Behind the scenes of Aquion Energy’s battery factory & the future of solar storage

45 Comments

Credit: Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom

Drive about 45 minutes southeast of downtown Pittsburgh, out to the edge of Westmoreland County, and you’ll reach a sprawling, cavernous factory whose history shadows the ebb and flow of technology trends and American manufacturing.

In the late 1960s, Chrysler, fresh off the American muscle car wave, started building the plant, but as the seventies approached and the price of oil rose, it suspended construction without making a single car. Fast forward a decade and German car company Volkswagen stepped in — rolling the boxy Rabbit off the line — but that era was hit with a lethal combo of worker unrest, awkward car designs and dropping oil prices that took the sheen off Volkswagen’s small-car edge.

The 2.3 million sq. foot factory in Westmoreland County, PA. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

The 2.3-million-square-foot factory in Westmoreland County, PA. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

In the nineties, it was Japanese giant Sony’s turn and the company used the site to make rear-projection televisions, but a few years later LCD and plasma screens made that tech obsolete. As low-cost production moved to Asia, Sony’s plans for most of its U.S. factories were canned.

It’s as if the two-million-square-foot factory that sits in the city of Mount Pleasant has always been home to a series of downward-trending tech cycles. But perhaps this year will see the end of that industrial version of Groundhog Day.

The factory, owned by the state and now leased to a variety of tenants, is the brand-new home to a company that could be a leader in the emerging market for low-cost batteries that can be plugged into the power grid and paired with solar panels.

Aquion Energy's new factory in Westmoreland County, PA. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher,Gigaom.

Aquion Energy’s new factory in Westmoreland County, PA. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher,Gigaom.

The new tenant is young battery startup Aquion Energy, which has set up shop in a small section of the huge factory. It’s churning out ultra-simple, low-cost and non-toxic batteries made from a combination of salt water, carbon and manganese oxide.

Aquion is farther head than most of its competitors, many of which are still in the R&D and prototyping stage: It’s made, and is in the process of shipping, about 2 MWh worth of batteries to customers since the beginning of 2014 and plans to ship several more multiple MWh this year. In terms of individual battery units, that means it will ship somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 batteries this year.

The energy storage market will potentially be worth some tens of billions of dollars in the coming years and Aquion’s factory is the first of its kind at this scale. Solar companies are starting to install battery banks next to solar farms so that the batteries can store solar energy during the day to be used after the sun goes down. Remote communities are beginning to pair batteries and solar panels to disconnect from the grid. Down the road, utilities will more commonly buy these types of batteries to better manage the grid.

On a tour of the factory last week, Jay Whitacre, Aquion Energy founder and CTO — a Professor of materials science at Carnegie Mellon University who invented the chemistry used in these batteries — showed me the first installed manufacturing line and walked me through the process of how an Aquion Energy battery gets made. Along the way, he could barely contain his excitement over the fact that a venture that was once just an idea in his head is now shipping product and bringing in revenue.

Aquion Energy founder and CTO Jay Whitacre inspects a battery that's ready to ship to a customer. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Aquion Energy founder and CTO Jay Whitacre inspects a battery that’s ready to ship to a customer. He invented the battery chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.  Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

From idea to product

Whitacre started investigating the battery tech in 2007 in his Carnegie Mellon lab, using a rigorous “economic-first” analysis. The energy industry is “dominated by economics,” and any energy storage battery product has to make the economics work first and foremost, explains Whitacre.

Lead acid batteries, which have been on the market for decades, are relatively inexpensive but degrade fairly quickly. Their energy density (the amount of energy they can store) is relatively low, they don’t operate very well under hot temperatures and — of course — they contain lead. Still, lead acid batteries are commonly used in off-grid solar systems.

Lithium ion batteries are starting to be used more frequently for the power grid. They provide much more energy density than lead acid batteries, but historically they’ve been pretty expensive, and also don’t last that long without degrading. Electric car maker Tesla (s TSLA) says it can lower the price of lithium ion batteries significantly through its massive battery factory, but whether that’s true remains to be seen.

