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Ambri and Utility-Scale Storage: Another Emerging Story of Government Investment in Energy Innovation

Utility-scale energy storage start-up Ambri is emerging as a potential clean energy game changer, but is also a budding story of the role of government in supporting breakthrough technologies. Its potential impact cannot be overstated. Utility-scale energy storage is critical for making clean energy-produced electricity a viable option everywhere.

Intermittency is a key drawback of using solar and wind power (in addition to the higher costs of existing technologies) at grid-scale (i.e. to power a city or region). The amount of energy produced by the sun and wind varies greatly over time and “when intermittent electricity sources like solar make up more of the power supply mix,” Sydney Kaufman of Solar Novus Today observes, “utility operators have less control over how much power is produced. This is one of the largest hurdles to increasing renewable grid penetration and it causes utility managers to have to constantly be prepared for dips in renewable output.”

Utility operators have typically compensated for the ebb and flow of renewable power by running back-up natural gas power plants that can be quickly brought on line, but as Kaufman points out, this “means that at least some of the time, more energy is being produced than is needed, which leads to throwing away some of the renewable power generated. This leads to an increase in the cost of electricity.” In addition, relying on peaking-natural gas plants also limits potential greenhouse gas reductions from switching to clean energy.

Ambri, which recently changed its name from Liquid Metal Battery partly as a tribute to Cambridge, the city where it was founded, might have a solution. MIT’s Technology Review summarizes the company’s technology:

Liquid Metal Battery is so named because the powders its researchers pour into its battery cells are heated to the melting point, when they naturally segregate themselves into three layers, the positive and negative electrodes, and the electrolyte that separates them. These now-liquid materials are highly conductive, so the batteries can be discharged and charged quickly, accepting charge one millisecond and returning it the next, if necessary, to help stabilize fluctuations of supply and demand on the power grid.

Ambri’s battery would thus solve the solar and wind energy intermittency problem by giving utilities the flexibility of storing energy when demand for power from the grid is low and releasing it during times of peak demand. “We like to say that with this battery, you can draw electricity from the sun, even when the sun doesn’t shine,” as its co-inventor, MIT professor Donald Sadoway, put it. Existing grid batteries tend to be very expensive and weak, with little guarantee that renewable power will be available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Ambri’s simple battery design, however, offers the promise of utility-scale energy storage that is both inexpensive and reliable.

The inspiration for the technology came from Sadoway’s earlier work on aluminum smelting, which occurs under similarly high temperatures as the Ambri battery. Thanks to early funding through the MIT Deshpande Center, which provides grants to breakthrough researchers, and the philanthropic Chesonis Family Foundation, Sandoway and a group of researchers were able to demonstrate the viability of the battery idea at the laboratory scale at MIT. Developing the technology further, however, only became possible with the awarding of a three-year (2010-2013), $6.95 million grant from ARPA-E in late 2009. “If successful,” the accompanying press release declared, “this battery technology could revolutionize the way electricity is used and produced on the grid, enabling round-the-clock power from America’s wind and solar power resources, increasing the stability of the grid, and making blackouts a thing of the past.” It has been one of the largest sums bestowed by the agency to date and the public vote of confidence from ARPA-E was followed by a string of private sector investments. (This turn of events is not unique to Ambri as an ARPA-E awardee; the agency pointed out last year that eleven of its projects secured more than $200 million in private capital investment after first receiving ARPA-E grants). For example, the French oil company Total committed to a $4 million, five-year joint venture with MIT to further develop the Ambri battery. Since then, Ambri has also received $15 million from venture capital firm Khosla Ventures and an untold sum from Bill Gates. Thanks to the investments from ARPA-E and others, the company has built a 16-inch prototype, but continues to tinker with it in order to increase its stability, determine an optimal shape, and decrease costs. Commercialization is estimated to be around two years away, with the company planning on building the battery in existing factories through contract manufacturing, thus greatly reducing capital costs.

Of course, Ambri isn’t just a story about smart government investment – it’s also a story about the need for government reforms that build incentives into regulations. As related by MIT’s Technology Review, the company’s viability depends on taking advantage of other government policies that reward innovation, such as “a ruling by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that technologies with fast response times can be paid more for their services.” (The battery could ultimately respond in milliseconds, in contrast to several minutes for existing power plants).

If successful, Ambri’s battery could greatly help renewables’ competitiveness vis a vis fossil fuels. But the development of the battery thus far is also a telling indication of the need for innovation in clean energy in general and how government can most effectively foster it. The need for better utility-scale energy storage technology tends to be overlooked by policymakers because the go-to policy of deployment subsidization for existing technologies simply doesn’t apply, as nothing like the Ambri battery even existed until recently because of key investments through ARPA-E and others. Any new national energy policy should reflect the realities of innovation stories like Ambri’s to get investments and policies right.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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