“A circle is a round straight line with a hole in the middle” says Mark Twain. This sarcastic description of the world’s most important shape is unfortunate, circular in its logic, and devoid of any finality. Or maybe it was simply a joke, like when the triangle called the circle “pointless” or when the square is jealous because the circle has “pi”. Circles are simple, and while they can be fun like a hula hoop (“you know, for kids”) they can also be paradigm shifting like the wheel. Recently, private company Form Energy made headlines claiming its iron-air batteries will solve the reliability issues of renewable energy. The iron components of the battery are untold amounts of pellets, which in order to maximize surface area are in the shape of … circles.
The story, of course, isn’t circles. The story is how the smartest scientists and engineers are working hard to invent cost effective energy storage. Form Energy is one of those players, and its technology starts with barrels filled with thousands of low-cost iron pellets. Its battery takes in oxygen that converts iron to rust and then turns the rust back into iron and expels oxygen, all while submerged in a water-based electrolyte that charges and discharges the battery during the process. This industrial scale battery system is designed to fill a warehouse, and when charged would provide backup power for DAYS instead of the mere hours that are currently available in industrial scale solutions.
Source: Wall Street Journal
All of this at a price of roughly $20/KWh, far below grid scale lithium-ion batteries that currently cost between $50-$80/KWh. The ramifications of this technology, if true, are massive. It means the cost of a new solar field or wind farm PLUS battery storage would come in at or below the cost of a newbuild natural gas or coal power plant. It solves the reliability issues plaguing renewables since its beginning, as it buys the system time to rebalance itself should nature underperform its potential. These advancements need to happen as fast as possible because the world is going electric. Take for example electric vehicles (EVs), which are expected to represent over 50% of new car sales in the U.S. and Europe by the early 2030’s. However, the real win for society will be if all of these new EVs were charged with renewable energy. This only happens if we can cost-effectively build and store the power generated by wind farms and solar fields, at an order of magnitude larger than what we have available today.
Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance
This is the opportunity available to the entrepreneurs and investors of today. Given this (large) pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there has been a wide variety of industrial scale energy storage offered. In addition to iron-air are several solid-state designs, pumped water storage, compressed air, and hydrogen solutions. It’s also possible that five years from now we’re talking about a technology that is currently just a figment of some engineer’s imagination. The possibilities are infinite, another circle.
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Source: Bloomberg *Please review disclosure information at the end of this post.
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