Despite being widely available, neither lead acid nor lithium ion batteries appear to be a great fit for the power grid and solar panels. In particular, they’re not all that great at storing solar energy from a solar farm. Lithium ion batteries might be pretty good at moving a vehicle, using high power and providing short, shallow bursts of energy, but clean power applications generally need several hours’ worth of sustained, lower-power energy.

The energy storage industry needed an entirely new way of looking at the problem.

Aquion Energy founder Jay Whitacre explains the architecture of the battery. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Aquion Energy founder Jay Whitacre explains the architecture of the battery. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Whitacre began testing combinations of low-cost materials and simple battery designs in the hopes of coming up with a product that would be as cheap as possible, easy to manufacture and able to be operated for a long time without degrading at any temperature. He threw out materials that didn’t work and sought to “fail fast” with his iterations.

Early on he met David Wells, a partner with Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins, who told him something like, “If you ever see great results, let me know.” About a year later, Whitacre came up with a promising combination and Wells, true to his word, led Kleiner to incubate the company in its early life.

Around that time Ted Wiley, who is now Aquion’s now VP of product and corporate strategy, was fresh out of business school and began working on a field study of the battery tech for Kleiner Perkins. Whitacre ultimately asked Wiley to join him as Aquion’s first employee. Wiley says joining the company early on was “total luck.” He ran its operations for the first two years and led the spin-out of the company from Carnegie Mellon.

The rise and fall of cleantech in Silicon Valley

At first, venture capital funding for Aquion was readily available. With Kleiner in early, and the cleantech Valley bubble inflating between 2008 and 2011, Whitacre says he saw a surge of attention: “At the time I didn’t really understand what drove all the interest from Silicon Valley, but I was happy to take the money.” Following Kleiner Perkins’ early rounds and a small amount of Department of Energy funding, Valley firm Foundation Capital led a $30 million round in 2011. The round, which also included Advanced Technology Ventures and TriplePoint Capital, was oversubscribed, says Whitacre.

But by 2012, Silicon Valley sentiment around cleantech had started to sour. The term and industry had become politicized, there had been a series of high- profile Valley-backed bankruptcies like Solyndra and Fisker, and many venture capitalists ended up losing money and faith in the sector. Today, venture funding for cleantech startups is below what it was during the bubble years.

Solyndra's ground breaking ceremony in 2009, featuring a live video feed of Vice President Joe Biden. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Solyndra’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2009, featuring a live video feed of Vice President Joe Biden. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Aquion needed more funds to continue to grow its business and to move into manufacturing. The company wanted to start commercializing its tech in 2014 and 2015 in order to capitalize on a growing energy storage market and get to market faster than competitors. Complicating the difficult funding environment further, Aquion had recently switched its anode-materials blend to a higher-energy, better-performing one. That was great, but if there’s one thing all investors worry about, it’s technology uncertainty and risk.

“Early 2013 was tough. There was an about-face in the investing community. They realized they needed to be more cautious and that this sector can have longer-term ventures,” says Whitacre.

In 2013, Aquion Energy didn’t target new Valley investors. It instead closed funds from family offices and international investors. Tao Invest — the fund of billionaire family the Prizkers, who also own Hyatt hotels — joined. Hong Kong–based fund Yung’s Enterprise came in, as did Russian firm Bright Capital. Aquion also raised money from high-profile billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who has backed other battery startups, too.

That round “was a huge deal for us. I don’t know where we would be without it,” says Whitacre. In all, Aquion has raised over $100 million to get its batteries to market.

Aquion Energy founder Jay Whitacre standing next to a battery stack. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Aquion Energy founder Jay Whitacre standing next to a battery stack. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Aquion is now selling its first battery stack product, the S-10, for $850 per stack (2 kWh each). Seven or eight battery units make up a stack. Twelve stacks make up a module, which runs for around $11,000. At those prices out of the gate, Aquion is selling its batteries for below $500 per kWh — on par with lead acid batteries, but they last longer without degrading and are guaranteed for at least 3,000 cycles. If the batteries are charged and discharged, say, once a day, they should last for more than eight years.

