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Nine New York energy storage companies awarded ‘bench-to-prototype’ funding

Nine companies conducting energy storage research and development projects are set to receive financial support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

NYSERDA announced the partnerships yesterday. The awards are capped at a maximum of US$250,000, with each of the nine companies thought to be receiving around that amount.

The support from the authority will be used to fund research and development into the electric grid as well as “alternative fuel vehicles” such as EVs. The work on the grid side will include developing storage resources that can maximise the value and utilisation of solar and wind-generated electricity. It will also look at more general grid and electricity supply issues, such as smoothing out fluctuations in supply, improving the energy efficiency of power plants and electronics products, and balancing supply and demand to limit or prevent power outages.

On the alternative fuel vehicle side, cleaner energy technologies for powering vehicles will be explored. The companies selected in both grid and vehicle areas encompass a wide range of technologies, from various battery types to other kinds of storage such as ultracapacitors and electronics management devices such as power converters.

For example, among the awarded companies were Hollingsworth & Vose, which is developing ways to improve the use of advanced lead acid batteries, Bettergy, which is working on low-cost zinc batteries and Eonix, a start-up focusing on ultracapacitors. The projects even stretch to one company, Custom Electronics, which is hoping to use its funding to produce a commercialisation plan for its high-voltage electrolytic capacitor, which is based on the often hyped carbon material, graphene, which in its purest form is just one atom thick.

All nine companies are members of the New York Battery and Energy Storage Technology Consortium (NY BEST), which has been described by its vice-president John Cerveny as a non-profit set up by the state of New York, funded directly by NYSERDA. According to Cerveny, NY BEST is “essentially…an economic development group focused on the spread of technologies that are all energy storage related”. The support NY BEST offers includes helping companies draft applications to NYSERDA.

Speaking to PV Tech Storage, John Cerveny explained that the awarded companies responded to Program Opportunity Notices (PONs), the name given to the solicitation notices by NYSERDA. Cerveny said this latest PONs is designed to take projects from “bench-to-prototype”.

“The entire intent here is to help move technologies from a promising flash of inspiration in a lab to … making something that looks much more like a product and gaining some meaningful data.”

The awarded companies will include alternative fuel vehicles. Image: NYSERDA facebook page.
Cerveny went on to explain that the awards give out funding and support to products on a step-by-step basis as they go from the conception of the idea to prototype, then testing, before the commercialisation process begins in earnest. This includes examining each company’s product in terms of 'technology readiness levels' (TRLs), a concept which Cerveny says originated with the US space agency NASA.

“If it’s fully qualified, tested in real environments, then it’s TRL 10; if it’s a wild idea that they’ve scribbled on a napkin then it’s TRL 1. It’s a grading that gives it a rating based on testing. By the time you start to put them into a representative environment of commercial use, i.e. testing it at different temperatures, humidity and so on, so that there’s some edge of reality outside the protective environment of a lab, you start to get to the TRL 7 level. So the intent for this [set of awards] is to move from a TRL 3 or so, where they’ve done it a few times and seen some good results, mostly on a lab bench-top, it’s to help them move it more toward, let’s put it out where it’s going to perform in a representative environment.”

According to Cerveny, at this stage, the funding and partnerships with NYSERDA are designed to remain at that pre-commercialisation level, with companies expected to reapply for further rounds of funding when it then comes to the demonstration stage of a project.

“Let’s say one of these companies that’s been awarded in this round shows at the end of their project that they’ve got a nice prototype that seems to be behaving well and it cycles a number of times and still does what it’s supposed to do and performance looks good, NYSERDA then has additional funding opportunities that could take them the next step,” he said, before citing a recent example.

“This past year they issued a Smart Grid PONs that had a number of areas of focus but one was energy storage. So if you had a device in good shape but you really needed to demonstrate it at a number of sites or just at one site that was truly a commercial activity, so, for example, putting a battery in a building in New York City, cycle it and see how it performs, collect data and show there’s actually a business case that makes it worthwhile, they provided funding for projects like that and typically that takes a lot of money, but each one of these awards of about US$250,000 maximum, demonstration projects can be much larger, upwards of US$1 million to a single company for a demonstration or even what they call product development.”

PV Tech Storage asked if formatting funding in this sort of step-by-step manner could be a more popular way of looking at subsidies, since it requires verification and testing at each stage of every project before more funding can be considered. Could this kind of approach based on a rigorous process of due diligence get people outside the industry to look at public funding for renewable energy and other technologies in a different way?

“I think it can. I could cite examples of companies that had the initial funding from NYSERDA and went on to develop a product and got their start that way. It’s much more focussed on market opportunity. The approach is to say ‘this is an interesting technology achievement, where does it get us in market opportunity, whose problem will it solve and is that a sufficient market to build a business and a product someone will pay for?’

“Those questions get asked at an early stage by this process and that’s important because it really does cause these companies to engage with customers and try to build something that isn’t just ‘gee-whiz’ technology; it’s solving a problem that people will pay for and that’s a good way to go if you’re trying to build a business.”

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