Rural Electric Co-op Blows Up Energy Storage Race With “Secret” Battery

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The nation’s sprawling network of rural electric cooperatives has become a hotbed of clean tech innovation, and the latest example is a doozy. The Minnesota-based co-op Great River Energy is teaming with the somewhat mysterious Bill Gates-backed energy storage startup Form Energy to build a new battery that can discharge for 150 hours. That beats conventional batteries by a mile and it practically guarantees that wind and solar will dominate the US energy landscape in a few short years. The big question is, how does it work?

energy storage clean power
Great River Energy will be the first to install a new energy storage system — and probably not the last (screenshot via Great River Energy).

Energy Storage For Rural Electric Cooperatives…Socialism!

For those of you new to the topic, rural electric cooperatives were established as not-for-profit entities under federal law in 1933 to electrify rural America, at a time when 90% of rural homes still had no electricity. The unique status of rural co-ops enables them to experiment with new technology to a degree that would be impractical for conventional utilities.

So, now they are on a mission to bring wind power, solar power, and advanced energy storage to their service territories.

Great River Energy is a case in point. The co-op is already engaged in several clean tech initiatives including a “virtual thermal battery” that networks thousands of individual hot water heaters. The new Form Energy battery rockets their efforts into a whole new level.

A hint as to how the new energy storage system will impact Great River’s portfolio popped up just yesterday, when the co-op announced that it is slamming the door on its massive coal power plant in North Dakota in about two years and replacing it with new wind farms.

As for influence, Great River is the umbrella for 28 other co-ops that serve 700,000 households, farms, and businesses. That’s peanuts compared to the combined might of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The organization counts about 900 electric co-ops on its membership rolls, serving 42 million people in a combined service territory that accounts for more than half of the nation’s land mass.

Not only that, but NRECA is a founding member of this thing called NRTC, which is bringing the renewable energy revolution to the rural telecommunications field.

What Is This New Battery Of Which You Speak?

As for the new energy storage technology, that’s easy — or not, as the case may be. One clue popped up in 2017, when Science Direct published an MIT study that eventually became the basis for Form Energy.

The study was titled, “Air-Breathing Aqueous Sulfur Flow Battery for Ultralow-Cost Long-Duration Electrical Storage.”

Flow batteries are a familiar feature of the CleanTechnica landscape. Flow batteries are based on the chemistry that happens when two specially tailored liquids flow adjacent to each other.

In addition, last year Form Energy won a $3.7 million grant from the Energy Department’s cutting edge clean tech funding office, ARPA-E, to develop a “long-duration energy storage system that takes advantage of the low cost and high abundance of sulfur in a water-based solution.”

ARPA-E further noted that “previous MIT research demonstrated that aqueous sulfur flow batteries represent the lowest chemical cost among rechargeable batteries.” The grant was aimed at enabling Form Energy to tackle the challenges of streamlining the architecture, lowering the cost, and improving the efficiency.

Only, not so fast. Earlier this week Business Insider took a long look at several clues Form Energy has been dropping along the way. They concluded that Form’s new battery shares characteristics with conventional flow batteries but it is rather unconventional, to say the least.

What’s The Deal With Long Duration Energy Storage?

Stay tuned for more on that whenever CleanTechnica gets a chance to connect with Form Energy.

In the meantime, let’s pause to consider the significance of this new development in energy storage.

Long duration energy storage is a key initiative of the US Department of Energy, which is eyeballing batteries that discharge for 100 hours or more in the sparkling green grid of the future.

Now consider how quickly wind and solar have edged into the grid without such batteries, and now think about how it could accelerate with them.

Bill Gates, for one, has been thinking along those lines. The zillionaire got a lot of press when he launched a nuclear energy venture called TerraPower a few years ago, but now he has Form Energy and a concentrating solar startup called Heliogen in his pocket.

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Photo (screenshot): via Great River Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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