Home battery storage has grown precipitously in recent years, but it still doesn’t match the scale and accessibility of a home appliance.

Orison has been trying to change that since 2013. Now, the Wyoming-based startup is preparing to ship its sleek, plug-in home battery panels in July for field tests in Australia, Europe and the U.K., where it has met the safety standards for operation.

“We wanted to be more of a consumer electricity product, a simple solution for consumers,” founder and CEO Eric Clifton said in an interview. “The idea was an appliance that is not infrastructure, because the entire storage industry was still looking at it as infrastructure.”

The formerly crowdfunded company announced Monday that it closed an $8.5 million seed round and is opening up a Series A. Australian electricity retailer Origin participated in the seed funding and signed a memorandum of understanding to put up to 4,000 Orison battery devices into customer homes starting early next year. 

A full U.S. commercial launch is expected by year’s end, pending UL safety certification of the product model geared for the American grid.

Lowering barriers to adoption

Home battery companies aspire to make essential connected home devices. Shell subsidiary sonnen stuck its ecoLinx batteries in every living room of an apartment complex in Utah to emphasize the personal connection. But today’s battery offerings still require specialized installation, permitting and utility involvement. They’re a long way off from the experience of buying a TV or smart speaker.

Orison took a different approach. It will ship the components to a customer, who can then assemble them — no piece weighs more than 28 pounds — and plug the system into the wall. Once installed, the battery and a connected home energy monitor will coordinate charge and discharge around rooftop solar production and time-based utility rates. In an outage, the battery can’t automatically island the home, but devices plugged into it will continue to operate. 

The energy monitor costs $300 and the battery system costs $2,200 for 1.8 kilowatts/2.2 kilowatt-hours. That translates to a far less favorable system price per kilowatt-hour than Tesla’s Powerwall, which packs 13.5 kilowatt-hours for $6,500. 

But Powerwalls require wiring auxiliary equipment and hours of installation labor, and Orison’s product does not. That makes the all-in price more competitive on a dollar per kilowatt-hour basis. And Orison has the benefit of a considerably smaller entry-level price point, which could entice customers who want to try storage but don’t want to drop upward of $10,000.

With products made by “the competition, you’re looking at permits, you’re looking at utility approval, multiple estimates of construction costs,” Clifton said. “Ours, literally, we can ship it to you within a week and you can be up and running. […] It’s instant gratification.” 

Demand for this is still an unproven proposition because storage providers have not offered home batteries on a truly plug-and-play basis. But that’s where Orison’s crowdfunding episode comes in. The company had funded its early development with money from high-net-worth individuals and angel investors before it launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2016.

“The Kickstarter campaign we did less for the money [and] more to show investors that consumers wanted the product,” Clifton said. It drew 415 backers, who together pledged 700 percent of the target amount.

The limits of an appliance

This unique approach to residential batteries comes with some tradeoffs. For one, rules for conventional battery equipment, such as eligibility criteria for California’s lucrative Self-Generation Incentive Program, weren’t written with appliance-based storage in mind. Orison is working with authorities to ensure its style of storage is treated like other types of storage, Clifton said.

More permanently, the micro-storage appliance model constrains the kinds of things Orison batteries can do. 

“In order to be an appliance, we can never export power beyond the utility meter,” Clifton said.

But the batteries can reduce household demand to zero, reducing peak-hour electricity bills and helping utilities lower peak demand on their system. That’s not so different from networks of more typical batteries, which are linked into virtual power plants to respond to grid needs; utilities sometimes forbid exporting power, even when the batteries are capable of it.

Batteries installed for whole-home backup include an automatic transfer switch to island the house from the distribution grid. Orison, as a plug-in appliance, does not. But customers who need backup power for life-saving medical devices, for instance, can plug directly into the Orison panel, using it like “a mini generator that doesn’t emit fumes,” Clifton said. 

Early launch in Australia

Australia’s grid dynamics create an opportunity that is well tailored to Orison’s capabilities. 

Generous early feed-in tariffs for rooftop solar led to a widespread build-out, but those payment schemes have dropped off. Adding energy storage lets customers put their solar to better economic use by shifting it into the evening hours, instead of exporting at a low rate.

It helps that the typical rooftop system in Australia is around 2 kilowatts, Clifton said; that’s much smaller than the average in the U.S. and a much better fit for Orison’s storage capacity.

Utility Origin generates power and serves retail customers, a business model known as “gen-tailer.” It competes for retail customers, trying to convince new ones to sign up and existing customers to stay. Offering a battery like Orison’s to reactivate rooftop solar and reduce bills could help with that.

At the same time, Origin must source power for all its customers. Having a network of 4,000 batteries under its control means the company could turn down demand during peak hours, reducing exposure to buying expensive power from the market during those times.

The companies are still figuring out what the pricing scheme looks like, Clifton said. Origin could sell the units to customers, for instance, or offer storage as a service. In the U.S., Vermont utility Green Mountain Power subsidized Powerwalls for customers if they granted permission to the utility to operate them for peak events. Other utilities pay customers for the use of home batteries via virtual power plants.

What is clear is that working with Origin gives Orison, with just a handful of employees based in Cody, Wyoming, a major distribution channel to an overseas market. A 4,000-unit network would be equivalent to more than half the residential battery installations in the U.S. during its record-breaking first quarter, according to the latest Energy Storage Monitor.