When Tesla’s Powerwall home battery made its debut last spring, some headlines predicted it would “eliminate electricity bills,” while others took it a step further saying it would “change the world.” The promise of storing energy from residential solar panels onsite, rather than selling it to a utility company and buying it back, caught the attention of early solar adopters. Even those without solar panels took a liking to the system’s ability to cut down on energy bills by storing utility-supplied power when rates are low for use during peak hours.
Tesla is still running a waiting list for the Powerwall, and even the first to reserve their systems will have to wait until later this year for installation. In the meantime, companies like Samsung are hopping in the race to develop a Powerwall killer. Now, there’s another option on the horizon. And here’s the kicker — you can install it yourself.
Yep, the first true plug-and-play energy storage system is here, and it’s available for pre-order on Kickstarter. Homeowners who snag the early-bird special can get one for as little as $1,200.
Dreamed up by San Diego-based energy storage startup Orison, the system can be installed in only a few seconds: Just plug it into an indoor outlet, and you’re done (seriously). “The future of sustainable energy depends on mass adoption,” the company wrote on its Kickstarter page. “And the mass adoption of any technology begins with ease of use.” The company expects to deliver the first units this summer.
The fact that the first plug-and-play storage system to hit the market will likely come from a small startup, rather than a tech giant, makes the whole thing pretty impressive. But we couldn’t help but wonder if it’s too good to be true, especially given the string of very public crowdfunding scams to hit our newsfeeds over the years. So, we spoke with Eric Clifton, CEO and co-founder of Orison, to get the low-down on the product.
Small system, big idea
Clifton, a former member of the national board of directors for the U.S. Green Building Council, has been working in the smart-home technology space for nearly 15 years. His focus for the better part of a decade has centered around ways to reduce peak-demand by connecting utilities directly to home-automation and building-management products.
“One of the things I learned in the space is that most of the utility demand-response programs have to deal with taking something away from the customer, whether that’s time or temperature, in order for the grid to thrive,” Clifton told 3p in an exclusive interview. “So, that was the sort of thinking that I was trying to prevent: How do we give the customer everything they want but still reduce that demand and manage the grid?”
Clifton and his business partners, robotics expert and entrepreneur John Kohut and JPL alum Greg Smedley, tested and perfected their inaugural energy-storage product over three years before unveiling it on Kickstarter. The trio’s startup, Orison, is in the midst of raising its Series A funding. Its founders hope the visibility the crowdfunding platform affords will show investors that customers are willing and ready to pay for the product, Clifton said.
“We wanted to show potential investors the desire by the community for this type of product. Fortunately groups like Tesla, when they announced what they were doing, brought a lot of interest to the space. So, that helped us and any other energy storage company get some visibility.”
Some Kickstarter users were quick to express skepticism about the viability of the technology in the comments section, some questioning whether a plug-and-play solution will comply with U.S. electric codes and others wondering if such a technology is even possible. Clifton, who is actively replying to user questions in the comments, said engaging a lively discussion is part of the reason he chose Kickstarter in the first place.
“That’s one of the best parts,” he told 3p. “We get input from all different walks of life and all different spaces. The nice thing about it is it allows us to continue to fine-tune and hone, and maybe pick up some things that we could have missed along the way.”
Clifton told us industry feedback has been positive so far and said Orison is also in talks with utility companies about offering the system as part of their services. Clifton said the company isn’t ready to disclose the locations of these utilities, only that “they’re not all in the U.S.”
A look at the system
The Orison battery is available in two variations — a tower and a panel — building on the tech trend of style-first (think: the Nest’s uncanny ability to make thermostats cool). Weighing in at 38 pounds, Orison’s battery tower looks like a cross between a cylinder fan and a Wi-Fi router. The 34-inch tower, which also functions as an LED light and bluetooth speaker, is designed to be placed on the floor (prominently, of course). The 40-pound panel, which also functions as an LED light, can be mounted on the wall and comes in a variety of colors to suit the owner’s decor (see above).
The systems are insanely small compared to the Powerwall, which weighs more than 200 pounds — and Clifton told us a small size was his cohort’s primary goal, ranking even above storage capacity.
“The size was dictated by weight, and we didn’t know where we were going to end up with the total capacity,” he told 3p. “We just knew we needed to stay under 40 pounds for what we believed the market segment is looking for. So, we were actually a little bit surprised. We were thinking it would originally be maybe 1 kWh to 1.5 kWh.”
Both units store 2.2 kilowatt-hours of energy: less than it takes to do a load of laundry but enough to keep the lights on for 10 or more hours during an outage.
Fortunately, like the Powerwall, the Orison system is modular — meaning users can spend up to add more storage capacity. As many as five so-called ‘Panel+’ units can be added to a main Panel for up to 13.2 kWh of storage on a single circuit, compared to 10 kWh for the largest home Powerwall.
The Orison system’s coveted 40-pound size is a significant drop from the startup’s earlier prototype, which weighed in at 140 pounds. Employing new power electronics — namely an ultra-thin inverter — allowed the Orison team to achieve the 100-pound drop, Clifton said.
“We’ve been able to actually take those power electronics and condense them down into a package that’s about an inch thick, 6.5 inches wide and 9 inches tall,” he explained. “It’s very, very small. It weighs 2.5 pounds. So, that’s really the crux to where we have the ability to be smaller than everybody else.”
So, is it worth it?
The Orison Panel will retail at $1,600, with each supplemental unit costing $1,100. Taking into account the plug-and-play factor, which eliminates the need for costly professional installation, that’s a pretty attractive deal — and homeowners are clearly taking notice: The company’s Kickstarter campaign blew past its initial $50,000 goal in the first 24 hours. It was featured as Kickstarter’s project of the day on Wednesday and now has more than $215,000 in backing.
While lingering hurdles remain — namely ensuring compliance with national electric codes — Clifton told us he’s confident in his team. “The hope is that we can do everything that we say that we can do, and we believe we can.”
The Orison team plans to obtain UL certification for its flagship product before delivering to customers. Clifton said it’s not possible to obtain this certification for a non-compliant product, so those worried that they may be shipped an illegal item can rest easy. In the event that Orison can’t deliver on its promises, it will refund Kickstarter backers’ money, Clifton said.
“I’d want nothing less,” he told 3p. “The whole point of this exercise is to get people involved in a concept which is very different than what else is out there in the world, so people really start pushing toward it. Otherwise we’re not going to make any progress in innovation.”
The startup’s ultimate aim is to spur renewable energy adoption, with homeowners choosing the use the batteries in tandem with residential solar. Since solar and wind power are variable by nature, reliable and efficient energy storage has long been considered the key to widespread renewable energy adoption. And, after quadrupling its initial funding goal with 29 days to go, the Orison Kickstarter campaign is poised to prove that homeowners are indeed interested in generating and storing their own power.
So, what do you think? Would pre-order one of these systems? Tell us about it in the comments section and on social media.
Images courtesy of Orison via Kickstarter