Another Mega Battery Factory in U.S., This One For the Grid

A stealth Swiss startup called Alevo plans to make the equivalent of Tesla Motors’ “gigafactory” in North Carolina. The main difference: its batteries will be as big as shipping containers and connect to power plants, rather than electric cars.

These new batteries, designed to store energy for use in the power grid, would be built in a new facility constructed from a former Concord, NC cigarette factory. Alevo plans to host an event at the site on Tuesday christening the new factory, which the company says will employ 2,500. The company, which has about 150 employees now, paid $68.5 million for the site and expects to start manufacturing its giant batteries next year, CEO and founder Jostein Eikeland says.

Although still an unknown in the world of grid batteries, Alevo’s willingness to commit to manufacturing at commercial scale reflects a major change in the energy business. As prices for batteries has come down, energy is becoming a cost-effective choice for utilities and energy project developers—at least for certain applications. Also, Alevo’s battery melds high-end computing and big data with batteries, a reflection of how important computing is to grid storage.

Alevo has been working on its GridBanks battery since 2009. The batteries use a familiar lithium ion chemistry but there’s a inorganic electrolyte—the part of a battery that charged atoms travel through during charging and discharging. That proprietary material is safe and allows the battery to rapidly discharge power while lasting for more than 20 years, according to Eikeland.

Eikeland

Eikeland

Its business plan is to install giant battery banks and earn money by bidding services into the energy markets normally provided by power plants. For example, it could inject quick bursts of power to maintain a steady frequency or provide power during peak hours of the day, when power is most expensive. It could also sell batteries to utilities or energy project developers, Eikeland says.

The company claims it can reduce the amount of energy wasted on the grid with sophisticated algorithms that analyze massive data sets on simulate power demand and supply. “We’re able to deliver the optimal service level to get more robustness (in the grid) and also integrate renewable energy,” he says. Using energy storage at the right times will allow power generators to reduce up to 30 percent of the energy now wasted in inefficient operation of fossil fuel power plants.

Eikeland said Alevo chose North Carolina, which hasn’t provided any financial incentives, because it could locally source many of the components and machinery it needed. The entire battery except for the electrolyte will be assembled in North Carolina; one local supplier is engineering company Parker Hannifin. “We spent years looking to secure the location that’s capable of a multi-gigawatt capacity,” Eikeland says. The company hopes to operate in the U.S. and has a supply agreement with a Chinese energy project developer.

As for funding, Eikeland says the company has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from private investors, all in equity. It plans to start deploying its first battery systems next July.

There’s no shortage of competition in grid-level energy storage. Japan’s NEC bought the grid energy storage business from bankrupt A123 systems, for example. And there are dozens of startups, such as Ambri, Aquion Energy, and Eos Energy Storage, which have developed different battery chemistries specifically for the grid.

Certainly, a number of battery companies have claimed technology breakthroughs only to stumble when moving into manufacturing. But if nothing else, Alevo’s entry into the U.S. shows how there’s another budding battery revolution. Rather than replace your gas tank, though, these batteries may replace a power plant.

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