When you think about innovative energy storage leaders that might see explosive growth in the years to come, you might think of Tesla Motors, Panasonic, BYD, Samsung, LG, Ambri, Eos Energy Storage, Aquion, and ViZn. But as exciting and noteworthy as each of those companies is, there’s another energy storage leader that isn’t touched by any of them.
More precisely, all of those companies are leaders or aim to be leaders in battery manufacturing, while the company to which I am alluding is standing alone in another critical sub-sector of the energy storage market.
The company to which I am referring is Younicos. Younicos combines different types of batteries and sophisticated software in order to bring to market an unprecedented energy storage solution. Below is a video introduction of the Younicos technology center we toured*. It doesn’t really discuss any of the exciting matters below, so don’t take it as a summary of the article. Other videos are sprinkled in to highlight certain points directly from the mouth of a Younicos spokesperson who showed us around.
Getting the Grid to 60% Renewables
One of the biggest challenges with making a large percentage of the electricity supply (not electricity demand) come from renewables is that, without quickly responsive storage, fossil fuel spinning reserves must be in place to deal with very short-term drops in electricity production from renewables (for example, drops in the range of a few minutes or even just a few seconds)**. Here’s a short discussion of that standing next to a diesel generator:
The typical situation now, as Philip Alexander Hiersemenzel of Younicos points out, is that coal or natural gas must fill in, and it must continuously be running in order to do so when needed, so Germany must essentially “import grid stability” and export excess coal power.
That’s where Younicos steps in.
One Younicos battery system with 100 MW** of capacity can replace 1 coal-fired power plant used for spinning reserve. 2 GW of Younicos batteries, providing ~1 hour of backup capacity, could replace all thermal power plants in Germany that are used for frequency regulation, resulting in 60% renewables and taking out about 25 conventional power plants.
Once you get up to 60-70% renewable energy, however, you need daily storage. And above 70-75%, you won’t use batteries as they would be too expensive for such needs. Power-to-gas will likely be used after that, but it is still decades before this is needed.
Younicos Gets Rolling
The Younicos system uses Samsung lithium-ion batteries, sodium-sulfur batteries, and vanadium redox flow batteries. But the special sauce that Younicos brings to this hybrid battery system is the software. Developed over the course of 8 years, this is no simple software. Philip noted that Younicos has tested dozens of different lithium-ion batteries to choose the best for its needs (we saw a case full of maybe two dozen different lithium-ion batteries they had tested) but that each of them is complicated and getting them to function very well and last long as frequency regulators is a very challenging matter. Philip noted that as different as the various lithium-ion batteries looked, they were that different on the inside. They looked very different.
Younicos has ~50 software engineers on staff as well as numerous chemical engineers and mechanical engineers. In total, it currently employs ~120 people full time.
The Younicos system is actually much faster and much more precise than a fossil fuel plant used for frequency regulation. Conventional power plants can block the grid. Batteries match it perfectly. Take a look at these graphs for a good visualization of that:
Younicos in the US
Younicos is starting out in the German market, but it is also primed to enter US markets. Earlier this year, it acquired Xtreme Power, a company which had been working on this a bit but also manufactured “advanced lead-acid batteries” and went bankrupt. About ⅓ of Younicos employees are now based in the US thanks to this acquisition.
Philip did not mention work on any particular storage projects in the US, but he said that PJM already rewards frequency regulation. Also, Xtreme Power already had ~90 MW of installed capacity when Younicos acquired it.
In the end, the competitive advantage on which Younicos is basing its business model is that it can connect batteries to the grid and offer primary frequency regulation much more cost effectively than anyone else. People are just starting to realize how important the software is and often don’t realize how challenging developing such software is. A few engineers can connect a battery to the grid, but it’s very difficult to do it well.
I don’t assume any other company has spent 8 years developing a system comparable to the one Younicos now has, and I doubt anyone else has anywhere close to 50 software engineers working to do so. If you know of a company that may compete here, let me know so that I can look into it! For now, Younicos has quickly risen to the top of the list of energy storage companies to keep an eye on.
Addendum: I ran this article by Philip for accuracy, and I also checked with him about a €3 billion figure he had discussed but I didn’t take enough notes on. Nothing came back as inaccurate, but he did want to clarify that storage needs and costs that were discussed covered battery storage generally. Here were his exact words, only with typos or such corrected for clarification:
It’s important to note that the numbers I gave in terms of batteries needed for critical system services as well as the ROUGH cost estimate hold for (almost) all electrochemical storage types, not just Younicos batteries (or, rather, battery systems laid out by us and running our software): batteries of almost any make all react within milliseconds. True, our software is also particularly fast, but the most important part of this whole suite of solutions is that it really lets you tailor the battery system (of whichever make) to each customer’s individual need. Some may want a battery that lasts twenty years, some may want to use one system for a maximum of business cases (some of which at the same time, say voltage control AND frequency regulation).
So: At today’s prices (and prices are falling) it would surely cost no more than €3 billion to provide ALL required system services from batteries, meaning that ALL fossil and nuclear plants could be switched off when their ENERGY is not needed (because there is enough renewable energy — this also means further expansion of renewables which is NOT included in the €3 billion). Not all batteries would be ours of course! 🙂 They also wouldn’t all be doing what the Schwerin unit is doing initially (i.e. “just” frequency regulation). In fact it would probably be more like our UKPN project: some batteries doing this, others that, some all of it…. This isn’t a complete road map, the point is that this is entirely doable, and EASILY so! 🙂
- 100 MW will probably be too much for one battery park. You’d want it more decentral — so maybe five 20 MW installations would replace one coal plant, or even 10 x 10….
- Too much power in the system is just as bad as too little — so coal plants need to be able to produce LESS power in case demand falls, not just “step in” if there’s not enough wind an solar. (This is the old “baseload” fairy tale. There is no baseload/generation — there is just generation and load — and they have to match!)
Thanks to Philip for sending these excellent additional comments in while on vacation!
*My cleantech tour of Germany was hosted by Germany Trade & Invest, with transportation, accommodation, and some meals covered by the organization. No content requirements have been put on me.