BY BEN COOK
- Ramya Swaminathan spun Malta Inc out of Google’s secretive ‘X’ unit
- Swaminathan is a US government adviser on electricity and renewables
- She says ‘explosion’ of long duration storage is needed to meet climate goals
When the US government needs advice on electricity or renewable energy, Ramya Swaminathan is one of the first people it turns to.
Four months ago, Swaminathan – who is the CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based electro-thermal energy storage company Malta Inc, which has approximately 30 employees – was appointed to the US Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee. Swaminathan is also a member of US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo’s Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee.
It’s not hard to see why Swaminathan is held in such high esteem. In 2018, she led the spin-out of Malta from X, Alphabet’s ‘Moonshot Factory’ (formerly Google X), which has been described as Google’s ‘top-secret’ operation focussed on pursuing technological solutions to “humanity’s great problems”. Unsurprisingly, given her background at ‘X’, Swaminathan is not afraid to think big.
She claims that Malta’s energy storage technology not only stores renewable energy and then discharges it at a low cost, but it can also seamlessly replace fossil fuel plants with the result that jobs and communities are protected, meaning local economies are not left to degenerate.
In simple terms, Malta’s storage plant technology converts electricity into thermal energy using a utility-scale heat pump similar to a home heat pump or refrigerator. The thermal energy is stored in molten salt and commodity coolant, similar to the way it is in concentrated solar power and liquified natural gas plants. When the power is needed, a heat engine fueled by the stored heat drives a generator that makes electricity. The plant is comprised of heat exchangers, compressors, and turbo-expanders that are provided by OEMs well established in the thermal power industry.
Energy Storage Report spoke to Swaminathan to find out what distinguishes Malta’s offering, the most important recent developments at the company, the biggest opportunities in storage, and how to overcome threats to the reliability of the grid.
What distinguishes Malta Inc’s energy storage offering when compared to competitors in the sector?
Ramya Swaminathan: There are a lot of promising energy storage technologies. We expect many solutions will be needed to address the expected growth of electrification across the globe and the range of applications that will need long-duration storage. All energy storage addresses the ‘E’in ESG [environmental, social and governance] because we all enable more renewables. Malta also addresses the ‘S’ because our solution helps to solve the social factors of the clean energy transition.
Our biggest impact will be in repowering/retrofitting fossil-fueled plants with our clean energy storage plant. Retiring steam-turbine plants, like most coal and many gas plants, can be repurposed into Malta clean storage plants, speeding construction of new long-duration storage and reducing costs by reusing existing equipment. Malta’s plant looks and operates like a natural-gas plant, just without the emissions. It can be built, operated, and maintained by incumbent power sector workforces and supply chains. Fossil energy jobs can be easily and seamlessly converted into clean energy jobs, and the communities that have relied on the power plant for decades can be restored with new economic development rather than being left behind.
The Malta system’s charge and discharge cycles are decoupled, which enables asynchronous rates of charge and discharge to address unique customer applications. For example, one customer may need to charge quickly and discharge slowly. Another may need the opposite. Malta’s storage plant can do both. As a portfolio evolves and longer durations of storage are required, our customers need only add additional tanks of molten salt and anti-freeze, the most inexpensive parts of the system.
Finally, the Malta system generates a large amount of industrial-grade, carbon-free heat. The heat can be used to attract new investment into communities or be used by the community for its own purposes.
What would you highlight as the biggest developments at the company in the last 12 months?
RS: 2021 was a busy year for Malta. We closed a $60 million B round of funding and brought on key new investors Proman, Chevron, Piva, and Dustin Moskovitz. We also received funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) for two exciting projects. One is a collaboration with Duke Energy to research repowering coal plants with storage, and the other is in partnership with Vistra’s subsidiary Luminant to study using Malta’s storage plant to integrate additional renewable energy and improve the environmental performance of its generation assets. Both projects will be completed this year. Later in 2021, Malta was part of a team that won a DOE grant to create a design basis document/owner’s technical specification for nitrate salt systems.