Those prices are just the beginning. Aquion’s goal is to drop its prices below $350 per kWh by the end of 2015 and to make them progressively cheaper after that, getting the cost under $200 per kWh by 2020.

At those prices, Aquion could see a whole new market open up for utility-scale power grid management. Right now, most customers are buying the batteries for offgrid solar and are willing to pay the higher prices partly because they want to be among the first to use the tech.

Battery stacks and modules in Aquion Energy's factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Battery stacks and modules in Aquion Energy’s factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Making the battery: Behind the scenes

The Aquion battery’s secret sauce is its electrode blend. Traditionally, a battery is made up of a positive electrode, a negative electrode and an electrolyte that sits in the middle and shuttles ions between the two electrodes during charging. Aquion uses a dry manganese oxide powder for the positive electrode and a dry carbon powder for the negative one. Saltwater fills the battery to conduce the charging and discharging. On some of the assembled battery units I checked out, you can actually see the dried salt crystals on the outside of the packaging.

Material powders that go into Aquion's electrodes. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom

Material powders that go into Aquion’s electrodes. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom

At one end of the factory sit stuffed sacks of powdered materials, like these shown above. On a floor above the main factory, Aquion workers mix together the electrode blend. The powders are then stamped into dry pellets that look like square hockey pucks made of pencil tips. The “hockey pucks” come off the assembly line and are assembled into the battery module.

The powders get stamped into dry pellets. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom

The powders get stamped into dry pellets. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom

The pellets are smooth to the touch, lightweight and leave a slight dark residue on your fingers when you pick them up, like the way a pencil tip does.

Machines that pick and place the electrodes into the battery units. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Machines that pick and place the electrodes into the battery units. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Once the electrodes are made, a machine picks them up and puts them in the right place to be assembled into a battery unit. It’s the same type of machine that puts chocolates into those heart-shaped Valentine’s Day boxes. When the battery casing is filled, it looks like this (this is one that was put aside because the metal closure was tweaked):

Cross section of an Aquion Energy battery, showing the cathode and anode pairs. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Inside of an Aquion Energy battery, showing the cathode and anode pairs. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Once the battery’s electrodes and separators are fully assembled, it’s filled with saltwater. Then it’s basically done, closed up and can be stacked with 7 or 8 more batteries.

An Aquion Energy battery unit. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

An Aquion Energy battery unit. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

The batteries are relatively heavy once they’re fully assembled. I could pick one up, but I wouldn’t want to carry it for a long distance. Remember they’re filled with saltwater.

Battery units stacked up on the metal rods. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Battery units stacked up on the metal rods. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

The modules get computing and software units that Aquion Energy is developing in-house. The market is growing for battery software, developed by startups and big companies alike. Aquion is also working with other integrators that make software, like Princeton Power Systems. After the computing top, the battery gets an Aquion-branded cap.

Computing units for Aquion Energy battery modules. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Computing units for Aquion Energy battery modules. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

All of the battery stacks and units are tested before going out the door. In hot rooms, for instance, the batteries are tested operating at 40 and 50 degrees Celsius (104 degrees F and 122 degrees F). One of the benefits of the Aquion battery is that it can run just fine in a hot environment, like a super sunny solar field.

Battery modules being tested at Aquion's factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Battery modules being tested at Aquion’s factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Currently, Aquion is running one manufacturing line and can make 200 MWh worth of batteries per year. It can produce 1 to 2 battery units a minute and already there are batteries in the queue ready to be shipped.

Batteries ready to ship at Aquion Energy's factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Batteries ready to ship at Aquion Energy’s factory. Image courtesy of Katie Fehrenbacher, Gigaom.

Down the road, Aquion plans to expand production to five battery lines, which will be able to make over a gigawatt hour of batteries per year.

