Are Alevo’s Giant Batteries the Holy Grail of Renewable Electricity?

Meghan French Dunbar April 4, 2015
Swiss-based innovator Alevo has created a large-scale energy storage solution with its pioneering battery systems, called GridBanks, and grid data analytics developed by a supercomputer. GridBanks are specially designed shipping containers loaded with batteries that store and dispense electricity on command. A simple analogy is that each GridBank acts like a piggy bank, saving electricity when there is extra and then spending it when it is needed. Because electricity that is not consumed in real time becomes wasted, being able to store surplus energy and deliver it when and where it is needed can result in huge cost savings and environmental benefits. Alevo’s groundbreaking lithium battery technology is also non-flammable and can withstand significantly more charging cycles than ordinary lithium-ion batteries.

Alevo recently announced plans to bring manufacturing of GridBanks to the US, taking over a former Philip Morris cigarette factory in Concord, NC. The new Alevo plant is projected to create as many as 2,500 new jobs in the next three years – a win-win for the local economy and the environment. We spoke with Scott Schotter, Chief Sustainability Officer at Alevo, about the company’s exciting new technology and its plans for the future.

Alevo’s goal is to use its technology to eliminate the 30 percent of energy that is lost before consumption. Tell us more about this – how is energy lost before consumption and how will Alevo reduce this waste?

Scott Schotter: Electricity is wasted by design and also by the inefficiencies of an aging electric grid infrastructure.

To prevent blackouts and stay reliable, grid operators intentionally produce more electricity than is needed by design. This extra headroom makes sure the lights stay on if there is an unpredictable event or when extra electricity is needed, like during severe weather. GridBanks help reduce this intentional waste by storing – rather than generating – the electricity that was required for headroom, allowing power plants to produce less.

The aging electric grid (some parts are 100 years old) wastes energy all along the path of electricity’s journey from generation to consumption. Grid congestion and moving electricity itself create waste that, until now, could not be recovered. By placing GridBanks along the route that the electricity travels, utilities can store and release electricity as needed by moving it over aging wires during nighttime off-peak hours to have it ready at the locations it’s needed during peak hours.

Since 44 percent of electricity comes from coal, fuel savings in both scenarios can reduce greenhouse gases significantly. Alevo has built a supercomputer that shows grid operators where to place GridBanks along the grid and that determines what services offer the best economic and environmental benefits.

How will Alevo’s technology enable utilities to add more renewables to the grid?

SS: The main weakness of renewables is that they produce electricity intermittently, and when they do produce, it is not always in sync with the peak electricity needs of the grid. Sadly, the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow on command, and since renewables generate electricity that must be consumed in real time, much of what is produced by renewables is wasted.

The good news is that GridBanks can “time shift” electricity production by acting as electricity reservoirs that store excess renewable energy and then release it when the demand is there. GridBanks make renewable electricity reliable for grid operators. Essentially, GridBanks mitigate renewables’ intermittency flaw, making increased investment in renewables a more realistic option because, when they are combined with the energy storage capability of GridBanks, they become a much more reliable source of electricity production for utilities. Currently, wind- and sun-generated electricity is only about five percent of US electricity consumption, in part because of the limitations imposed by their intermittency.

In addition to increasing the use of renewable sources of power, many argue that people in developed countries simply need to consume less energy than they do today. How does Alevo feel about this? Are you doing anything as a company to address this?

SS: Alevo’s work in innovating breakthrough battery technology and creating an intelligent delivery system for this technology will radically increase efficiency in the energy industry. Efficiency means doing more with less, and applying GridBanks to existing networks will mean, in real terms, that even if people don’t change their electricity habits at all, they would be using less electricity. Whichever way you take that argument, increased efficiency in energy supply is a good thing. Alevo works on developing nations’ grid infrastructures as well, helping build their economies through efficiencies while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Alevo’s work in innovating breakthrough battery technology and creating an intelligent delivery system for this technology will radically increase efficiency in the energy industry.”

How do your corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives benefit Alevo’s bottom line?

SS: We’re going to be employing thousands of local people and creating state-of-the-art facilities. A happy and healthy workforce directly supports our bottom line. Like any other business today, we have a strong focus on efficiency. In many respects, good CSR is just good business.

What impact does the company project its technology could have on the energy sector over the long term?

SS: Alevo hopes to have a huge impact on the energy sector over the long term. GridBanks are energy source agnostic, meaning they function with all types of energy sources – nuclear, renewable, and fossil fuel. This allows GridBanks to not only provide immediate efficiency savings in the current environment, but also to be a key technology for supporting the uptake of renewables by major utility providers.

Alevo’s GridBank is solving one of the world’s greatest energy problems – the ability to store and deliver grid-scale electricity when and where it is needed. The electric grid is the largest supply chain in the world and it has no significant storage capabilities. If you consider how the food and computer industries exploded when storage was added, just think what storage can do for electricity. We believe our impact will be long-lasting and revolutionary.

What other companies or leaders are you inspired by?

SS: Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Henry Ford were pioneers we respect for their advancements in electricity and for creating efficiencies at a commercial level. The Alevo name is inspired by Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who invented the first battery. Alevo has the invention – the first utility-grade battery that can’t burn or explode and has an extremely long life – now we need to bring it to the world and show what it can do. We definitely believe in the mantra, “Go big or go home.”

Climate Action / Stakeholder Capitalism
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