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Form Energy Picks Weirton, West Virginia, For Iron-Air Battery Factory

After vetting 500 possible sites, Form Energy has chosen a city in West Virginia to be the site of its first iron-air battery factory.

Form Energy is a battery startup founded by Mateo Jaramillo, who left Tesla several years ago to focus on long duration energy storage. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to transitioning to renewable energy is the problem of intermittency. A nuclear or coal fired generating station makes electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for decades. That makes the electricity they create dispatchable — which means it will be there, ready to go, whenever there’s a demand.

A solar power plant makes electricity for a few hours a day. Wind turbines only turn when the wind is blowing. That makes the electricity they create less dispatchable. Energy storage can help solve the dispatchability issue, but most battery storage installations today can only provide electricity back to the grid for about 4 hours. That gets us from sundown to about 10 pm. What happens after that?

Jaramillo has assembled a team that thinks it has the answer — iron-air batteries than last for up to 100 hours. That promise has attracted a lot of money from investors who recognize this new technology — if it works — will open up a whole new paradigm for renewable energy. The company recently closed a $450 million funding round and said it would use some of that money to construct its first factory. On December 22, it announced it had chosen the former steel town of Weirton, West Virginia, as the site for what will be known as Form Factory One.

The new factory is a godsend for Weirton. Located in the state’s northern peninsula, it is located between the two former steel cities — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown, Ohio. The company says the factory will inject over $700 million into the local economy, including $290 million in incentives from the state. West Virginia has also put up $70 million to purchase a 55-acre site and build the new factory. It will continue to own both the land and the factory.

Form Energy says it considered more than 500 locations for its first factory. “It became abundantly clear that Weirton, West Virginia, that historic steel community that sits on a river and has the rich heritage, raw infrastructure and know-how to make great things out of iron, would be the ideal location for our first commercial battery production facility: Form Factory One,” Jaramillo said in a press release. Construction will begin in 2023 with production slated to begin in 2024.

Cutting Edge Technology

Last year, CleanTechnica published excerpts of a conversation between Jaramillo and CNBC correspondent Lora Kolodny. Here is some of what he had to say.

“The cheapest available source of electricity in the world today comes from a renewable resource, and that’s either solar or wind, depending on which region you’re in. But if you’re looking for the marginally cheapest cost of electricity, it is going to be renewable today. And of course, the thing about renewable energy is that it’s driven by weather, and weather in only predictable to a certain degree, and it’s intermittent. That means that in order to enable a fully renewable decarbonized grid, we need to be able to store intermittent sources of energy over all the relevant timescales.

“Yes, the sun does go down every night and very helpfully comes back every morning — so that’s one gap that we have to bridge. But then we start to think about gaps associated with seasons or with longer-period weather patterns, and because renewable electricity has made such huge gains in the last 15 to 20 years, we’re now at penetration levels where we do have to think very hard about the last 30% or 40% of the electric system and exactly how we’re going to provide a level of reliability and cost using a renewable or generator like what we have.

“If we’re going to have an electric system that is not only 100% renewables driven — by wind, water and solar — then we do need to think about these periods of intermittence that are longer than just a few hours at a time. And that means it also has to be a lot cheaper than what lithium ion can do .

“Iron is a phenomenally abundant metal substance. It’s the most mined metal on Earth. Humans know a lot about it. It’s also very cheap. It’s abundant on every continent. “We are now working on devices that truly are 1/10th the cost of what lithium ion in the future could be, [which means] we really can enable this deeply decarbonized, highly renewable, affordable, reliable electric grid.

“What does that mean — an iron air battery? It means very simply that we are rusting and unrusting iron, electrochemically. That’s what we’re doing. It’s a very reversible process, but you have to be really good at exactly how you do that.

Transitioning To A Zero Emissions Energy Grid

Let’s think for minute what this announcement might mean. 100 hour storage capacity at one tenth the cost of lithium-ion? Can you imagine how that would upend the utility industry? No more methane-powered peaker plants. No more coal-fired baseload thermal generating stations. No new nuclear power plants. Forget about fusion power or space-based solar. Who needs them?

Pumped hydro is the most common form of long term energy storage used today, but it can be frightfully expensive and takes a long time to construct. Imagine if local communities could afford to install solar panels and energy storage right where they are needed most. How might that accelerate the trend toward microgrids?

It seems entirely possible that what Form Energy is doing will have all sorts of ramifications. It can insulate nations against the lunatic machinations of tyrants like Vladimir Putin so they control their own energy supply. It can turbocharge the transition to emissions-free electricity at a time when the world desperately needs to slash emissions. And it can hasten the closing of coal and natural gas generating plants everywhere around the world.

The arrival of long duration batteries also comes at an economic inflection point that will be hugely beneficial to Form Energy. The Inflation Reduction Act now makes standalone energy storage installations eligible for federal tax credits. Prior to the passage of that law, they had to be part of a wind or solar farm in order to qualify. Jaramillo couldn’t have known that was going to happen when he left Tesla to start his own business in 2016, but it will provide a significant boost to his company’s profitability.

The Takeaway

We write about a lot of clean energy and clean transport developments here at CleanTechnica, but few of them are as exciting as the promise of low cost long duration energy storage. “Game-changer” is a much overworked phrase, but it applies to what Form Energy is doing. This will change everything and in ways we can’t even imagine today.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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