Going off-grid means more than just disconnecting from the power grid – it’s a way of life rooted in self-reliance and sustainability.
While only two percent of Australians currently live off-grid, regional and remote areas account for more than six per cent of Australia’s electricity consumption. This highlights the significant role of off-gridders in the energy landscape.
For those embracing off-grid living, Vaulta offers a superior approach to sustainable energy storage.
Vaulta CEO Dominic Spooner recently joined Mike Haydon on The Off Grid Tribe podcast for an illuminating conversation about how Vaulta is reshaping the off-grid experience.
What does ‘off-grid’ mean?
Off-grid living refers to electricity users or systems that operate independently of the main power grid. Typically found in regional or remote areas, these communities generate their own power, as well as growing their own food and collecting their own water.
Electricity costs in these areas can be significantly higher due to the expense of fuel for local power generators. By harnessing renewable energy in these remote areas, isolated communities can reduce their energy costs, enhance the reliability of their electricity supply, and cut carbon emission by reducing their reliance on diesel or natural gas.
The number of off-grid properties in Australia has increased rapidly in recent years. According to PV Magazine, there were just 809 off-grid properties available for sale in Australia in 2020. Fast forward to 2022, and this figure had surged to 1,362, marking an impressive uptick of nearly 70 per cent.
To put this growth in perspective, during the same period, the number of solar-powered homes available on the market increased by a more modest 26 per cent.
More than just a lifestyle choice, off-grid living has become a sustainable movement that aligns with a desire for self-sufficiency and a growing environmental consciousness.
The challenges of recycling and waste
When off-gridders install batteries at their home, they will most likely be lithium-ion batteries. These batteries have a high energy density, which has made them a popular choice for home solar storage.
But one of the critical challenges in the energy storage industry is the relatively low global lithium battery recycling rate, which currently hovers at a mere five per cent.
Dominic told The Off Grid Tribe podcast this presents a problem for off-gridders who are looking to minimise their impact on the environment.
“In the case of a remote-based battery, it’s highly likely that there won’t be a clear plan for managing its end-of-life,” he said.
“Plenty of warehouses and facilities across Australia are already storing end-of-life lithium batteries… if we project the expected growth in electric vehicles and energy storage, we could soon end up with a huge amount of end-of-life batteries with no comprehensive plan for their disposal or repurposing.”
Vaulta’s primary focus is on redefining the battery industry’s approach to repairability. For off-gridders, Vaulta’s approach will enable them to extend the life of their energy storage system.
Traditionally, battery packing has required internal cells to be welded, screwed and glued. This means the individual cells can’t be removed, reused, repaired or recycled. A single failed cell within a 16-cell battery pack, for instance, would traditionally lead to the disposal of the entire unit.
But Vaulta uses advanced composite materials and smart, streamlined design to make high-performance batteries that are easy to assemble and disassemble – which makes it possible to replace only the faulty cell, significantly reducing the amount of dangerous goods requiring disposal.
“It’s really important to cut down on battery waste, because it threatens the uptake of renewable energy,” Dominic told the podcast.
“It’s about being able to replace only what you have to. Instead of replacing a 100kg battery pack, we might only have to replace a 5kg battery cell, which means potentially 95kg less of dangerous goods that need to exit a facility. That’s a big factor.
“Recyclability and repairability are must-have applications guiding everything we do. They’re not just an afterthought; they’re the overarching umbrella. They drive how we design a battery at all times.”
As the transition to renewables gains momentum, Dominic said this presents an extraordinary opportunity to “get it right”, and not simply create more problems that will need to be dealt with in the near-future.
“Take lead-acid batteries, for example, which are recycled at 98% globally,” he said. “It’s proof we can increase the recycling percentage for lithium batteries as well. They’re so valuable, and what goes into them is so valuable. We’d be crazy not to prioritise the responsible extraction of this value.”
Off the radar
Dominic told the podcast that off-gridders have been early adopters of Vaulta’s new range of battery products, which are all designed, assembled and tested in Brisbane.
“We’ve already undertaken a number of off-grid projects,” he said. “Off-grid customers often possess technical knowledge and real-word experiences that can be invaluable for our product development. I really enjoy the conversations with off-gridders, as well.”
Dominic said he’s been particularly heartened to speak with off-grid customers who share his commitment to circularity.
“What we’re seeing is customers are increasingly taking the initiative to find information out themselves, and when they scratch the surface, they realise that not everyone is fully committed to addressing these issues,” he said.
While off-grid living presents a distinct set of challenges related to cooking, hot water, and other daily necessities, Dominic said his background in design enables him to grasp how people interact with products and adapt to their needs.
“It’s really a process of understanding human behaviour,” he said. “I have a design background, and understanding what people do with their life and how they interact with products is my skill.
“Getting insights into how people interact with power and energy is always interesting for us. The engineering team we have at Vaulta would echo that statement as well.”
Because Vaulta’s batteries are designed for disassembly, local licensed electricians can learn to repair them without needing to access highly specialised tools or training. For off-grid communities, Vaulta envisions setting up critical spares locations and delivering essential spare parts directly to customers.
“If a customer’s battery cell dies, we would like to have a base of stock available to actually minimise the journey that cell or that repair pack needs to go on,” Dominic said.
“This means rather than sending a technician on a big travel journey to do that repair, we can actually commission that remotely through potentially skilled workers, or potentially even the customer themselves, and essentially have less downtime.”
A case study in off-grid success
This first-hand account from a Vaulta customer provides a real-world example of the off-grid applications for Vaulta’s recyclable, high-performance batteries.
My partner and I live ‘off-grid’ in a heavily-forested part of Maleny. We manage our own water, power and waste. It began as an experiment 15 years ago to see if it were possible to live a modern lifestyle in a modern town without connecting to any grid utilities.
Our experiment proved so successful that the whole off-grid experience is now baked in to our very existence. Water and waste management can be handled quite simply and for a lot of Maleny, this is standard practice. Power is different. We have a lot of rain and cloudy weather in Maleny and by choice, our land is covered by sub-tropical rainforest trees and shrubs.
Getting enough solar gain has been quite a challenge but we have made it work. We went full-battery seven years ago. Back then, AGM lead-acid batteries were standard, with lithium batteries still not recommended for off-grid.
Being an IT professional, I was confident in using the battery management system necessary to get the best out of my batteries. But it was difficult even for me to keep the batteries in an optimal state of charge. The solar window was just too small. Many days we operated in a power drought.
Our new 14kWh Vaulta installation has completely overcome this. The weather hasn’t changed, the trees are still here and our power usage has actually increased. Lithium has arrived. We need only a fraction of the solar window that our AGM batteries demanded.
August is typically a bad solar month for us due to the sun being behind trees more as it moves from its winter angle to the summer angle. But since our Vaulta system was installed at the beginning of the month, our battery has operated optimally, with daily cycles sitting comfortably in the range of 75% -100%. 100% SOC is easily reached every day.
Vaulta had the system fully operational within a day. We still have most of our original, reliable Victron power management system, so there has been no new learning curve. For me, the task of managing the battery has disappeared from my daily routine.
And for the first August in our time in Maleny, we have had no need to throttle back our power use.
Listen to the full episode with Dominic Spooner and Mike Haydon on The Off Grid Podcast.
Interested in discussing battery storage solutions for your off-grid or residential home? Get in touch with the Vaulta team today.