Though Aquion is charging ahead with commercial manufacturing, it won’t be a large-scale factory for awhile. And of course, despite all of the good intentions and hard work already done, a lot can go wrong when it comes to scaling up this type of manufacturing. No doubt there will be future hurdles that Aquion will have to overcome.

The ultimate test of Aquion’s success will come from its customers, particularly the early ones. This first set of customers is willing to pay initially higher prices for the chance to use a new and exciting technology. And they are primarily using the batteries for offgrid solar projects. Down the road, when the batteries are cheaper, utilities and grid management will be the bigger fish to catch.

While Aquion has a way to go before it can scale up enough to change the game for solar and grid power, it’s an example of an emerging technology that’s at the beginning of a transformational change in the energy industry. It’s not a company that’s riding a wave of a fading tech trend. If anything, it could be too early. But I’m predicting that it’s going to be inhabiting that Pennsylvania factory for a long time, employing local workers and developing an entirely brand new type of American manufacturing.

Updated to reflect that Jay Whitacre is still a full time professor at CMU.

45 Comments

ferrell parker

I don’t know where 100 million dollars went,but it sure didn’t go into that factory.if I were an investor in this company,i would hire someone with a big boot and knew how to use it.

Todd Sumner

First problem is that salt water freezes around 18 degrees Fahrenheit. It could be less based on the salt concentration, but -6 degrees Fahrenheit is the lowest freeze point when salt completely saturates in water?

Next, there were no discussions on the charge and discharge rates of this chemical battery. If they cannot be charged rapidly, then you could have issues if the batteries are unable to absorb enough power while they are in a discharged state. Also, they need to be able to deliver large amount of power in standby applications.

Finally, it is obvious that these units are extremely large compared to Li-ion. The cost to house them will surely be greater.

Mike Swift

From Aquion’s data sheet the batteries have an operating temperature range of -5º to 40ºc, but because of their size, and mass I would think it would be no big problem keeping the battery warm from just normal operation as losses, (heat), are 10% to 20% of the energy transferred.

Again from their data sheet although you can draw 5kW from a pallet sized module you will get only about 40% of its 20 kWh rating. If you want the full 20 kWh you must discharge it at 1.25 kW, or less. This is one item that although they do not hide, is something they don’t headline in talks.

As for housing the battery, assuming a 40 kWh pack, good for a household with a 10 kW peak load, you would need an area approximately 4’ x 8’ x 3.2’, (1.2m x 2.4m x 1m). This should be on the ground floor, or in the back yard as it would weigh about 3 tons, (2.7 tons). There should be no need of routine access as there is no maintenance necessary.

RAN

I wonder what the charging rate is compared to AGM batteries. Yachts and motorhomes would definitely be in the market with a decent charge rate.

Mike Swift

As Aquion says these batteries are designed for stationary service, not moving. For moving systems like cars, motor homes, boats, planes, etc you need light weight, and compact batteries. 
For solar storage at a house you need low cost, long life, and low maintenance. This is the market Aquion is aiming for.

From data I have seen a 20 kWh pack will take up a standard shipping pallet about three, and a half feet high, and weigh about 3,000 pounds.

gene

great idea this is what happens in a country that doesn’t shoot and kill everything that moves where would this world be without the great USA

wild01

Also if kept in good condition a forklift battery sells for $50 per kwh used after the warranty has run out! (source ebay current sold listings) bringing their cost of ownership down even more! So for the moment it looks like this is just more vaporware! Twice the warranted cycle life at 10x the cost of ownership currently and only striving for 4x the cost by 2020!

wild01

Well at least you managed to get a price out of them, I’ve been trying to purchase from them since they started production. They don’t seem interested in selling batteries, wouldn’t give me a price, supplier info or anything, just keep hearing we’ll contact you when we have a distributor in your area. (even after telling them I could pick up @ factory if necessary) However, at the prices quoted to you they wouldn’t be worth it at all! current lead acid prices are $100-$150 DELIVERED (http://gbindustrialbattery.com/Forklift_Battery_Sizes_and_Specifications_Zone15.html) with a 5 year free replacement 2 year prorated onsite warranty (1500 cycle warranty) and a proven track record of far exceeding their rated cycle life. They keep touting their prices as comparable to lead acid but they are not even in the same ball park! even if they reach their planned $200 price point that will put them at twice the price of today’s top of the line flooded lead acid! and that still doesn’t take into account shipping cost! GB’s prices include delivery!

your statement “Aquion is selling its batteries for below $500 per kWh — on par with lead acid batteries” is not even remotely accurate! sure you can find lead acid for that price, but the average price for industrial lead acid batteries is 1/5th that!!!!!

