NAATBatt Blog

Updated NAATBatt Web Site to Debut Soon

March 21st, 2015 by

NAATBatt International will soon launch a new website containing a number of new features for the benefit of our members and for members of the public interested in advanced battery technology.  Although the new site is still a work in progress, I would like to alert you to some of the interesting new features that we will soon launch.

One of the noteworthy new features will be the member’s presentations section of the Web site.  As almost anyone involved in the advanced battery industry can attest, attending conferences to see what is new in the industry and to talk about what is new at one’s company is a major time commitment Our members spend hours preparing 20-30 minute conference presentations only to have them disappear from public and industry attention within minutes of stepping away from the podium.

No more.  The presentations made by our member firms are valuable source of information about the industry as a whole, as well as about individual participant in it.  The new NAATBatt International web site will offer a place for the employees of any member firm to republish presentations given during the year at major industry conferences.  And it will provide member of the public looking for information about the industry and individual products a chance to see the latest thinking and product offerings by industry participants.

Also featured on the NAATBatt web site will be content from major energy storage publications.  The NAATBatt Web site will allow visitors to peruse samples of the best content from numerous industry publications.  Visitors will be able to compare and contrast the quality and coverage of industry news from multiple publications and to make subscription and advertising decisions based on a side-by-side survey of competing content.

The members only section of the NAATBatt web site will also be improved.  NAATBatt members will continue to enjoy quarterly summaries of ABC PatentEdge™, a survey of new patent filings around the world in advanced battery and supercapacitor technologies compiled by IP Checkups in cooperation with NAATBatt International.  NAATBatt members will also enjoy free access to all content from NAATBatt Annual Meetings, workshops and webinars.  Missed the show?  No problem.  With your NAATBatt membership, you will always have free access to the materials.

Watch out for the rollout of the new Web site within the next few weeks.  You won’t be disappointed.

Lithium-Ion Safety Regulations Should Focus on System Safety, Not Bans

March 13th, 2015 by

Earlier this month, United Airlines became the second major airline to announce that it will no longer carry bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries. Delta Airlines stopped bulk shipments of lithium-ion batteries in February. The announcements followed fatal fires on two Boeing 747 cargo planes that may have been caused by lithium-ion batteries and a series of earlier incidents in which batteries are suspected as possible contributing factors.

Unease over lithium-ion batteries was further fueled by the recent release of the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the January 7, 2013, thermal event aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Boston and two similar incidents. Those incidents led to the grounding of the entire Dreamliner fleet from January 16 – April 26, 2013. The NTSB and UL LLC presented a detailed summary of the report at the NAATBatt 2015 Annual Meeting & Conference last month in Phoenix.

Additional regulatory activity to limit the carriage and use of lithium-ion batteries in transportation and in stationary applications is almost inevitable. Intelligent regulation of lithium-based batteries that protects public safety should be welcomed by industry.

But there is a larger issue in the regulation of lithium-ion batteries that needs to be recognized: The danger to public safety does not come from lithium-ion batteries. Rather, the danger comes from the ubiquitous use of technologies by the public that demand that increasingly more energy be stored in increasingly smaller mass. The uncontrolled release of a lot of energy stored in a small mass will always be a potentially catastrophic event. The degree of potential catastrophe increases as the amount of stored energy increases regardless of the form in which it is stored.

Banning lithium-ion batteries is not the solution. Today’s lithium-ion cells will eventually be replaced by more powerful lithium-ion cells, or perhaps by lithium metal batteries, lithium sulfur batteries, magnesium batteries and the like. Each new generation of battery will be more powerful, and its failure potentially more catastrophic, than the battery technology it replaces.

Regulation of lithium-ion batteries should focus not on bans and prohibitions but on ensuring the adoption of systems that can reduce the risk or mitigate the consequences of a catastrophic, uncontrolled release event. The modern automobile is a good example of system risk mitigation. A often-told joke suggests that if the automobile was invented today, the government would ban it from the roads, as no regulator would ever approve a vehicle in which a tank of highly flammable gasoline is located just beneath the rear passenger seat. The reality, of course, is that modern regulators permit automobiles today, not because there is an absence of hazard, but because the automobile, as a system, is designed to ensure that the hazard is minimized. Regulation of automobiles focuses on ensuring that the system is designed to minimize the hazard (e.g., the Ford Pinto), not on banning the hazard itself.

