Interview: Zinc8’s Ron MacDonald on growth plans

BY RICHARD HEAP:

“There’s a huge differential. The more capacity you add to our system, the cheaper the overall system becomes,” says Ron MacDonald (pictured), chief executive of Vancouver-based zinc-air battery storage company Zinc8 Energy Solutions.

MacDonald is explaining why New York is embracing Zinc8’s systems.

This month, the company has set up its US subsidiary in New York State. This follows its recent announcements in the state, where it is working with New York Power Authority on a 100kW / 1MWh project; and with Digital Realty on a 100kW / 1.5MWh development in Brooklyn that has financial backing from the New York State Research & Development Authority.

We caught up with MacDonald and Zinc8’s chief technical officer Simon Fan to find out more about the company’s technology and growth plan. This includes raising funds and bringing in investment partners, as well as linking up with manufacturers to produce its systems.

Zinc versus lithium ion

The New York schemes are big leaps to the commercialisation of technology that has been in development at the firm for eight years. Their specifications demonstrate what MacDonald says is a key benefit of zinc-air systems.

Both have power output of 100kW, but different durations: 1MWh for the NYPA project compared to 1.5MWh for its Brooklyn cousin. This is because the power output and storage capacity aren’t linked in zinc-air systems in the same way as they are in lithium-ion batteries.

MacDonald explains: “In lithium-ion, it’s a one-to-one ratio. If you need to double your storage, you have to double your power as well.”

This link doesn’t exist in zinc-air systems, which work by using electricity to produce zinc particles in the zinc regenerator. These particles are stored in a tank, which vary depending on the duration of the system: a larger tank means a longer-duration system. When power is needed, the particles are sent to the power stack, where they are recombined with oxygen to produce electricity.

This means a system can be made larger by growing the storage tank, and not other components. MacDonald says this keeps down costs: “The longer the duration, the cheaper the overall system becomes… That has drawn the attention of utilities and large developers for behind-the-meter applications.”

In practise, this means Zinc8 is targeting systems of eight hours or longer.

The firm’s data shows its systems are cheaper than lithium-ion at six hours and hit $250/kWh at eight hours, $135/kWh at 20 hours, $110/kWh at 30 hours and $95/kWh at 40 hours. Its research shows that lithium-ion levels off at costs of around $300/kWh. Over the longer term, Zinc8 is looking to drive down system costs as low as $45/kWh.

Fan has spent the last six years at the company, which was set up in 2012. He says one of the major challenges is helping potential customers understand the system: “The market has not really been defined or fully understood by market participants… and it takes a conversation for them to fully understand.”

Commercialising zinc-air 

MacDonald joined the company 18 months ago, and he says one of the next steps to commercialise the system is to partner on new projects and bring in new funding. He says Zinc8 is looking at opportunities to deploy its systems in Arizona and California, but will need to look at partnering with manufacturers if it is to take the system global.

“We will be working with suppliers who will be under license to provide us with the components, and they will be assembled in an assembly plant,” he says, adding he is confident that the market demand exists for zinc-air storage.

“We’re getting the demand from large credible players in that global market, so we’re thinking about how we grow into that market… This company’s going to grow by the strength of its partnerships, and we’ve got to be very flexible and realistic on how those partnerships look. I have got to look after providing the shareholder value.”

He says long-duration storage should play an important role in the stability of “mission critical applications”, from hospitals to military facilities.

Two of the immediate goals are a public fundraising and bringing in a strategic investor: “We’re dealing with a lot of things as we rapidly move to market,” he says. The big question is whether investors will move towards zinc-air as well.

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