Enoch1680

Thank you for the interesting article. I think they will have a tough time competing with Lithium Ion. Their problem is that production volume brings down the price. Lithium Ion has huge markets opening up so their cost is going to drop rapidly over the next 5 – 6 years. It is not clear that these guys have markets to help them drive the cost of their batteries down fast enough. The temperature benefits may be sufficient but I am not optimistic. Li-ion is expected to be below $200 / month and unlike these guys at 1 GWhr per year, Li-ion will be at the very least, 70 GWhr / yr (they are at 35 now and the giga factory will double that). And Tesla will probably build more than one factory as will other battery companies so probably closer to 150 GWhr / yr. So current estimates for Li-ion prices are probably conservative. – http://handlemanpost.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/cost-projections-for-lithium-ion-batteries/

Brad Mattson

Great article Katie,
I ought to talk to the factory owners as I’m trying to locate a place in the U.S. to build our first 300MW solar panel line. Does Pennsylvania offer incentives to locate a factory there ?

Brad Mattson

Paul Maher

I believe that generation and storage of electricity, if you believe the folks at NASA, MIT, DARPA, and a host of other organizations, is about to become very inexpensive and much better for the world than any of our current technology. LENR, DPF, Photoswitching, Thermionics and a couple of dozen other Effects, and Phenomena along with what Graphene/Silicene and similar materials are capable of will change the world. Eventually societies will overcome their fear of these things and the world will blossom.

The sooner, the better!!
May the Weak Force be with you.

Jim

Very good article. I like that they did not use existing technology and went a different path, looking for sustainability. Congratulations to the Professor and I hope his project has great success.

Albert E Short

This looks to be 3X more expensive (160/450) than EOS Aurora claims per kWh, and with a much shorter life span; 8 versus 30 years. Maybe this works better for the home market. Thus is life in the Valley of Death.

Minor manufacturing note: it seems it would be a lot cheaper to ship the cells out without the salt water electrolyte and have them filled and sealed nearer the point of installation, like maybe a dealership. At this stage though, quality control is paramount so I can see the other side, too.

Mike Swift

I don’t know, but from Auroa’s web site they are only producing vaporware at this time. No mention of anyone being able to purchase any product. Only talk about how low cost the product will be when they get it into production, and then only for BIG players. Its easy to guarantee 30 years lifetime for a product that hasn’t shipped, and may not for several years.

As for why Aquion doesn’t ship there units dry I would think they would want to test each unit for functionality before shipping the 3000 pound unit across the country. The fact that the electrolyte is only 10% of the shipping weight, is sealed inside, and is not a shipping hazard, shipping dry would serve no purpose.

Richard

Hmmm. Sounds an awful lot like another PA company north of Pittsburgh by the name of Axion Power International.

Katie Fehrenbacher

@Richard, I don’t know Axion all that well, but I think it’s a next-gen lead acid battery, called a lead acid carbon battery. So different chemistry and design.

dc1

Very well written, a rare event. Good information, I hope they succeed.

Rodney Godbey

Excellent article on the battery technology and I hope they are very successful.

FWIW, VW left the area when the tax incentives ran out.