We need to get to the same place with batteries. Technologies that rely on powerful, electrochemical energy storage are ubiquitous and energy storage is destined to become only more powerful and more ubiquitous over time. Simply banning the use or transportation of powerful electrochemical energy storage devices will ultimately be as useless and counterproductive as King Canute ordering back the tide. Regulations must focus on designing containment and event mitigation systems that can deal with this inevitable hazard, not just wishing it away.

Section 1703 Guarantees Should Focus on Battery Performance Warranty Obligations

March 6th, 2015 by

Last July, NAATBatt International hosted a webinar on the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, authorized under Section 1703 of Title XVII of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Under the program, the DOE can make up to $4 billion of loan guarantees available to developers of projects that, among other things, use new technology to produce or facilitate the production of renewable energy. The impetus for the webinar was the DOE’s designation of “advanced grid integration and storage” as one of five areas of special focus of the loan guarantee program.

During the webinar, one of the concerns raised about the loan guarantee program was that its design was better suited to facilitating the financing of large, single megaprojects, such as a wind farm or a bio-fuel refinery, rather than multiple smaller deployments of energy storage technology supporting, for example, distributed solar energy generation. More than six months after the webinar, the concern raised about the suitability of the Section 1703 program for supporting storage technology seems to have been validated. The DOE has not issued a single loan guaranty in support of a distributed energy storage project anywhere.

But the need for DOE guarantees to support the commercialization of new energy storage technology is real. Using advanced batteries to provide ancillary services on the grid is still in its infancy. Few, if any, major financial institutions are willing to accept the technology risk that an advanced battery will reliably perform its function on the grid over a ten or more years, since no advanced battery has ever been deployed on the grid for such a length of time. This is exactly the problem that Section 1703 of the Energy Policy Act is supposed to address.

A close read of the Energy Policy Acts indicates that, though the DOE has confined the use of Section 1703 guarantees to guarantying the loan indebtedness of large megaprojects, the Energy Policy Act empowers the DOE to issue guarantees in forms that would be much more suitable, and much more helpful, to the development of distributed renewable generation and distributed storage. Section 1701 of the Act specifically defines an obligation that can the DOE can guarantee as including a “loan or other debt obligation…”. Those “other debt obligations” would include manufacturers’ warrantee obligations as to the performance of their batteries on the grid or behind the meter over time.

The United States electricity grid is evolving in a way that would have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago. Distributed generation, enabled by the rapidly falling price of solar PV systems and the rising costs of maintaining many centrally located generation assets, is going to account for a major portion of the power used on the grid. Electricity storage technology will be essential to facilitating the transformation of the U.S. electricity grid from one based on centralized generation to one in which distributed renewable generation plays an important, if not eventually a leading, role.

The DOE’s current approach to Section 1703 loan guarantees of large megaprojects is a relic of an electricity system based on centrally generated electricity. That was yesterday’s grid. The Section 1703 guarantee program should be reformed to support the new technologies that will enable the grid of the future — one in which smaller, distributed projects relying on technologies that are still relatively new and unproven today will play a major role.

One approach would be to use Section 1703 authority to guarantee the performance warranties of advanced battery manufacturers whose systems are deployed in support of distributed, renewable energy projects on the grid or behind the meter. Those guarantees might initially be confined to warrantying the performance lithium-ion batteries that comply with certain standards, are manufactured in a certain way, and are operated within certain specified parameters. Industry already knows, by extrapolation, what those standards and parameters need to be. The problem is that for the financial markets, and for many potential customers, extrapolated data is not good enough. Financiers and customers want to see actual data — data that, by definition, will not be available for many years. Addressing this problem is exactly what Section 1703 is supposed to do.

NAATBatt International respectfully calls on the DOE to start thinking outside the megaproject box and to address the needs of the emerging technologies that will make distributed, renewable energy generation an important part of the United States’ energy future. A good way to do that is to use Section 1703 guarantees to backstop the performance warranties of qualified advanced battery manufacturers that deploy systems in support of distributed, renewable energy generation.

