Not to go all old-school Star Trek on you, but entrepreneurs often go where no man (or woman) has ever gone before.

Case in point: Baseload Renewables, a startup with an incredibly ambitious goal: Use renewable energy to replace fossil fuels as baseload electric power. (Baseload refers to the minimum level of demand on an electrical grid over a period of time.)

It's an admirable goal, since roughly 98% of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from gas and coal, but still: In order to be scalable, the eventual solution must not also remove carbon from the equation, it must be extremely cost-effective.

In short: Better for the environment and cheaper.

So how do you pull that off? I talked with two of the co-founders of Baseload, Yet-Ming Chiang and Ted Wiley, to find out. (And asked them to dumb things down for me.)

So where do you even start with a goal that ambitious?

The cost of energy production using solar and wind is rapidly decreasing, but we need a correspondingly lower storage cost to be able to sync the generation with the storage and tackle the biggest carbon-producing part of the electricity system: Baseload generation. So we're targeting long-duration storage, defining "long duration" as weeks to months to even seasons. 

So with that in mind... when Steven Chu was we Secretary of Energy he created a structure called the The Hubs, Manhattan Project-like entities that brought together researchers to focus on common problems and do basic research with great urgency. Within the hub there were multiple shots on goal towards transportation and grid storage, and one of the things that came out of the grid storage side was a focus on using sulfur as the key storage medium in batteries.

There are several reasons for using sulfur. One is the unbelievably low cost because it's a by-product of oil and gas refining; it's manufactured in elemental form as a result of producing fossil fuels. Two, if you take a close look at the periodic table, sulfur has the ability to store a tremendous amount of charge for its mass; sulfur beats the next nearest competitor by over a factor of 10.

The third thing about sulfur is that it's highly soluble in water, so you can form sulfur-rich solutions that allow you to design a particular type of battery called a flow battery.

You'll need to help me understand what a flow battery is.

A flow battery is like the chemical equivalent of a hydroelectric dam. If you think of a dam, or pump hydroelectric storage, which is a lake coupled to a dam with power turbines, the reservoir of water is the working fluid. The water is the potential energy, then you have a power extracting generator, and in pumped hydro those are the mechanical turbines.

The way to think of a flow battery is that the energy is stored in chemicals, ideally very low-cost chemicals, and in order to generate the power you flow those chemicals through an electro-chemical stack, with that stack serving as the equivalent of the turbine.

So flowing chemicals through the stack is like flowing water through turbines.

Basically, yes. So we have an energy-storing fluid, dissolved sulfur with some sodium added to it, which like water is almost free in terms of cost. The greater cost is creating the "lake." Those are actually plastic tanks... but even so, the cost of the chemicals is the lowest of any rechargeable battery I've ever encountered, and a factor of 5 lower in cost than the tanks you use to contain it.

So it basically competes with pumped hydroelectric storage, which makes up 95% of the stored electricity in the world.

We can't keep building pumped hydroelectric storage systems, though, because we can't keep lopping off mountains and creating lakes.

This kind of technology offers a utility the ability to have storage at a similar cost to pumped hydro but in a much more compact form: Less than 1% of the footprint of pumped hydro, and you can put it anywhere.

The technology aspect of this is certainly challenging, but I imagine so is finding the right people to take on that challenge.

There is a fairly small group among entrepreneurs that are focused on climate change and how to address it. Some of our friends like to say that the tourists have left. (Laughs.)

What we've discovered truly has the potential to enable renewable energy to not just be bolted on top of the existing grid and provide 10 or 20 percent of the energy, but to make renewable just as stable as coal or natural gas at a competitive or even lower price.

So in what will be an academic paper, a detailed study was done looking at 20 years of wind and solar data in locations around the country to see what it would have taken to make that a fossil-fuel like asset. They found that if you hit certain parameters, baseload renewables are indeed possible... and much more interestingly, the energy storage platform looks like it has the potential to meet the requirements in terms of cost, round trip efficiency, cycle life, etc.

So at that point we got very excited. And so did lots of other people, because creating renewable energy is what they want to spend their lives working on. Some people are just built to take on difficult problems involving new technologies and new hardware and long time horizons.

Speaking of long time horizons... a startup like this is nothing like a tech startup in terms of time to market.

If you first contextualize this by thinking of a software startup, there are all these different components of my software and the goal is to make sure they talk to each other.

In hardware, and particularly material-science based hardware, that the approach is different. The first experiments inform your next sets of decisions, and that means the time horizon is intrinsically  longer.

The next challenge, once you think you have a "product," you need to start creating a manufacturing process... and adjustments to that process can be incredibly expensive, If your website has a bug, it's comparatively easy to fix. If there's a bug in a powder processing line, maybe that's fixable with a wrench -- but if you need to go to a different process, now you're creating a new processing line. 

Then, after you have a method of manufacturing, you need to manufacture at a level of quality such that your warranty is not a burden on the company. Any product designed to provide a service over many years, say 10 to 20 years, you have to warrant. When that warranty is written and the stuff doesn't work... it's a big drag on the company. So you can't make mistakes.

Even larger, established companies don't like to make mistakes, but for a startup a mistake is even more harmful -- so you have to get it right the first time.

And then you have to convince customers that your solution is right for them.

Absolutely. Energy is an industry that is relatively slow moving and risk averse. So that means that if you want to succeed, you need to partner with your end customer before you manufacture a product -- and that means finding a special class of customer that is less risk averse and more forward-thinking.

It's a tough needle to thread, but that's what we love to do. We've developed deep relationships with forward thinking, innovative people in the energy and utility industry, and we see the path: Collaborating with customers, partnering on manufacturing with larger entities... a path of patience and humility during the go-to-product part of the journey.

For us, the view is absolutely worth the climb.

Which, to go back to my question about people, makes recruiting people to work with you a little easier. 

Climate change is clearly an issue many people are concerned about, but for us it's even more than climate change. This is an opportunity to work on hard science, at the frontier of what people know -- it's interesting science that has a direct and positive impact on the world.

Working on something like that is a privilege and an honor. It's quite astonishing to see how widespread that sentiment is in the hardware technical community.

At the same time, we recognize this is an incredible challenging goal. The name of the company itself, Baseload Renewables, raises eyebrows among those in the field of energy and renewable energy, because we're taking on a challenge that nearly everyone in energy recognizes as incredibly tough.

We want to make renewable energy a no-brainer, we think now is the right time -- and we think we have a technological path of achieving that goal which did not previously exist.

So yes, it's challenging -- but it's also really exciting.

Published on: Oct 19, 2017
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