The Bay Area teems with startups focused on creating advanced batteries that can store enough energy to run phones, cars – even buildings. Now a unique collaboration between private companies and the federal government could make California the center of this fast-evolving industry.
The CalCharge initiative, launched Thursday, gives advanced battery startups easy access to national laboratories at UC Berkeley and Stanford University. The startups can test ideas with seasoned researchers, use state-of-the-art equipment and collaborate with major international companies.
Advanced energy storage holds the key to expanding the use of solar and wind power, whose output varies over time. More powerful batteries could also extend the range of electric cars and lead to better personal electronics.
“We want this to be the home of innovation that actually solves the critical challenge we face in building the clean energy economy – having the ability to capture and store energy so we can use it anywhere, anytime,” said CalCharge President Jeff Anderson.
More than 80 energy storage companies already call the Bay Area home. CalCharge hopes to give these startups a direct connection to the expertise of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, both part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
An early member
Emeryville’s Halotechnics is one of the first startups to join CalCharge. The 4-year-old firm is developing ways to store large amounts of energy with molten salt or a proprietary form of molten glass. The technology could help integrate more renewable power onto the power grid or capture waste heat from industrial processes, such as making aluminum.
“The more solar you have on the grid, the more storage you’re going to need,” said founderJustin Raade, whose office is just a few miles downhill from the Berkeley lab. “They are saving us time and money, which will help us get to market more quickly.”
Officials believe California, and the Bay Area in particular, could soon become a major market for storage technologies, the way it has for renewable power and electric cars.
“We all believe that the Bay Area has the ideal ecosystem to make this happen,” said Horst Simon, deputy director of the Berkeley lab. “We have in one location all the ingredients that could make batteries the next big thing.”
Last year, state officials ordered California’s utility companies to buy 1.3 gigawatts of large-scale energy storage by the end of 2020. That’s enough to power nearly a million homes. And some of the solar companies based in the Bay Area – most notably SolarCity – are experimenting with home-based batteries that can store solar power during the day for use at night.
CalCharge will operate as a membership organization, with a roughly $1 million annual budget funded by membership dues. Small startups will pay as little as $2,500 per year, while the larger companies will pay up to $50,000.
The idea grew out of 18 months of discussions between the lab and CalCEF, a nonprofit devoted to developing a clean-energy economy. SLAC and San Jose State University, which is developing courses for students interested in the field, later joined the discussions.
“One of the realities is that companies don’t often know what national labs have to offer, and often times lab researchers don’t understand what companies are struggling with,” said Venkat Srinivasan, a staff scientist at the Berkeley lab who helped develop CalCharge. “So there’s this mismatch. One of the beauties of CalCharge is, that mismatch can go away. Everyone’s now in the room.”
In the past, private companies seeking to use the labs faced a six- to eight-month application process. Srinivasan said. Now, for CalCharge members, that time can be cut to a month or two.
“For startups, six to eight months is a lifetime – it could be a make or break for them,” Srinivasan said. “What we’ve done is streamline the process.”
Farasis Energy in Hayward, founded in 2002, already sells lithium-ion batteries to companies that make electric motorcycles and buses. Founder Keith Kepler said CalCharge could give him access to potential partners and suppliers who are developing new electrolytes or cathodes.
“We see it as bringing in new people we can work with,” he said. “If we can be the first people to work with those companies, see what they’re doing and how it fits with what we’re doing, that gives us an advantage.”