The Race for the Super-Battery

February 28th, 2015 by

This past week I attended a presentation and book signing by Steve Levine, who was promoting his new book, The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World.  Steve Levine was joined in the presentation by Jeff Chamberlain, Deputy Director of Development & Demonstration for the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).

The Powerhouse tells the story of a race to develop a super-battery that will “undermine Russia’s Vladimir Putin, endanger Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, threaten OPEC and transform China…”.  Levine developed his material while “embedded” for two years in the JCESR program at Argonne National Laboratory among many of the scientists who figure prominently in the book.

Based on the talk by Levine and Chamberlain and a quick skim (so far) of the book, The Powerhouse seems like an interesting read and a good insight into the science and many of the personalities driving the progress being made today in advanced battery technology.

But my concern with the book (which is highly qualified as I am still reading it) is that Levine may have sacrificed much of the real story of battery technology in his quest to develop high drama and a compelling story line.  This is hardly a sin in the publishing business.  After all, how good is a book if it does not sell?  But in this case there is a more substantial danger.

It is certainly possible that scientists at Argonne or elsewhere will suddenly discover a new technology that transforms the science of advanced batteries and disrupts the economics of energy.  That “super-battery” discovery might help bring down Putin, threaten OPEC, transform China and solve any number of other problems in the world.

But the more likely scenario is that there will be no momentous breakthrough, no transformative moment in battery technology.  Instead over the next few decades we are likely to see slow and steady progress made in a number of the technologies that scientists are already reasonably familiar with today.  Step by step, battery scientists and battery companies will simply get better at doing what they are already doing today.

While slow, steady progress in battery technology over decades may lack the sexiness of a super-battery discovery, the drama of an international battery race, or the exuberant thrill of a Moore’s Law, it will nevertheless be transformative.  Improvements of just a few percent a year in the energy density of lithium batteries over decades will transform the world of energy just as assuredly as will the super-battery of Steve Levine’s imagination.

We should continue to invest in the race to discover the super-battery.  Sudden, transformative discoveries are always possible and never made without effort.  But we must not allow that race to distract us from the basic blocking and tackling from which most of the advances in advanced electrochemical energy storage are likely to come.

NAATBatt 2015 Offers Insight into the Future of Battery Technology and of NAATBatt

February 20th, 2015 by

The NAATBatt 2015 Annual Meeting & Conference concluded on Thursday in Litchfield Park (Phoenix), Arizona.  The meeting was marred only by the near perfect weather, while most of our colleagues in North America struggled through a particularly harsh stretch of winter.  Aside from the weather, the meeting was a great success.  Attendance was up about 10% from 2014 and the content and networking were as good as ever.

The UL workshop on lithium battery safety got particularly good reviews.  Bob Swaim from the NTSB gave a detailed report of the NTSB’s findings on the Dreamliner (Boeing 787) battery incidents.  Although the written record of the NTSB’s findings is now a matter of public record, that record is enormous and, as such, nearly indecipherable.  Several of the attendees who had read much of that record praised Bob’s summary of the NTSB findings for bringing clarity to the NTSB’s findings.  Bob’s summary engendered some great and at times quite pointed questions from the audience, which added considerably to the value of the presentation.

Another highlight was the panel on the future of lithium battery technology, featuring Stan Whittingham, Khalil Amine and Mike Thackeray. Drs. Whittingham, Amine and Thackeray are three of the leading experts in the world in lithium-ion technology (Stan Whittingham can lay claim to being the inventor of the lithium-ion battery, an accomplishment for which he received a lifetime achievement award at the meeting). During the course of their discussion, and in response to several questions from the audience, the panelists emphasized that lithium-ion battery technology is going to be an important battery technology for quite some time.  They also outlined their views as to what advances are likely to be made in lithium-ion battery technology over the next few decades and, perhaps as important, what hoped for advances are more likely to disappoint.  It was a fascinating discussion.

