CEO of iron-air battery maker hopes to close 'multitrillion'-dollar energy market gap

CEO of iron-air battery maker hopes to close 'multitrillion'-dollar energy market gap
·5 min read

Mateo Jaramillo doesn’t want to hear talk of a “breakthrough,” at least not yet. That would understate the challenge of what his startup, Form Energy, is trying to achieve and what more it has to do to accomplish its goal — providing the missing link to decarbonization of the power system.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like a breakthrough to us,” Jaramillo, Form Energy’s co-founder and CEO, told the Washington Examiner. “We have been working on this for a long time and thinking about it even longer.”

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Jaramillo was speaking a day after Form Energy unveiled details of its new technology: an iron-air battery capable of discharging power continuously for more than six days. That would help solve renewable energy’s most persistent problem: using it when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing.

Lithium-ion batteries, the primary source of new energy storage technology deployed on the grid in the United States, can only provide shorter duration storage. They are energy dense and highly efficient but relatively expensive, Jaramillo said.

But unlike today's batteries, Form’s iron-air battery can help keep the lights on during multiday power outages. It can hold and discharge energy for days, enabling higher levels of intermittent renewable power on grids.

Form also uses one of the most abundant minerals on Earth, iron, enabling its batteries to be built cheaply.

Iron-air is a battery chemistry that has been around for years but never been truly commercialized. Form Energy received an Energy Department grant in 2018 for an advanced battery chemistry, considering a sulfur-based option before settling on iron-air.

Form says its battery is capable of delivering energy costs competitive with conventional fossil fuel power plants and at less than one-tenth the cost of lithium-ion.

“We saw there being a big gap in a multitrillion market that no one really seemed to be addressing,” Jaramillo said. “If you are going to go after that market opportunity, it better be a solution that can scale. We were only evaluating things that could have abundance to succeed in multiday storage.”

(Courtesy of Form Energy)

But Form still needs to install its first project for Minnesota utility Great River Energy in 2023. Then, it needs to figure out manufacturing and how to get to mass market by 2025. Jaramillo says Form is in talks with several utilities about battery deployments, including some in states “you wouldn’t have guessed” that are not leaders in decarbonization.

Up until now, 4-year-old Form, a Somerville, Massachusetts-based startup, had been quiet about its work even as it generated curiosity and powerful financial backing. This week, Form came forward to announce a new $200 million funding round led by global steel and mining giant ArcelorMittal, which produces massive amounts of iron that can be used in Form’s battery systems.

Before that, it received backing from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate investment fund whose investors include billionaires Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, along with Italian oil giant Eni and Energy Impact Partners, a utility-backed investment firm.

“We have attracted interest across a pretty broad spectrum because smart investors see this energy transition is happening quickly and see we are making tons of progress on the technology,” Jaramillo said.

Investors are also betting on the resumes of Jaramillo, known for developing Tesla’s Powerwall battery, and Form co-founder Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor at MIT who previously co-founded A123 Systems, a lithium-battery developer.

Jaramillo, born in Salinas, a California agricultural town known for growing lettuce, earned a degree in economics from Harvard and a master's in theology from Yale Divinity School. But he quickly pivoted to focus on energy storage in the early 2000s, when he says he first foresaw rapid growth in renewables but figured there would need to be cost-effective ways to stash intermittent wind and solar.

“I am generally the ranking theologian in any energy storage convening,” said Jaramillo, who has said he is a practicing Christian. “But I was not cut out for the priesthood. That much became clear.”

Still, Jaramillo sees “elements of the vocational mission” in his work on energy.

“I have always wanted to spend my time on meaningful things,” he said. “I see energy as inextricable from human activity and, therefore, human happiness.”

Now, Jaramillo’s iron-air batteries are poised to compete with a crowded mix of startups racing to develop long-duration energy-storage techniques.

The No. 1 source on the grid today is pumped storage, America’s oldest and original form. Other companies are looking to market different battery configurations, such as molten salts or compressed air.

“I don’t know how many different companies or technologies there will be in the end, but I am fairly certain we will have very few classes of storage deployed on the grid," said Jaramillo, predicting a mix of short-duration lithium-ion and multiday storage with “not much in between.”

A breakthrough in these technologies could enable the decarbonization of the grid. Experts say a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, and other clean energy sources mixed with short-duration lithium-ion batteries can generate 80% of electricity carbon-free. But the final 20% will require lowering the cost of other technologies such as multiday storage and carbon capture.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm just this month unveiled a new goal to reduce the cost of grid-scale, long-duration energy storage by 90% within the decade. That would help meet the Biden administration’s goal of using 80% clean electricity by 2030 and entirely carbon-free power by 2035.

Jaramillo said the dramatic fall in cost for wind and solar, which is cheaper than natural gas in some parts of the country, means “you could get to a 100% renewable grid today.”

But to do it at a cost “society is willing to tolerate” will take more time.

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Jaramillo said Form has run models running various scenarios mixing different clean energy technologies, and those involving multiday storage always result in a cheaper system.

“By bringing this new tool to the mix of assets out there, you can decarbonize more quickly, and it probably allows the decision-makers to go faster,” Jaramillo said.

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Tags: News, Energy and Environment, Jennifer Granholm, Carbon Capture and Storage, Tesla, Climate Change, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Fossil Fuels

Original Author: Josh Siegel

Original Location: CEO of iron-air battery maker hopes to close 'multitrillion'-dollar energy market gap

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