Will tech giants follow Tesla into energy storage?

Tesla Apple and Google: investments suggest these might be the companies dominating the energy storage market of the future.

Tesla Apple and Google: investments suggest these might be the companies dominating the energy storage market of the future. Photo credit: Apple Inc

By Jason Deign 

Tesla’s early success in the energy storage market is raising questions over whether nearby Silicon Valley firms might follow suit. Apple and Google are just two consumer technology giants that could make a play for the sector.

Apple, whose 1 Infinite Loop HQ is just 20 minutes’ drive from Tesla’s Freemont offices, has long been the subject of energy storage speculation. In 2011 the company filed a patent for a novel wind energy storage system.

The system was designed by Jean Lee of Apple’s Environmental Technologies Department, who has also investigated the use of hydrogen fuel cells for laptop power.

It “uses a set of rotating blades to convert rotational energy from a wind turbine into heat in a low-heat-capacity fluid,” according to the patent application.

“Next, the system selectively transfers the heat from the low-heat-capacity fluid to a working fluid. Finally, the system uses the transferred heat in the working fluid to generate electricity.”

European data centres

Media interest in the design was re-ignited in February after Apple unveiled a EUR€1.7bn investment in two European data centres, in Denmark and Ireland, that “will run on 100% renewable energy.”

Apple said: “The new facilities will run entirely on clean, renewable energy sources from day one.

“Apple will also work with local partners to develop additional renewable energy projects from wind or other sources to provide power in the future.”

There is speculation that the Danish centre, in Viborg, will rely on Norwegian hydro for backup renewable energy. Such reserves are not available in Ireland, however.

Further details are expected to emerge as the data centres near completion, in 2017. Meanwhile, however, Apple has also been linked to developments in battery storage.

Poaching A123 employees

In February, the iPhone maker was involved in a lawsuit for poaching five employees from the battery maker A123 Systems’ Advanced System Venture Technologies Division.

“In addition to the five A123 workers, the suit alleges Apple has targeted employees from other companies who have knowledge of the firm’s battery technology,” reported Apple Insider.

These companies are said to have included LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Toshiba, Johnson Controls and SiNode Systems, a research and development firm focusing on lithium-ion battery technology.

The suit has helped fuel rumours that Apple is working on an electric car, which would put it in competition with Tesla. So far these rumours have not been confirmed.

However, given Apple’s penchant for forays into new product areas, such as watches, such a prospect cannot be taken lightly.

Brains to break into energy storage

Similarly, even though recent battery moves may simply be focused on its consumer device portfolio, the brains that Apple now has in house could easily allow it to break into energy storage.

For now, even though Apple is committed to running all of its operations on renewables, “we’ve not made any announcement regarding energy storage,” said Tanya Ridd of the Apple UK press office.

But if Apple does not make a move into energy storage soon, perhaps Google might. The search engine giant, also a 20-minute car ride from Tesla, already has a foot in the residential energy market via Nest, its intelligent thermostat.

Like Apple, Google is committed to running 100% of its operations on renewable energy.

It is also linked to the auto sector, although in this case there is nothing speculative about the company’s intentions: Google went public with its self-driving car project in 2010, mostly using electric vehicles.

Researching battery technologies

And in April it emerged the company was researching lithium-ion and solid-state battery technologies in its Google X research facility. The work is being led by Dr Ramesh Bhardwaj… formerly of Apple.

Google has previously sponsored an renewable energy research effort, RE<C, although this was closed down in 2011. But that does not mean energy storage development is out of the question.

Indeed, an intriguing quote from RE<C engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork suggests the opposite could be true.

“Solar panels … can be put on every rooftop but can’t provide power if the sun isn’t shining,” they wrote in IEEE Spectrum last year, explaining why RE<C was shuttered.

“Yet if we invented a distributed, dispatchable power technology, it could transform the energy marketplace and the roles played by utilities and their customers.”

Massive renewable energy investments

That sounds a lot like PV with batteries. Google has already made massive investments in renewable energy plants, so it would not be a great leap for the company to take a stake in the battery business.

And while Google and Apple are perhaps the tech companies best placed to move into energy storage at the moment, they are far from the only ones.

The network device maker Cisco, for example, is pushing heavily into energy infrastructure territory with what it calls the ‘Internet of Everything’. The chip manufacturer Intel, meanwhile, is exploring novel wind technologies.

In addition, erstwhile Silicon Valley investors such as Khosla Ventures and VantagePoint Capital Partners have been eyeing the energy storage market for some time.

Dan Brdar, CEO and chairman of Ideal Power, says it would be no bad thing if some of Silicon Valley’s heavy hitters joined the energy storage fray.

“It’s going to bring different perspectives and drive innovation,” he told Energy Storage Report. “Things in the energy space move at a slower pace than Moore’s Law. [With tech players] the rate of adoption will be much quicker.”

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