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Thinking inside LeBlock: An in-depth look at Leclanché’s new modular ESS solution


Cost, complexity and carbon footprint. Earlier this month, Switzerland-headquartered Leclanché launched its new, modular energy storage system solution aimed at reducing all three of these challenging points for the industry.

Called ‘LeBlock’, the vertically-integrated company has engineered its new product as a series of easily interconnected blocks of battery containers which fit neatly together with standardised power electronics. A row of Leclanché BatteryBlocks can then be plugged into a CombiBlock which contains the cooling systems and thermal management as well as energy management system (EMS) and battery performance monitoring.

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You can go back and read about some of the technical details, availability and so on in our new story from 4 May here. This time out, we're looking at the how and why Leclanché believe LeBlock solve some of the major concerns energy storage developers face. VP for system engineering Daniel Fohr and EMEA region sales and business development manager Cyril Carpentier spoke with’ Andy Colthorpe.

What were the motivations behind designing LeBlock?

Daniel Fohr: We saw there was a development into larger, higher voltage and higher capacity rated battery systems that needed a new concept of enclosure. Additionally, we wanted to improve the processes along our value chain in all aspects: that means manufacturing, transport, integration, installation onsite and operation, even up to recycling.

That led us to come up with internal development of a new integration concept. The solution clearly was to simplify it, and even maybe to find a way that the enclosure itself becomes the large body of the battery system that is not only protecting it and making it connectable to the larger sites, but also make it safe and transportable. And all of that we wanted to do while also massively reducing not only the lifetime cost of energy, but also massively reduce our logistics, carbon footprint and other environmental impacts.

Each block has the same form factor, even the blocks that contain the the infrastructure equipment, and they are all having the same interfaces to connect them to each other mechanically as well as electrically and thermally. So they're all interchangeable. Each block is fully certified as its own shipping container with a CSE certification and its own plaque. So, if you approach to the harbour with that concept, they will handle this as a 20-foot container and then along the transport route, if the local situation requires you can then start to dismantle them into smaller blocks, 10-foot equivalence or even 5-foot equivalence — whatever is needed on site to quickly deploy them to the final installation.

You mentioned that safety was an important aspect of the designed product. What makes it safe to transport, install and operate that you see as an improvement on existing options?

Daniel Fohr: One of the biggest pillars for us when we developed this solution was also to bring safety up to the next level. We have really focused a lot so that all of this experience we had with all different kinds of integration concepts, all different kinds of enclosure concepts, to make this the most safe solution we can think of.

Each block is fire resistant with 90 minute fire rating. That is a big improvement for large open areas with a large battery storage system inside. Each BatteryBlock is equipped with an automatic fire detection and suppression system, which can be customised to project requirements.

We have an overall emergency stop function that includes controlled shutdown, via our internal safety equipment or via the EMS which is continuously monitoring the system, or even a manual emergency stop [that can be] triggered by operators or first responders.

Each block has a deflagration panel on top to avoid any overpressure and harm to bystanders and of course we were aiming right from the start when we developed this concept to fulfil all the transport as well as integration standards, so we have the UL 38.3 and CSC certifications for the transport. And for safety, we had IEC safety norms for the European market and UL 9540 and NFPA standards for the US and UL market.

BatteryBlocks are coded with the green stripe, the CombiBlock containing the thermal management, EMS and controls and monitoring have the orange stripe. Image: Leclanché.

The design certainly looks and sounds like it can make installation less complex, but how does it also improve the logistics of deploying a large-scale battery system?

Cyril Carpentier: For us and a lot of other players on the market, historically, there would be one factory that is producing the container. Before doing that, you need to have some empty racks that are shipped, typically from Asia. It's a big volume that will be shipped to an integrator typically in Europe that will integrate all the racks, that will make some project-specific protection enclosure and that will design an HVAC cooling concept for that.

Then from the factory, typically from Asia, you will send all the modules in specific packaging and everything will go to the final site. So it mean that onsite, you have a lot of operations. You need to then pack the modules inside the container and make the electrical connection. It means that you have a lot of waste that you created, and you need to remove this waste. Then when you’re commissioning, only then will you discover if you have any issues with the system.

This is what we wanted to avoid. We know that there are already some other modular alternatives on the market. There are some other racking systems that exists today, that can be shipped directly within a 40-foot container that will arrive directly populated onsite. That’s a big improvement, but you will still have to manage some waste and once it's done, you'll still need to connect them. To wire them, and then wire them to a dedicated product-specific DC panel enclosure.

And once it's done, you still need to ship back this container and the waste. That's why we wanted to go one step further and we can with this approach. The idea now with LeBlock is to say okay, from the same factory, we ship everything as a 20-foot container and once you arrive, you just have to place them next to each other, then interconnect all the blocks. That’s it.

You don't have some specific cabling to do onsite. You don't need to make trenches. You don't have empty containers to get rid of. And there is no need for project-specific combiners since everything is already included in the CombiBlock. We believe we're able to save 50% of time and 40% of the costs typically [encountered], by going with this new approach.

This is very critical for some projects — to have the lowest capex possible at the beginning and to be able to easily increase the capacity, or sometimes even to relocate some batteries, to another site where you have a bigger need for them. It's quite easy to relocate and to make some augmentation plans. We designed the solution in such a way to reduce the costs and carbon footprint over the entire life.

