Checking up on the storage start-up scene

We review the energy storage investment opportunities offered by startups at KIC InnoEnergy Business Booster Barcelona – including Atawey, which has developed a hydrogen fuel cell system targeted at mobile base stations with McPhy Energy.

The energy storage investment opportunities offered at KIC InnoEnergy Business Booster Barcelona included Atawey’s hydrogen fuel cell system, developed with McPhy Energy. Photo credit: Atawey

What companies would you put your money in if you were a clean-tech angel investor looking to back an energy storage start-up? With plenty of young businesses out there crying for cash, it is not like you would be stuck for choice.

But, as Energy Storage Report found out last week at the KIC InnoEnergy Business Booster in Barcelona, selecting a winner is not that easy… because there are so many good ideas to choose from.

The Business Booster was a two-day event where start-ups from a range of energy-related fields set out to woo an audience including nine angel investors and three venture capital firms. Five electricity storage hopefuls took the stage during the event.

Enerstone, of France, opened the storage track with a pitch for an ingenious battery management system that extends lifetimes and cycle rates by adjusting the draw on each cell to lessen the impact of weaker cells.

“The battery dies as soon as a single cell dies,” said Alexander Chureau, president and co-founder, noting that one of Enerstone’s customers already refers to its people as “the battery freaks.”

Using “unique algorithms developed by electro-chemists,” the company aims to prolong battery lifecycles by at least 30%. Great. But what about safety?

Lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, the favoured technology for many energy storage applications, have been plagued by safety concerns following a number of high-profile fire incidents. No problem, said Marcin Molenda of MarCelLi Adv Tech.

He was there to pitch a carbon nano-composite coating process for the lithium ferro-phosphate cathodes of Li-ion units. MarCelLi’s process would improve the safety of the batteries while improving battery capacity by up to 10%, Molenda said.

Presumably the technology could also help reduce production costs since, when it comes to Li-ion, said Molenda: “Annually there are 17 million defective products withdrawn from the market.”

Not all the start-ups were there to solve battery market challenges, though. Atawey’s focus was on a particular niche application: off-grid power supplies. A major target for the company seems to be mobile base stations.

“There are 600,000 isolated telecom sites worldwide,” pointed out chief executive Jean-Michel Amaré. “Another 400,000 are due by 2020.”

Nothing new there: plenty of energy storage companies are trying to muscle in on this particular opportunity.

Hydrogen power supplies

But Atawey’s angle, developed with McPhy Energy, is that it intends to use hydrogen as a long-term storage medium to supplement short-term battery power supplies.

Amaré says Atawey’s total cost of ownership beats diesel gen-sets, not just for base stations but also for pretty much any off-grid power application. Cost reduction was also the big selling point for Elestor, a Dutch fuel cell developer.

Founder Wiebrand Kout opened his presentation by neatly summarising an obvious predicament for renewable energy producers such as wind farm owners. When there is no wind, you make no money, he said.

But “if the wind picks up and you start producing, all the neighbouring wind farms start producing too and the spot price for energy goes down.”

Overcoming this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-don’t situation would be easy if you could store the energy cheaply until spot prices rise again, argues Kout.

And to store energy cheaply, Elestor proposes not batteries, which “cost more than the electricity,” but fuel cells made from freely available hydrogen and bromine. Kout claims the technology is about 10 times more cost-effective than Li-ion batteries.

Carbon nanotube storage

Li-ion potentially also looks set to take a beating from the French start-up Nawa Technologies, which has already secured €2.5m (USD$3.4m) in funding.

The company claims to have uncovered a carbon nanotube storage technology that has 50 times more capacity than Li-ion and is up to 10 times cheaper than classical batteries.

Chief executive Pascal Boulanger reckons the technology could be used to recharge electric buses in 20-second bursts at every bus stop. Since the storage can be integrated into composite materials, he is also targeting the much-hyped Internet of Things.

“With our technology we will be everywhere,” he said.

The company’s investors, which include CEA Investissement, Demeter Partners and PACA Investissement, will no doubt be hoping he is right.

But what is clear is that Nawa Technologies was far from the only concept showcasing at the Business Booster that had the potential to transform the energy storage industry.

Plenty more ideas

And there are plenty more ideas out there; several other energy-storage related businesses, in fact, were present at the Barcelona event, even if only five were included in the electric storage pitch list. And this selection was from Europe alone.

Thus perhaps the greatest takeout from last week’s sessions is not that there are some great opportunities for energy storage investors, although that is clearly the case. No: what really stands out is the level of innovation on offer.

With inventors vying to multiply many times over the performance of today’s top battery technologies, it is highly questionable how much current barriers such as cost or energy return will remain an issue for the industry.

In essence, if you ever wondered whether there is a future or not to energy storage then it would be worth turning up at an event like the KIC InnoEnergy Business Booster.

You might even be tempted to take a punt on one of the projects on offer… if you can make up your mind over which one is best, that is.

Written by Jason Deign

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