UniEnergy Technologies Goes from Molecules to Megawatts

7/7/14Follow @bromano

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to store 1.5 gigawatt hours of electricity. Russ Weed, UET’s vice president of business development, says since Bolong is an affiliate company, UET gets competitive pricing.

The vanadium retains its value throughout the expected 20-year life of a UET system, which the company says can handle unlimited charge and discharge cycles. “It justifies a no-cost disposal contract at the conclusion of the project,” Winter says.

In addition to the vanadium electrolyte, UET is sourcing the electrode stacks—which Winter calls “the heart of our technology”—from Rongke, another Chinese company owned by Dalian Bolong Holding, which is backing UET alongside KMG, an Australian iron mining company. Rongke has been working on this crucial component for 14 years, with nine years of field deployment, Winter says.

“There’s been $250 million of investment specifically in this technology, specifically this product,” Winter says, referring to Dalian Bolong’s investment in UET, Rongke, and Bolong New Materials.

“We’re the pointy end of the spear,” Winter adds.

UET plans to assemble and test its Uni.System batteries at its facility in Mukilteo, WA, about 30 minutes north of Seattle, taking advantage of engineering talent and production infrastructure amassed in the area to serve Boeing. The company plans to expand into a 67,000-square-foot facility with seven loading docks, where it aims to scale-up its capacity to assemble up to 100 megawatts of batteries—or 1,250 containers—in 2015. The containers would be backed up to the loading docks and stuffed with the components.

After Li and Yang founded the company in 2012, UET moved quickly through three design iterations. Inside a large room with a yellow gantry crane sits the first, completed in June 2013 and nicknamed Elviss, for “energy leveling vanadium integrated storage system.” The second, completed less than six months later, is called Angus—after Angus Young, the lead guitar player in AC/DC—in a nod to the power electronics that convert the electricity from the battery to electrical grid-ready alternating current, and Winter’s Australian roots.

The third article they call Johnny Cash, because it’s the first system ready for commercial sale.

“It sounds a bit greedy,” Li says as Winter explains the names. (UET’s conference rooms are musically themed, too. I met the executives in Graceland and passed Folsom on the way to see Elvis and Angus—though the latter is in reference to the headquarters location of the California Independent System Operator, a recognition of the importance of the California market, rather than the famous Cash song.)

Five 20-foot containers sit together in a string on a concrete pad outside a UET loading dock. Four of the containers hold 100 kilowatt batteries—for 400 kilowatts total—and the fifth holds the power control system and transformer.

UET is competing in an energy storage market expected by several analysts to easily exceed $100 billion by 2020. Other companies making vanadium flow batteries include Gildemeister, Imergy, Prudent Energy, WattJoule, and Sumitomo Electric Industries. Still another set of companies is at work on flow batteries with different chemistries, and others approach energy storage with solid state batteries, flywheels, compressed air, pumped hydro, and other technologies.

Large-scale energy storage in general is a hot field. The Energy Storage Association, a trade group, had more than 700 people at its annual conference last month in Washington, D.C., an attendance record indicating interest in the industry.

UET is making progress in this highly competitive, global market. Through its European subsidiary Vanadis Power, the company made its first sale earlier this year to Bosch, which is supplying a community wind farm in northern Germany with a vanadium flow battery that can store up to 1 megawatt hour of electricity, as well as a second 2 megawatt hour lithium-ion system from Sony.

The Washington state deployments, to be supported by matching grants from the new Washington Clean Energy Fund, are expected to be a 1 megawatt system for Avista, an investor-owned utility in Spokane, and a 2 megawatt system for the Snohomish County Public Utility District. These offer the prospect of further validation for UET and other technology providers as companies eye a big prize in large-scale energy storage: California.

“Washington state is about to become a Petri dish of energy storage,” Weed, 51, says. “There’s going to be five or six systems installed here in the next 18 months of different kinds and technologies.”

In part, the growth is being driven by new mandates aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by adding renewable power to the grid. Utilities regulators in California have required that the state’s investor owned utilities acquire 1,325 megawatts of energy storage capacity by 2024 as they adapt the electricity system to changing supply and demand patterns resulting from the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The RPS requires that utilities source a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, a target they are well on their way to meeting, mostly by adding wind and increasingly solar. This influx of renewable power, plus the increasing use of smart meters and the growth in numbers of electric vehicles, is dramatically changing the patterns of electricity supply and demand in California, posing a challenge to grid operators.

The graph illustrating daily net electricity demand in California is starting to resemble a duck, and is referred to as the duck curve in utility circles. The net demand curve is high before sunrise, like a duck’s back. As solar power production peaks in the middle of the day, net demand drops (the duck’s belly). In fact, on sunny days, more power might be produced than there is demand for, according to the California Independent System Operator (PDF). The net demand climbs steeply again in the afternoon, rising like a duck’s neck, as solar production ends and people come home to turn on air conditioning and televisions, cook dinner, and charge up their cars.

The duck’s belly part of the curve is where the energy storage technologies of UET and its competitors could shine: The technologies would soak up that extra mid-day electricity, storing it until it’s needed for the evening peak.

“Long-duration batteries are particularly useful in this context,” Weed says.

Other promising markets include Hawaii, which has the nation’s highest electricity prices, and New York, where grid reliability and resiliency concerns have grown after Hurricane Sandy.

Despite UET’s success with its latest generation battery, Li and Yang aren’t standing still. Together with a half-dozen other PhDs on the 40-person staff of UET, they continue to tinker with the chemistry and engineering of the system. Labs and scaled-down systems spread across the far side of UET’s headquarters are devoted to optimizing controls and power electronics and testing and improving the electrolyte and electrode stacks.

“That’s my top-secret stuff,” Li says after being told a reporter was given a tour of the labs.

“We still need new invention, new technology,” Li says. “So we have a very big R&D team—seven, eight PhDs—working on new developments, new controls, new battery design, everything. We continue to improve the performance.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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