What do Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Reid Hoffman, Jack Ma, and David Rubenstein have in common? No, they are not all building new rockets for interstellar exploration. The common bond between them is that all have combined their considerable financial resources to create Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Formed in 2016 with an initial capitalization of $1 billion, BEV says its investments will be “patient capital,” which means a return on its investments may not happen for 20 years or more, giving the scientists and engineers it supports the time they need to develop disruptive technologies that could change the world.
Last month, BEV announced its first two investments will be in energy storage companies — Form Energy and Quidnet Energy. Both say they are working on radical new energy storage technologies that could capture excess renewable energy for later use at very low cost. Inexpensive storage will be the key that unlocks the full potential of renewable energy technology.
According to its website, Quidnet Energy says it “operates at the nexus of energy and water to provide cost-effective, grid-scale electricity storage. This enables predictable delivery of power from intermittent sources and large-scale deployment of renewable energy. Decarbonization of the electricity grid is an essential component to solving climate change, and recognizing this, a tremendous effort is underway to bring renewable generation onto the grid, such as wind and solar.”
“However, grid decarbonization today is at an impasse. The intermittency of renewable generators are causing ever larger power swings on the grid, leading to blackouts and forced curtailments. Without a cost-effective electricity storage solution to buffer those swings and shift renewable power to when the grids needs it, renewables will be nothing but a niche source of clean power.
“Water is a vital energy resource and can be utilized to efficiently store electricity at extremely large capacities. Pumped hydro is by far the largest and most cost-effective form of energy storage today (over 100 GW worldwide). However, due to dependency on terrain, pumped hydro could not be widely implemented, until Quidnet.”
What does Quidnet do that nobody else does? According to Business Insider, it uses excess electricity to pump water into repurposed or unused oil and gas wells within shale rock formations. Call it reverses fracking. When the liquid is pumped in, the water fills cracks in the rock, creating pressure. When the water is released, the pent-up pressure is used to run turbines and generate electricity. [Note: That idea makes little sense to me. If you put 100 psi in and get 100 psi out, it seems like a wash. Perhaps that’s why I was an English major in college and not an engineer.]
The second company Breakthrough Energy Ventures is investing in is Form Energy. Here’s what they have to say about themselves. “Form Energy is developing a brand new class of ultra-low cost, long duration energy storage systems. With these new systems, renewables can be made fully firm and dispatchable year-round, and transmission capacity can be expanded without the need for new wires. If we are successful, the global electric system will be entirely reshaped, and given new form.”
Ultra-low cost? What is that all about, huh? Business Insider says the company is looking at energy storage in the $10/kWh range — less than a tenth of the lowest known cost today. Just stop and think what prices like that could do for grid scale and residential electricity storage. Then think what the EV market would like like if a 50 kWh battery cost $500 instead of $5,000. “Game change” doesn’t begin to describe it.
“If we want to power the world mainly with renewables we need to find a way to overcome that variability, so we have energy when we need it,” Form Energy CEO Ted Wiley tells MIT’s The Engine. “That means storing energy long-term with batteries to make up for a changing supply not only day by day but also week by week, and even across seasons.” One of Form Energy’s founders is Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor and co-founder of battery company A123. He is working with Marco Ferrara, an MIT PhD and expert in modeling energy storage as well as Mateo Jaramillo — a former Tesla executive who once ran that company’s drivetrain division before leading the creation of Tesla’s Energy Storage group.
The key to the Form Energy plan is using sulfur, which is abundant and cheap, instead of lithium, which is scarce and expensive. “We don’t even describe what we are making as a battery,” says Bill Woodford, a former student of Chiang’s who is involved in the new venture. “We call it a bi-directional power plant that can send energy out and also take it in and store it when needed. It’s a battery purposely built for the renewable grid.” Since baseload power accounts for half of all emissions from gas and coal, the new battery technology could not only transform how electrical energy is used but also significantly impact climate change. “You won’t talk to anyone who doesn’t think that what we’re trying to do is a little bit crazy,” says Chiang. “It’s hugely ambitious but the impact could be enormous.”
“I think everyone who invested believes that if anyone can bring a game-changing long duration storage solution to the market, it’s going to be this team,” says Chiang. The company hopes to settle on the best combination of chemicals and start large-scale prototypes to test on the grid within the next few years. “If we are successful,” says Wiley, “renewables will become the lowest cost, most dependable source of energy for the world.”