic considerations for us as dairy farmers. We want to inspire others to do something now because we’re making our farm more sustainable, which is better for the environment,” he said.

“Being an Australian dairy farmer, we want to support a local battery manufacturer like Energy Renaissance. It’s important for us to support local manufacturing as it creates jobs, and it is great for our economy – just like what we’re doing here for the Aussie dairy industry. If the day comes when we need support for our batteries, I feel reassured that we’re in the same country as Energy Renaissance and we’ll get the help that we need.”

Future plans

Mark Chilcote, managing director of Energy Renaissance
Mark Chilcote, managing director of Energy Renaissance

In time, Mark Chilcote explained Australia’s defence industry will be the biggest market for Energy Renaissance, followed by special-purpose electric vehicles. The company will continue its current offering for static storage, as the demand for lithium-ion batteries will only increase in homes, agriculture, factories and mining.

Instead of competing against other forms of green technology, Energy Renaissance sees an ecosystem where different technologies can bounce off each other.

“Ultimately trains, ships and heavy haulage will become hydrogen. There are uses for flow batteries, pumped hydro and others – we don’t think it’s one technology which will win the race.”

The other consideration for lithium- ion batteries, Chilcote noted, is the likelihood of the battery chemistries advancing and changing within the next decade or two.

“We’ve been very careful in the design of our platform to be chemistry agnostic,” he said. “This means we can change as the chemistry evolves. Hopefully the technology changes because of one of our Australian universities, but it will evolve.”

In order to manufacture battery cells, Energy Renaissance has to buy the raw materials out of China and Taiwan, despite them being mined in Western Australia. The opportunity is there, Chilcote said, to flip the page on this, and turn our wealth in mined materials from an Achilles heel to a manufacturing advantage.

“We have to start actioning whatever can be done in that upstream supply chain to help people develop that industry. We won’t have energy security until government and industry can achieve this.”

Send this to a friend