In Europe, Malta’s Spanish subsidiary won an Innovation Fund Project Development Assistance grant from the European Commission and European Investment Bank. It will support a 100MW project in Spain called ‘Sun2Store’.
We also finalised a partnership with Siemens for the development of our turbomachinery and a partnership with Bechtel to develop commercial projects.
I was appointed to two US advisory committees, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo’s Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Advisory Committee and the Electricity Advisory Committee at DOE’s Office of Electricity. These are really exciting opportunities to ensure that long-duration energy storage as a class of technology is understood by key decision makers and included in federal planning.
Meanwhile, Malta was an original founder of the Long-Duration Energy Storage Council, which is an international body focused on providing fact-based guidance to governments, grid operators, and major electricity users on the deployment of long-duration storage. The council membership includes a wide range of companies like Microsoft and Google.
From a commercial perspective, we have been developing a robust pipeline of activity and announced an agreement with NB Power to develop New Brunswick’s first long-duration energy storage facility.
What are currently the biggest opportunities for Malta Inc?
RS: As more and more low-cost renewables are added to the grid, fossil-fueled generation, and particularly coal-fired plants, are being retired early. Increased generation variability and the loss of essential grid services provided by conventional generation is a troubling combination. These retirements are stressing the grid and its operators. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s 2021 Long-Term Reliability Assessment identified concerns about grid stability in all the interconnections. Meanwhile, in places with high renewables penetration, like Spain where nearly 30% of electricity is generated by wind and solar, this has created real challenges.
Malta’s clean storage plant allows utilities to balance the existing renewables on their grids and integrate vastly more. In Spain, we call it ‘Sundown Solar’ because we can charge the Malta plant with surplus solar during the day and power the grid through the night. Malta’s solution also provides essential grid services, like synchronous inertia [this is associated with the instantaneous physical response of conventional generators having directly coupled rotating mass, which acts to overcome the imbalance of supply and demand by changing the rotational speed], both when charging and discharging, which can address stability concerns from lost fossil-generation. That’s an exciting combination. Malta is uniquely positioned to do both while repurposing the retiring steam turbine fleet into long-duration energy storage.
Our solution will play an important role in industrial decarbonisation. The carbon-free, industrial-grade heat the system generates can be used to replace the high-emissions systems that are being used today.
What do you think will be the emerging trends in energy storage in the coming year?
RS: Around the world, there is increasing awareness that we will not meet our climate goals and timelines without an explosive growth of long-duration energy storage. The reliability and resiliency of the grid will be threatened without a way to replace the essential grid services lost by conventional retirements as exponential amounts of variable renewable energy is added. We’ll see more long-duration storage installed around the world and movement toward policies and regulations that will shape the grid for the next 20 years.
A recent ESR article sparked a discussion on social media about the shortage of women leaders in the storage sector, does the energy storage industry need to take more steps to encourage women to join the sector and, if so, what steps?
RS: Women are underrepresented in most energy sectors, storage is no exception. I recommend that all people champion diversity, equity, and inclusion, in energy storage and everywhere. There are many opportunities to encourage young women to choose this exciting field and support them as they grow. I’m proud to be an ambassador for the US Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Initiative, which works to close the gender gap and increase the participation, leadership, and success of women in clean energy fields. I am also a mentor with the Department of Commerce’s Select Global Women in Tech Mentorship, which partners US women in technology with international entrepreneurs to help women succeed as STEM leaders. The Women’s Energy Network, where I am on the executive advisory board of the Boston chapter, is an international organisation of professionals who work across the energy value chain to provide networking opportunities and foster the career and leadership development of women who work in the energy industries. Our Boston chapter is vibrant and fun, and I’d be happy to welcome new members. The storage sector will continue to grow, mature, and evolve. As more women ascend to leadership positions, we will all be richer for it.