Leclanché has delivered batteries and battery storage systems in a lot of different configurations, to different types of projects around the world, including renewables with storage, storage for electric vehicle chargers and even for marine applications. What were some of the different configurations and concepts that inspired this new approach?

Daniel Fohr: We have a really vast experience with different concepts. We’ve integrated battery storage systems in existing buildings, into sea containers, customised containers. We have systems [mounted] in concrete stations in operation in Germany.

In the US, we have a few projects with large customised enclosures. As a corporation we also have experience with battery storage on vessels and on moving vehicles, so from all of this we looked at the pros and cons [of different appraoches].

What it was like to dispatch the materials, how long the integration process took, how we want to augment, to extend capacity. Even up to what to do with the asset at end-of-life.

All of this was considered, compared, benchmarked. We found we wanted to completely rethink this outside of the box and find a completely new and innovative approach, that combines all of this into one solution that is as modular as you can be, but also as safe as you can be. And not only looking at the lifetime cost of ownership, but also, as Cyril mentioned, looking at the environmental impact.

Image: Leclanché.

Are there any particular sort of markets or applications that it's particularly well suited for? I can understand that the transportation issue might be a particularly big concern for something like the St. Kitts and Nevis project that Leclanché is doing (deploying large-scale solar-plus-storage to the Caribbean island nation), which obviously quite remote from mainland roads.

Daniel Fohr: That’s a perfect example. If you dispatch batteries to the Caribbean, you won't be able to secure a logistics route that lets you transport a 30 tonne container to the final site. What we can do is really start with the full assembly of four blocks building a 20-foot container. But then when you reach the labour in Miami, you can go on smaller ships, then reach the island and then transport it directly to the final site.

We can then dismantle them into better handle-able and more modular units, which has no effect on the system itself. You can use easily the infrastructure, the local harbour and the local roads, we don't need big machinery on site, no massive cranes. And we don't have to consider all the waste management. We have projects in operation that are 30 or 40 megawatt-hours each, where along the process 5,000 – 6,000 battery modules would be integrated. You’d have a daily truck coming, taking away your plastic, your wood and your paper waste.

Cyril Carpentier: In a hard-to-reach location like that it makes complete sense. But even for locations within Europe, or in the US, sometimes you don't have a lot of space on the site. When you need to unpack all the racks from a container to put them in another module, you need a lot of space and its complex logistically to start with one container, then two days after that you bring another one and remove the empty one. So even in locations that aren’t remote and hard to reach, it's definitely a benefit to only bring something, you drop it in and it's finished.

Daniel Fohr: The main applications we’re targeting would be microgrids or solar-backed energy storage. Plus, of course, utility-scale storage. Also a big market for us for this solution is to support the infrastructure of EV chargers, where the customers are seeking a modular solution that can expand over time if the demand for additional chargers increases or if they maybe realise they want to relocate energy.

Leclanché makes battery cells as well as storage systems. What does the supply chain look like for this product?

Daniel Fohr: We wanted to develop a technology agnostic solution that can also be a perfect vehicle for our in-house batteries. But also as a systems provider, and a technology agnostic systems provider, we also work with third party solutions.

To fully utilise the advantages of our concept, the integration has to happen where the batteries are manufactured. Otherwise, it would make no sense. So we can manufacture the blocks in Europe, as well as in Asia, but we see a quite a surge of battery manufacturing plants coming to Europe now besides our own, so our mid-term goal is to have a fully made-in-Europe solution.

Gigafactories right now are getting announced on a weekly basis in Europe, and all of our main suppliers also are moving into the European Union, which is a great advantage for us, because that allows us to continue to be battery agnostic and also to centralise our production in-house where we are in Switzerland and Germany.

The press release for LeBlock says that each BatteryBlock is capable of housing up to 744kWh per block of lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries — presumably the technology agnostic approach also extends to battery chemistry?

Daniel Fohr: Yes, we are completely agnostic. We also have a solution with graphite nickel manganese cobalt (NMC), based on our in-house modules that would go close to a megawatt-hour per block.  up to lithium titanate, there is a market for it. So we are battery agnostic, cell technology agnostic and using what is best suited for the customer and the application. [The selection of] LFP has a safety aspect to it, but it is also best suited for energy-heavy applications. If we look at high energy throughput applications, which we have in frequency regulation applications in Europe, then there's clearly also a compelling argument for graphite NMC in terms of competitive pricing.

In recent years we’ve seen a growing interest, particularly in the US, for DC-coupled solar-plus-storage and projects have started to be deployed at scale of this type. Is that a market LeBlock can be suitable for?

Daniel Fohr: We have a few projects right now in development which are specifically asking for DC integration. The block is perfectly suited because the main difference between a large solar-plus-storage AC system against the DC system is that the DC system is decentralised, and spread over the solar field, which LeBlock is perfectly suited for.

Secondly, we have designed a customised block for DC integration, that means all the DC strings come connected to another block. So you have the same form factor here as well, which will then have a third colour coding and gets attached to the block and is plug and play as well. 

Cover image: Rendering of an installation with multiple BatteryBlocks in place. Image: Leclanché. will be hosting a sponsored webinar with Leclanché on 8 June 2021, 'Rethinking energy storage: A new approach to shorten installation and simplify logistics'. Register to attend for free, here

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