Our December 9th MeetUp demonstrated just how many and how broadly innovations are being made in storage, especially in our own back yard. There could be tenfold improvements in the technology coming, but these are limited by how fast all the performance claims can be validated and when the financial community, especially the banks, will trust them. We had presentations from Mark Roest at Sustainable Energy, Mike Gravely of the CEC, and Garrett Woodroof of Villara Energy.
Mark told us about the breakthrough innovations Sustainable Energy Inc. (SEI) is pursuing in creating batteries with ceramic anodes and cathodes and a saline-based gel electrolyte, using no lithium, cobalt, or rare earth materials. These are based on the decades of proven innovation from William Todorof, holder of numerous patents for ceramic materials in the electronics industry and a well-known expert. Because of the improvements in ion transfer in these electrodes, the energy density could be 8X the best of the current batteries (2300 Wh/kg vs. 250-300), they could last far longer and take many more charge cycles. The higher energy capacity also means less space needed and more range from a battery pack. This advance has focused SEI on trucks as their beachhead market, specifically in cargo transfer vehicles in ports and long-distance Class 8 trucks. SEI has interest from companies converting standard vehicles to all-electric versions. That is a market not really open to conventional batteries due to weight and size limitations. It also opens up more possibilities for electric aircraft where weight and size are so important.
Todorof is making prototypes in a small lab and showing very good performance (2.4+ open-circuit voltage, resistance around 1 Ohm). The next step is likely to find $1-5 million to produce enough finished batteries to demonstrate the technology and eventually move to a $100-300 million production facility. Todorov has decades of experience engineering ceramics manufacturing processes for electronics companies, so is no neophyte in this kind of scale-up. The materials cost is modest. The long-term goal is to make batteries at a cost of $20/kWh capacity, compared to current prices ten times higher.
Mike Gravely explained just how serious the CEC is in accelerating innovations in storage technology. Over $100 million was invested in storage technology in 2020 (including matching funds) and with awards to 15 teams. That number is boosted to a planned $340 million investment in FY 2021-22 intended to go to over a dozen awards. While some of the money is focused on supporting innovators at the earliest stages, the bulk of the money is targeted to underwrite the building of demonstration projects that will provide the experience needed to make storage projects financeable and commercially viable. The CEC well understands that the success of a zero-carbon energy system may depend crucially on having inexpensive, high capacity and long-duration storage. The CEC is looking at non-lithium ion battery technologies as well as improvements to current technology. The range of options they are funding includes flywheel systems (“mechanical batteries”), flow batteries, compressed air energy storage, and water storage. If you are pursuing some kind of energy storage product, you really should reach out to Mike at the CEC. (Mike.Gravely@energy.ca.gov)
Garrett showed how local long-time building systems company Villara (through a new subsidiary) has come up with its own home energy storage product (VillaGrid) to challenge the established players with a new technology concept that promises superior results. It comes in two sizes with 5+ or 10+ kWh of storage. The main difference in Villara’s product is the use of Lithium Titanate Oxide (LTO) batteries from Toshiba. LTO batteries do not use a graphite anode, which is a safety risk. LTO batteries also last longer, hold more charge per unit, and can operate in a much wider temperature range. The come in two configurations—one that maximizes energy storage, and one that maximizes power output. The product is more expensive on a first cost basis than a Tesla PowerWall, but on a full lifetime kWh cost is actually much less than the cost of Tesla.
Villara Energy is assembling these systems locally in space at McClellan Business Park and have ten employees. Their current production rate is about 50 per month. Garrett said they hope to increase to 30-50 people next year, with a goal to having as any as 500 employees. At that scale they will definitely be selling products beyond the local area.
Villara Energy has also entered into a deal with Lumin to use its smart panels as a way to achieve load control and best use of the battery systems for backup of critical loads.
The parent company, Villara Building Systems, has been on a path to diversify its offerings and be at the frontier on new energy technology. They are becoming a much more significant clean tech player in the region. They started with an increased focus on energy efficiency improvements and now have created a unit focusing on solar installations, which will be working in tandem with Villara Energy to offer storage options.
The discussion sessions was extensive with lots of good nuggets that came out. If you missed it or want to review it, the session was recorded and is available on YouTube. You should take a look.
This was the last MeetUp of the year. We will return in January with the next one.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.