Breakthrough Energy Catalyst gives $20 million to test iron-rust storage at sites of two Xcel coal plants
Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, the Bill Gates-backed fund, has awarded $20 million for iron-air experiments planned for Pueblo and in Minnesota.
Xcel Energy and Form Energy are partners with plans to test Form’s emerging technology called iron-air batteries. While most existing battery technologies provide fewer than eight hours of energy storage, these batteries could deliver electricity for 100 hours at costs competitive with conventional power plants.
The testing in Colorado will be conducted at Xcel’s Comanche Generating Station in Pueblo.
If successful, the batteries will allow Xcel Energy to integrate more low-cost, renewable energy into its system without sacrificing reliability of electrical deliveries even as it retires all of its coal plants in Colorado before the end of 2030.
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The multi-day energy storage systems will strengthen the grid against normal day-to-day, week-to-week, and season-to season weather variability, as well as extreme weather events such as severe winter storms and polar vortex events.
“Innovative long-duration energy storage technologies are crucial to achieving 100% carbon-free electricity,” said Bob Frenzel, chief executive of Xcel Energy in a statement issued by the company. “This Catalyst grant will accelerate adoption of this promising new technology, which allows us to provide higher percentages of renewable energy while still providing affordable electric service to our customers.”
Xcel also plans to pursue funding from the federal government made available through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
Wired Magazine in a March 2023 story entitled “Why Rust is the Future of Very Cheap Batteries,” explained that the five-cofounders of Form Energy set out in 2017 to build a better battery. Bringing a new chemistry of materials from the lab to a commercial application takes an average of 15 years, too long to help the U.S. reach its goal of having a carbon-free grid by 2035,” the article explained.
Form’s founders played with many ideas but chose to pursue the idea of using iron, which is dirt-cheap, abundant and easily handled. The rusting iron reacts with oxygen to form iron oxide, releasing energy in the form of heat. After thousands of experiments, the company learned how to make electricity. It has raised almost $900 million and is now testing the technology at a testing center in a warehouse at Berkeley, Calif.
These new batteries aren’t much to look at. The Wired story quotes the chief executive, Mateo Jaramillo, who formerly worked at Tesla before co-founding Form, during a tour of that California warehouse. “If you’re watching from the outside, it’s not high entertainment—not exactly charismatic megafauna,” he said while walking past a plastic box the size of a small refrigerator. “But in order to get to the cost targets that we’re going after, it can’t afford to look like much.”
Form has raised almost $900 million in funding from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, an investment firm that is among several arms of Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. Form has inked partnerships with Georgia Power, Great River Energy, and Xcel.
Next up will be construction of a $760 million battery-manufacturing facility in West Virginia. The company hopes to have it up and running by the end of 2024.
The backdrop is the effort by Gates to leverage his enormous wealth to, well, breakthroughs in the clean energy sector. He started Breakthrough Energy in 2017, providing seed money. One arm of that is Breakthrough Energy Catalysts, which hopes to raise $15 billion in private capital with three types of capital: philanthropic donations from Gates and others, submarket equity investments, and product off-take agreements. The intent is to fund large projects that would not otherwise be financially viable.
A February 2022 article in Tech Brew reported that Breakthrough had gathered $1.5 billion of its funding, one-tenth of the way toward its goal. The fund is focused on four areas of emerging climate tech:
- direct air capture,
- green hydrogen,
- sustainable aviation duel, and
- long-duration storage.
In all cases, the idea is to create markets for these new products by deploying “patient and large” capital, according to a January 2022 Financial Times story, “Bill Gates-backed fund aims to invest $15bn in clean tech.”
“In the past, venture capitalists would just say, this is an engineering project, it is not for us,” said Richard Templer, a professor with the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, London. Breakthrough hopes to reduce the “green premium” for products such as sustainable aviation fuel, he pointed out.
One place where such funding would be useful, said Jonah Goldman, the managing director of Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, is to help create a refinery for sustainable aviation fuel, a technology that has been proven but with economics that have not supported large-scale production.
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