Now on Kickstarter: a new kind of spinning energy storage device

Velkess

Will Kickstarter prove to be a good source for some of the geekier next-gen energy technologies? Well, crowdfunding has certainly emerged as an interesting new opportunity for solar roofs. On Monday entrepreneur Bill Gray launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his energy storage technology startup Velkess.

Gray has spent the last six years at Velkess developing a new type of flywheel, which is traditionally an energy storage device that uses large spinning discs inside a vacuum. The rotation of the discs is stored as kinetic energy (or movement), and flywheels are used like batteries, usually as backup power for data centers. Research firm Lux Research estimated that flywheels and ultracapacitors could make up 10 percent of the datacenter backup power market market by 2016. Gray is excited about the possibilities of using his flywheels for enabling the addition of more clean power to the grid and combined with solar roofs.

Traditional flywheels, made by companies like Beacon Power, use rigid materials like steel, and are made with ultra precision engineering and manufacturing. That makes them pretty expensive. Velkess’ technology, in contrast, is made with fiber glass and is much more flexible, and thus much more low cost. “Think about it as a jet engine versus a cowboy lasso,” explained Gray in an interview recently.

Picture the material used for shower doors, or fishing rods or tennis rackets, but without an underlying matrix or frame. Velkess is using that type of material almost like a rope or flexible hoop, said Gray. While Gray didn’t share many specific numbers, he said by using this type of material, the Velkess flywheel could be cheaper than using lead acid batteries for backup power over ten years.

Gray is looking to raise $54,000 to help him build a large 750-pound prototype of the flywheel. To date he’s bootstrapped the company, but he says he needs those tens of thousands of dollars to buy the next level of magnets needed for the large model. He says he’s been working with contractors in San Jose on testing technologies, and has made 50 prototypes, but with these funds he’ll build the first close-to-scale prototype product.

Gray is excited about the possibility of crowdfunding as he says it gives entrepreneurs like him — that don’t come from a university, don’t have government backing and don’t go the venture capital route — an opportunity to raise money from a community. Backers of the Velkess flywheel can get incentives like a Velkess sweatshirt or a mini toy prototype.

Manufacturing flywheels at scale, like most capital intensive energy technologies, has proved to be difficult at times. Flywheel maker Beacon Power was awarded a Department of Energy loan guarantee but then later went bankrupt and was sold to a private equity firm. Financing for cleantech innovations have dried up significantly in recent years, with venture capitalists putting a third less funding into cleantech startups in 2012. Government funding will also likely be constrained in 2013.

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