JOSEPH WARD

Any advancement with technology in the solar category is welcomed news however the best news would be cost effectiveness. If prices for quality solar panels and quality solar batteries and other related components such as solar charger controllers become more affordable or should I say acceptable for such an investment with an acceptable return for the profitability of a typical homeowner then we could see the next BIG BOOM in the US economy and yes it would be the next BIG BOOM this country of ours needs and all would benefit from this technology. If I could afford a 2 KW solar system for my residential home I would be using one as I write this comment but it is still out of reach and my budget says I can’t afford it and that is the dilemma in which we started with this article. Batteries are one of the major components of a solar system that are just to expensive for an average homeowner to invest in. When the complete cost of let’s say a 2 KW solar system can be purchased for around
$2500.00 there would not be enough laborers to fill the need for the production but that is a good situation for competition and our economy. GOGREEN 2014

Patrick Paris

$500 per KWH …. Are you sure you can’t get Lithium Ion batteries for this price already today ?

Wayne

It was a good article. However…

Even at the lowest predicted cost that is still pretty expensive storage. Its not the “buy in” but the life span that I would say is the problem. I have my PV array and its doing approximately 15 MWhs a year. To support a whole day of production at todays prices I would need about $56K worth of batteries dropping to around $15K in 2020 if costs drop as projected. Then I would have to replace them say every 10 years. That’s $1400.00 a year “best case”

As much as I would like to give PG&E the finger, My costs for using the grid for storage are about $1200.00 a year less then that. That would be one very expensive birdie. I do wish them all the best. I hope they find a market its just not likely to be in my garage.

cwardell

Maybe in your locale energy is cheap and plentiful. Here in Arizona where it is not uncommon to have $400 per month electric bills during the summer (which is really 4-6 months here), spending that kind of money on batteries is wholly plausible.

solarob

Your analysis does not match mine. I think it is a little better than you are saying, unless I am missing something. I don’t know wherer you are, but if your producing 15 Mwh/yr, I am guessing you have 8-12 kw on your roof–depends on your solar resource of course. If you are looking for one day of storage, that would be 41 kwh (15 Mwh/365). The cost at $500/kwh is less than 21K, and at $200/kwh projected, it is only about 8K. If you want 2 days of storage, it still only goes to 42K and 16K. The economics are also dependant on where you are, as the cycle life also might last more than 10 years. If you are in arizona, the times it would be needed would be small. If you are in Seattle, then 10 years might be a good number. Is there something that I am missing?

Bryan Whitton

@Wayne Actually I wouldn’t use it that way. I have been studying what the CPUC has been looking at with PG&E, Edison and San Diego and they want battery support for the grid on all solar installations in the future and some way to entice existing solar to add the same.

In the PG&E area solar is having a major effect on afternoon consumption during the peak summer months. What they want is battery support for the last 2 or 3 hours of the day where solar is dropping off but peak demand is still very high.

So, you get enough batter capacity to feed the grid for two hours or so and then a little to continue in the evening if the utility goes down and the morning solar recharges the batteries while the feed in price is still low. PG&E benefits by reductions in peak consumption, you get more peak net metering credits and you don’t have to have a huge battery investment. In addition there is a rebate available to help cover the costs.

It all seems quite interesting.

zwixard

My daughter did her summer intern there. By 2016, solar combines with Aquion would cost less than the grid and I could afford to take my house in the sun belt US off grid. Big problem for utility companies

rey

Good news and thanks to that young inventor from MELLON, hope you will be successful in your green product.

Resourceguy

That product pricing profile will probably not hold up as other grid battery bets move ahead of it. Solyndra never really was a contender in a more crowded field with somewhat better evidence for non-politicized and inquiring minds to evaluate. I suppose it is even harder to sort the winners and losers at an earlier tech product roll out phase. At least it is not using the whole building footprint with DOE money to drive it to a higher precipice with taxpayer funds and DOE staff instructed to look the other way.