In the estimate of many attendees, the highlight of the meeting was the presentation of our keynote speaker, Captain Michael Ziv, Group Director of the NAVSEA Technology Office, following the Gala Dinner on Wednesday evening.  Captain Ziv talked about the rail gun and laser weapons systems that the U.S. navy is just starting to deploy and the role of energy storage technology in enabling those systems.  The technical capabilities of those systems are fascinating and captured the full attention of everyone in the audience.  Captain Ziv’s talked focused on some of the technical issues relating to those systems that the navy hopes private industry can help address.  A number of our members left the dinner in deep thought.

In my view, however, the highlight of the meeting was the members’ update presentations on the last day of the meeting. During that portion of the meeting, 27 different NAATBatt member firms made 8 minute presentations about new products, new services and new developments on which they are working.  I had assumed going into the meeting that those presentations would be shameless commercials with limited substance and no real interest.  My assumptions were dead wrong.  Some of the developments, technologies and products discussed were among the most interesting things I heard during the entire conference.  Many other attendees felt the same way.

Immediately following the meeting, I had the opportunity to poll a number of our members about what they liked and did not like about the annual meeting.  The one point on which there was a near unanimity of views was that rather than treating the members’ presentations as an add-on advertising segment at the end of the meeting, those presentations should become the centerpiece of the meeting itself.  And that is exactly what we are going to do next year.

For those of you that joined us in Phoenix for this year’s annual meeting, whether as delegates, sponsors, exhibitors or speakers—thank you.  For those who could not join us, you missed a really great program.  For all of you, I hope you can join us next year at NAATBatt 2016.  Watch out for details soon.

U.S. 2014 Installed Generation Stats Demonstrate the Growing Need for Storage

February 6th, 2015 by

Earlier this month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission published its latest Energy Infrastructure Update report, which details new electricity generation assets installed in the United States in 2014 by fuel type.  Given that 2014 saw some of the lowest natural gas prices of the decade and substantial uncertainty about the future of tax incentives for renewable projects, the numbers may be surprising.

Of the total new generation of 15,384 MW installed in 2014, natural gas accounted, not surprisingly, for the largest fuel segment with 7,485 MW installed.  But wind followed next with 4,080 MW of installed capacity and solar with 3,139 MW.  The upshot of these numbers is that at a time when it is hard to imagine that the headwinds against wind and solar could possibly be stronger, variable, renewable electricity generation assets accounted for a full 46.9% of all new electricity generation in the United States.

The implications for electricity storage on the grid should be obvious.  It has long been acknowledged that storage will be necessary to accommodate large scale penetration of variable electricity generation on the grid.  The question for the storage market has always been:  Will variable generation assets ever be installed in sufficient quantities to make the need for large scale electricity storage a real issue?

What the 2014 installed generation numbers show is that variable wind and solar electricity is no flash in the pan.  If 46.9% of all new generation installed in a bad year is variable, what are those numbers going to look like when natural gas prices start to climb and Congress brings some long-term predictability to energy policy?

The 2014 installed generation numbers show that the Golden Age of electricity storage on the grid is not nearly as far off as many have assumed.

Spouses Program Serves an Important Purpose at the NAATBatt Annual Meeting

January 30th, 2015 by

As in past years, the NAATBatt 2015 Annual Meeting will include something we call a Spouses’ Program.  This is a set of activities specifically organized (by my wife, Ellen) for spouses and significant others who accompany delegates to the Annual Meeting.  This year’s program involves a guided tour of some of the most significant sites, museums and shopping areas in the Phoenix area.  A full description of this year’s Spouses Program activities may be seen by clicking here.  Spouses and significant others are also welcome to join delegates at the Annual Meeting dinners and receptions, and to register to play in the Advanced Battery Golf & Tennis Tournament on Monday.

While it is true that one purpose of the program is to provide great entertainment for family members of delegates—and a good excuse for a low-cost vacation in a warm and sunny climate during February—the principal purpose of the Spouses Program is something far more important than mere entertainment.

One of the core missions of NAATBatt International is to create a community of professionals working in the business of electrochemical energy storage.  The value of that community is that it permits its members to grow their visibility and personal relationships in the industry.  Those personal relationships can become the basis of solid business relationships.

