NantEnergy, with offices in Phoenix, Arizona, and El Segundo, California, came to the One Planet Summit in New York City this week to introduce to its zinc-air battery. Compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries, the company’s zinc-air batteries offer lower cost and longer duration. And since there is little risk of overheating and fire, they require no cooling system, which adds cost to all lithium-ion battery packs.
Less Than $100 kWh
The company says its batteries — which rely on abundant and inexpensive zinc — are already at the $100 per kWh level but that the price is expected to drop lower as more batteries are manufactured and deployed. Tesla hints that it will hit the $100 per kWh mark soon, but whether that includes the cost of the external cooling system is unknown.
Before you go thinking this is yet another story about some battery breakthrough in the lab that is years away from commercialization, you should know that zinc air batteries from NantEnergy have been around for 6 years already. They are currently used in over 1,000 cell phone towers and have been installed in more than 100 villages in Africa and Asia to bring the benefits of electrical power to communities with no access to an electrical grid.
A Simple Battery
The design of the zinc-air battery is simplicity itself — plastic components including the casing, a circuit board, and zinc oxide. In the charging phase, electricity converts zinc oxide into zinc and oxygen. In the discharge phase, the cell oxidizes the zinc with air. The basic battery is little bigger than a briefcase.
The NantEnergy battery is being used in a communication tower owned by Duke Energy in North Carolina. It was able to continue producing power for three days while Hurricane Florence was battering the state. And because the tower no longer needs to be connected to the grid, Duke was able to dismantle the electrical wires that previously powered the tower and donate 13 acres of land in the Great Smokey Mountains to the National Park Service.
The company says it has plans to expand into batteries for electric cars and grid storage in the near future — markets it believes will be worth $50 billion annually. Home storage batteries are also part of its future plans according to a report in the New York Times.
Founded By Dr. Soon-Shiong
NantEnergy was founded by Dr. Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire who now owns the Los Angeles Times. Like Elon Musk, Soon-Shiong is an immigrant from South Africa. He says he knows Elon and considers him a visionary for his accomplishments in electric vehicles and energy storage. “We both are trying to make the world a better place,” he says.
Speaking about his company’s zinc-air battery, he says, “It could change and create completely new economies using purely the power of the sun, wind and air.” NantEnergy holds 100 patents on its zinc-air technology.
A Key To Inexpensive Grid Storage?
California has recently set a goal of getting all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045. The legislature has also approved up to $1 billion in subsidies for residential storage batteries. Both measures are awaiting the signature of governor Jerry Brown.
“California is obviously in need of that kind of breakthrough to meet our goals,” says Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association. “I cannot claim to be in absolute certainty that this is everything they say it is, but it’s exciting. It’s this kind of breakthrough that we expect from our innovators.”
Energy storage is the key to the renewable energy revolution. Fossil fuel advocates and some utility companies — Arizona Public Service is a prime example — are weeping into their beer and telling anyone who will listen that renewables will drive up the cost of electricity for everyone. Nonsense. The only thing that will drive up the cost of electricity is a pigheaded insistence on using coal, natural gas, and nuclear while freezing out renewables.
Buggy whip makers and Conestoga wagon manufacturers felt much the same way when the automobile came along but their protestations did them little good. “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,” a songwriter named Robert Zimmerman said more than 50 years ago. Those words are even more true today.
Battery storage will be the end of the conventional grid as it ushers in true distributed renewable energy. And not a moment too soon.
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