Keith Hawn

About 8000 words in to finally see what is “disruptive” about this battery? They last a little longer than the ones we have today.

realist50

Yes, and I’m trying to understand the economic case for these batteries. Average U.S. retail electric rates are 10 cents per kilowatt hour ( http://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.cfm?t=epmt_5_6_a )

These batteries are guaranteed for 3,000 cycles and currently cost $500 per kWh, with a goal of getting down to $200 in 6 years. So the current cost just for this storage technology is $0.16 per kWh – well above the retail price of electricity, never mind wholesale. I’m also not clear from the article if that’s just the price of the batteries, or if it’s the installed cost after hooking them up to the grid. I don’t know if installation costs are high, but they’re definitely north of zero.

At the targeted cost of less than $200 and 3,000 cycles, the cost would be down to $0.07 per kWh. At that cost, I could see these starting to make a lot more sense, though perhaps not primarily for the purpose (solar) that Ms. Fehrenbacher thinks. Great applications that she doesn’t mention would be:

– using stored electricity instead of peaking plants to meet peak electricity demand spikes. There’s a compelling economic case due to high peak electricity rates and the ability to avoid the capital cost of little-used peak capacity

– storing electricity generated by nuclear, combined cycle natural gas, and coal plants during low demand hours in the middle of night. In some regions, the marginal wholesale price of electricity during these hours falls to more or less zero because of the technical problems with trying to take these plants offline for just a few hours

All of that said, it’s great to see someone working to improve grid-scale storage, which offers a lot of scope for improving power generation efficiency and grid reliability. I’m also intrigued to see that Acquion’s approach doesn’t take a “me-too” approach based on lithium ion technology, but that Acquion is designing batteries to maximize what matters for its market (low cost and a long lifespan) by accepting trade-offs that aren’t important for fixed grid storage (high weight).

torshjohansen

It’s actually under $500/kwH. So less than 16 cents. But yeah, it begs the question — why not use the electric company instead of storage?

Well, you can in many areas sell back to the electric company your leftovers. In a sunny place, they could story and sell back some to cut the costs down a bit.

Also — it’s a sense of ownership that some folks would like to pay money for. It’s THEIRS. They’re not buying it. They’re paying to store it & keep it. Control. It goes a long way for enough of the market to get things going…

… where, when they’re more mass producing, it will get down to 7c/kwH.

And yes, like how you point out, it can be good for power companies themselves, to save enough here or there…

… but I think the large-scale liquid pool battery that’s been developed will be good for that. It’s relatively cheap, stories mass amounts that a battery can’t hold — and it saves a power company TONS — because there’ll end up being almost no lost energy. Which means they can output the same amount but burn/process less.

Ben

Its mainly to get small businesses off of demand which I have seen well over 30 cents/kwh here in NY

AL Hopfer

They last 8 years compared to maybe 4 years w/lithium. Of course the 8 years are yet to be seen. Plus they already do survive high temperature that Lithium does not, without huge degrading.

Jay Alt

They’re demonstrated to 5,000 cycles, so the tests are ongoing and more life may be possible. per GTM 1.04.14

Katie Fehrenbacher

@Keith Hawn, It’s a bit under 3K words. They last longer without degrading, cost less, can operate at hot temperatures, and can provide sustained power for several hours to be paired with solar.

Emeka

Great news. However, it would be nice to have a cost comparison chart between Aquion battery modules and the lead acid batteries.

UnionLeague

New battery technology will change the world. This should be used in India where off-grid solar is becoming a game changer for many stranded villages without electric power.

UnionLeague

Great article. Aquion should promote the adoption of these battery systems in India in combination with off-grid solar systems. This could improve the lives of millions of people who currently don’t have access to the power grid and strengthen India’s current programs for off-grid solar power. Could you pass along the idea to Aquion? THX!!

Thiru

Exactly correct, India would be a great market for this type of energy storage. I am moving back next year and I would become one of the first buyers of this battery if it is made available.
I am excited and wish to be part of the early adopters for such a technology. Thanks for the great information, make us think of our alternatives very well.

Thiru

Ondrej

Wow! An amazing article! Partly quite substantial, beyond the usual semi-blog-posts. And partly about something exciting: this can change a lot of things, a former professor, inventor now running a factory. Actually pretty rivetting reading, almost like a mini-novella. Good job Katie!

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