It is much easier, and much less risky, to do business with someone you know—and someone your spouse may also know—than to do business with a stranger who you happened to meet at a trade show.  Sometimes I think that Asian business culture is far more attuned to this business reality than Western business culture.  But that reality is hard wired in human nature and cuts across all cultures.  In business, you are who you know well.

While former attendees could provide great testimonials for the Spouses Program, the greatest testimonial may be its close to 100% return rate among the spouses and significant others who have participated in the program in the past.  Some great and enduring friendships have been formed among those past participants–which is, of course, the principal purpose of the program.

Those relationships matter.  They matter not just to the individuals who have formed and enjoyed them, but also to their battery industry spouses.  Those spouses, looking to grow their own relationships and visibility in the industry, now have a wife, husband or significant other who is an important business asset.  Welcome to the advanced battery industry community.

I hope that you can join us next month in Phoenix and bring your best business partner along.

NAATBatt Announces 2015 Advanced Battery Industry Awards

January 23rd, 2015 by

It was my pleasure this past week to announce the winners of NAATBatt International’s annual awards for outstanding contribution to the advanced battery industry.  Each year, NAATBatt International acknowledges at its annual meetings individuals who over the past year or over the course of a lifetime have made an outstanding contribution to the industry.  The awards are presented at the Gala Dinner at the annual meeting, this year on the evening of Wednesday, February 18, at the Wigwam Resort outside of Phoenix.

This year’s winners are:

Prof. Stan Whittingham of SUNY Binghamton will receive the NAATBatt 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award-Technology.  Prof. Whittingham is one of the main figures in the history of rechargeable batteries.  In 1972, while leading a research team at Exxon, he discovered the role of intercalation in battery reactions, which resulted in the first commercial lithium rechargeable batteries. Prof. Whittingham is listed as No. 17 in the Greentech Hall of Fame (following No. 16, Nikola Tesla).  He has received the Yeager Award of the International Battery Association and is a Fellow of both the Electrochemical Society and the Materials Research Society.  Prof. Whittingham’s work has facilitated battery applications that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.  Anyone working in lithium-ion technology today owes their job in part to Prof. Whittingham.  NAATBatt International is honored to salute him.

Naum Pinsky of Southern California Edison will receive the NAATBatt 2015 Technology Commercialization Award.  23 years ago, when Dr. Pinsky joined SCE, few envisioned electric drive, let alone storing electricity on the power grid, as practical possibilities.  Dr. Pinsky established the Electric Vehicle Technical Center at SCE, which did some of the earliest work by any public electric utility on vehicle electrification and electrochemical energy storage on the grid.  He is also responsible for the operation of the Large Energy Storage Test Apparatus facility at SCE, which is capable of testing large transportable energy storage devices prior to field demonstrations, and pilot deployments. As more utilities and IPP’s gain an interest in grid connected energy storage, it is fitting that we should honor this year one of the early pioneers in the field.  Dr. Pinsky’s work continues to serve as a valuable guide to those who are just beginning to investigate the uses and value of storage on the grid.

Sally Miksiewicz, former CEO of East Penn Manufacturing Co., will receive the NAATBatt 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award-Industry.  NAATBatt International is both glad and saddened to be offering the award this year to Ms. Miksiewicz, who died tragically last year.  Ms. Miksiewicz will long be remembered in the advanced battery industry by the many friends she made and by the many people to whom she served as a mentor and a role model.  The industry will remember that under her leadership, East Penn introduced the Deka UltraBattery, a major leap forward in lead acid battery technology, and became an industry leader in lead acid battery recycling.  There is no question but that Ms. Miksiewicz has earned this lifetime achievement award; NAATBatt International only regrets that it is being given so soon.

I would urge those working in the advanced battery industry today to make the trip to Phoenix next month to honor Prof. Whittingham, Dr. Pinsky and Ms. Miksiewcz.  As an industry, we are the sum of our individual parts.  By honoring those parts, those individuals, who have made outsized contributions to the technology and businesses that provide us our livelihoods and our mission, we honor our entire industry.  I hope you can join us.

