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Inventing Our Way into the Future

October 14, 2015

by Kent Singer, Colorado Rural Electric Association executive director
“Technology Trumps Policy” was the title of a column that appeared in POWER magazine a couple of years ago. The column, authored by Dr. Robert Peltier, made the case that the pace of technological breakthroughs often trumps the best-intentioned policies in the ever-changing energy world. In other words, at the same time that legislators, regulators and other policy-makers are crafting complex and expensive energy policies, inventors and entrepreneurs are developing new technologies that make those policies irrelevant or obsolete.

A prime example of this theory is the continuing evolution of battery storage technologies that will complement electricity generation from renewable resources. While renewable resources are becoming more cost effective with each passing year, they are still intermittent and must be backed up with “dispatchable,” nonrenewable power resources that will provide electricity at all hours of the day or night. This limitation for renewable resources would be negated by an affordable, reliable source of battery storage. Knowing that an effective battery solution is the “holy grail” for higher levels of renewable integration, many scientists, engineers and venture capitalists are hard at work searching for the most viable solution.

Sadoway ILP

Donald R. Sadoway

One of the pioneers of battery storage research is materials science professor Donald Sadoway of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Sadoway and his team at a startup company called Ambri developed a liquid metal battery that could enable broader integration of renewable power sources. The objective of the Ambri technology is to store large amounts of electricity in a relatively small space for dispatch when renewable power sources aren’t available.

Ambri was created in 2007 when Sadoway and co-founder David Bradwell received a $7 million federal grant to develop their technology.

In 2010, after taking one of Dr. Sadoway’s courses online anonymously, a Washington state resident was so impressed with Sadoway and the battery technology that he decided to invest in the startup. It turns out that the student from Washington was a reasonably successful businessman named Bill Gates.

Fast-forward to 2015. This year Ambri intends to test several prototype batteries in places where electricity is more expensive, such as Hawaii, New York and Alaska. The company plans to sell its commercial-grade Ambri “cores” (rated at 200 kilowatt-hours, roughly enough power to run 10-15 homes per day) in 2016 and eventually market its product to large industrial and commercial users of electricity. The big advantage of the Ambri technology is that there is little degradation of the battery shells; and the company says the batteries have a life span of a decade or more. Ambri has ambitious plans to open factories near clients around the world, each employing as many as 150 people.

Battery storage technology is just one example of our changing energy world, and at the Colorado Rural Electric Association we do all that we can to further our collective understanding of this changing world. At CREA’s sixth annual Energy Innovations Summit on October 26 in downtown Denver, we are honored to welcome Dr. Sadoway as our featured luncheon speaker to talk about the latest developments at Ambri. He will also participate on a stellar battery storage panel later in the day that will also include a discussion of the Tesla Power wall and other battery storage products.

The summit will once again include top-notch speakers from across the country discussing a wide variety of energy-related issues. Beyond battery storage, they will share information on the status of wind generation, new utility regulatory models and natural gas markets. Colorado’s leading utility executives will look into the future of Colorado’s electric industry.

It’s a challenging time for all electric utilities, including electric co-ops. From efforts such as the Clean Power Plan, which will restrict fossil-fuel based generation, to the evolving state of technology, the future of electricity production is uncertain.

What is certain, however, is that this country’s vast intellectual firepower and dynamic markets will likely solve our energy challenges in new ways that regulations and policymakers can’t presently predict.

Come to the CREA Energy Innovations Summit and get a glimpse into that exciting future.

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