Liverpool energy storage project delayed

by Brittany Wentzell

It's been nearly three years since a joint venture between Watts Wind and LightSail Energy was announced for Port Mersey Commercial Park, but while wind turbines are now standing, it's uncertain when LightSail will be ready to join the Liverpool Wind and Energy Storage Project.

LightSail Energy is an energy storage company based in California that's co-founded by chief scientist Danielle Fong, a native of Dartmouth. At 12 years old, she attended Dalhousie University, went on to Princeton at 17 and later started working in renewable energy.

Fong, who founded LightSail in 2008, developed a system that would involve injecting a fine water mist into compressed air in a tank to store energy from renewable resources.

The plan was announced with great fanfare outside the former Bowater mill in 2014. It involved two wind turbines built by Watts Wind, each generating around 2.35 megawatts of energy with any excess energy, up to one megawatt, being sent to LightSail storage in Port Mersey. But the technology is still in its research and development stage, something that's taken longer than anticipated.

The original timeline had both sides of the project up and running in 2016, but it now appears LightSail's storage project may be delayed by at least another year, according to Fong and Stan Mason, president of Watts Wind.

The turbines, however, are completed and Mason hopes they'll be generating power by April.

"They are scheduled to be commissioned by the end of [March], so they're just doing the rest of the wiring work that's involved now that they're up," he said.

The project has a power purchase agreement with Nova Scotia Power, and power generated by the turbines is part of the Nova Scotia Community Feed-in Tariff, or COMFIT. The two turbines are expected to produce enough power for roughly 1,200 homes.

Only 3.6 megawatts has been approved to be fed to the grid, with the excess set to go to storage. But for now, Mason says they can set the turbines so they don't produce more than needed.

"It won't be wasted, it just won't be generated. You can put set points on your turbines to just go up to a certain amount," he said.

Storage is one of the main issues with renewable energy such as wind, so it's not surprising the company and its technology had millions of dollars invested from the likes of Peter Thiel and Bill Gates. It also received $2 million from Innovacorp, a Nova Scotia Crown corporation that invests in the early stages of start ups.

The company typically focuses on Nova Scotian entrepreneurs.

"The reason this appealed to us so much was just the enormous disruption potential in an enormous market, so energy storage is probably one of the biggest global challenges and opportunities right now in clean energy and for a company that brings a disruptive technology, that has the potential to capture a presence on the global stage, that is very appealing," said Stephen Duff, president and CEO of Innovacorp.

He said there's no reason the project won't go forward, but acknowledged there's still uncertainty involved in such an investment.

"Is there risk it won't happen? Yes, there is a risk," he said.

Although LightSail saw around $70 million in investments, Fong says it's now had to focus on commercializing the high-pressure storage tanks for natural and industrial gases to make some profit so work can continue with the energy storage portion of the company.

"We had suffered significant reductions in funding in 2016, leading to layoffs, and have had to focus on commercializing the tanks first to make some profit and prove ourselves as an operating entity," said Fong, adding that one of the company's main investors pulled out of the project last May.

"We're still committed to [the demonstration project] but the time frame required, we need to launch our tank project, reach profitability and restart at full velocity our development of energy storage," she said. "There are a lot of steps along the way. We're still committed to doing this and a year is a good estimate, but it may be longer than that."

If LightSail fails to come through with its end of the project, the wind farm still has a 20-year lease with Nova Scotia Power, said Mason.

"We're still waiting on LightSail," he said. "If LightSail doesn't come through, there are things we could possibly do. We'll try to find a home for that [excess] energy if we can somehow."

Fong says she's still optimistic about the energy storage project's future. "My attitude is one of determination," she said.

And Brooklyn is still the best place to do the project, said Fong, adding the placement of the turbines is one of the best she's seen and that the waste heat from the Brooklyn Energy biomass plant is an asset.

"For the size of the wind farm, it's a tremendous wind resource. Where our wind towers are, it turns out it's actually stronger than anticipated," she said.

"I am committed to making sure that Nova Scotia can be powered by renewable power, and that means we need to do energy storage and the best location for that in my opinion is Liverpool," she added.

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