Je Suis Charlie

January 16th, 2015 by

It was suggested to me that in light of the tragedies in Paris, I devote my column this week to remembering the victims and honoring the principles of tolerance and free expression for which they gave their lives.  While that request may seem a bit of a stretch—this column is normally devoted to developments in the business, technology and policy of electrochemical energy storage—it is not as much of a stretch as it may appear.

The world today seems in many ways to be pulling apart along the lines of competing ideologies.  Radical Islam in the Middle East, nationalism in Europe and Asia, nativism in the United States, and tribalism almost everywhere: these forces urge us to compete against each other, sometimes violently, in pursuit of one zero-sum-gain objective or another.  Perhaps this is inevitable.  After all, one is a Muslim or not; the Senkaku islands belong to China or not; one is an undocumented alien in the United States or not.  Identifying win-win outcomes in ending disputes and re-defining differences is not always easy or possible.

But advanced battery technology, in a sense, is different.  In developing better energy storage technology, individuals and companies, even competing companies, strive to improve a technology that will positively impact the lives of all people around the world regardless of nationality, legal status or tribe.  Reducing the pace of climate change, extending the reach and reliability of electrical power, and breaking the monopoly of hydrocarbon fuels in transportation are in the interest of all of mankind.  The more we cooperate, the faster the technology and its benefits will occur.  Battery technology draws us together rather than pushes us apart.

The forces in the world that pull us apart are inevitable.  The best antidote to them is to focus our efforts on the forces that pull us together, so that the forces of cohesion will simply outweigh those of dispute.  The most fitting tribute we can make to those who died in Paris is to redouble our efforts to benefit all humanity through our technology and its benefits.  Through those efforts and those benefits we will hold mankind together and make for a more peaceful world.

Gasoline Prices and the Battery Business

January 9th, 2015 by

Retail prices for regular grade gasoline in the United States reached the lowest levels in four years primarily as a result of falling crude prices in the second half of 2014. As of December 12, the weekly retail price for regular gasoline in each city for which U.S. Energy Information Administration collects data was below $3.00 per gallon for the first time since February 2010. Each city recorded its lowest 2014 gasoline price on the last Monday of the year.

Falling gasoline and crude oil prices have ignited predictable concern about the future of renewable energy technologies and of technologies, such as electrochemical energy storage, that facilitate the use of renewable technologies on the grid and in transportation.  Those concerns are misplaced.

There are three reasons why those in the advanced battery business should not be concerned about the falling price of hydrocarbon fuels.  First, the story really isn’t the falling price of petroleum but rather its substantial volatility over time.  Prices are falling today because of an imbalance of supply over demand.  The market will correct for that over time, as it does for all commodities, and prices will go back up.  One of the long term advantages of renewable energy technologies over hydrocarbon fuels is that renewable energy tends to be technology-based rather than commodity-based (i.e., a wind turbine vs. a lump of coal).  The price of technology tends to go down over time whereas the price of commodities tends to be volatile.

The second reason not to be concerned about the falling price of petroleum is that petroleum is not the same as energy.  Energy is produced by a number of different sources the prices of which are not necessarily linked.  For example, petroleum prices may have fallen over the past six months, but electricity prices in the United States rose during the same period.  Advanced batteries are not a source of energy and they do not really compete with petroleum or other hydrocarbons.  Advanced batteries are instead an energy vector, taking energy produced in one form and delivering it in another.  In a sense the independent volatility of different forms of energy underscores the importance of battery technology, as it potentially permits users to replace more expensive fuels with less expensive (or cleaner) fuels.

Third and finally, the falling price of petroleum should not concern the battery industry because the principal value of a battery is not its ability to substitute for petroleum or other fuels.  Rather the most valuable function of a battery is to deliver energy to a place or to an application where it would be difficult or impossible to deliver energy by any other means.  Consumer electronics, cell phones and certain distributed energy storage applications are examples of this function.  Even if the cost of a barrel of crude oil fell to $1.00, Apple will still look to lithium-ion batteries to power the iPhone7, not oil.

The falling price of petroleum should not be a drag on the business of advanced batteries.  Electrochemical energy storage is not a form of energy.  It is an energy enabler.  So let the price of hydrocarbon fuels do what it is going to do naturally–fluctuate.  In the meantime, enjoy the ride.