Sycamore International Inc. bets on iron-flow batteries, solar power and the Cut Inflation Act

At a repurposed mushroom farm in Chester County, Sycamore International Inc. recycles electronic equipment, including refurbishing 30,000 old laptops a month for resale. Steven Figgatt, managing director of Sycamore, says his West Grove business is focused on the circular economy.

In line with its sustainable mission, Sycamore installed a rooftop solar system earlier this year to convert its operations to renewable energy. But Figgatt, 36, only declared his company’s release from the power grid at the end of August, when he ordered an innovative new battery storage system that ensures his business is powered by solar energy even when the sun is not shining.

“We call it our Energy Independence Day,” he said.

Figgatt took a risk with his choice of energy storage technology, selecting a new system called an iron flux battery, the first of its kind on the East Coast.

Iron-flow batteries are among many promising grid-scale energy storage technologies vying for acceptance in a market where renewables are rapidly expanding to replace gas-emitting power sources. greenhouse effect.

As renewable energy generation grows in importance, the market for energy storage systems is expected to play a key role. Wind and solar systems produce power intermittently, depending on the weather, and grid operators say they will need more storage systems as renewables take a bigger share of the generation market of electricity.

Manufacturers of battery storage devices are anticipating a boost from the Cut Inflation Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law Aug. 16. The law contains tax incentives for purchasers of energy storage devices.

An iron flux battery is very different from a lithium-ion battery, the device commonly used in electric vehicles, mobile devices, and some commercial applications.

The main selling point of the iron flow battery is that its electrolyte, the material that conducts an electrical charge, is not a metal mined in a hostile country. Instead, the electrolyte consists of ferrous chloride, which is basically iron, salt, and water, all of which are widely available. Unlike lithium, it is non-toxic and will not overheat or explode.

Sycamore’s long-lasting battery can discharge its energy for 12 hours, about three times longer than a lithium battery, or roughly equal to the time when the sun is not shining. It can hold around 400 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to power around 28 homes for 12 hours.

The Iron-Flow battery is also guaranteed to withstand 25 years of charge and discharge cycles without deteriorating. It promises to work long after the Energizer Bunny has been whistled down the sidelines.

“It was exciting to try something new,” Figgatt said. “I mean, I like that there are no toxic chemicals, there’s no fire hazard that you have with lithium-ion batteries. And you can also run it all time, unlike lithium-ion batteries which have a finite number of cycles before they need to be replaced.It’s kind of unlimited, so we’re going to miss it all the time.

The downside of flow batteries is that they are large, heavy and stationary – Sycamore’s battery is housed in a 40ft shipping container which weighed nearly 20 tonnes before 19,000 liters of electrolyte was added . They are not designed for automobiles or mobile devices, but for large-scale power grid support.

Most of the country’s long-term energy storage is located at pumped-storage hydroelectric plants, such as Constellation Energy’s Muddy Run facility in Lancaster County, where water is pumped into a reservoir at a higher altitude, then released to generate electricity when needed.

Flow batteries store energy in reservoirs of electrolytes, which pass through an electrochemical membrane to extract electrons during the charging and discharging process.

The iron flux device acquired by Sycamore is called an energy warehouse, manufactured by ESS Tech Inc. of Wilsonville, Ore. The company has been developing a commercial iron-flow battery for more than a decade, and last year went public in a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, becoming the first publicly traded manufacturer of long-life batteries. Like many tech start-ups, its stock has done poorly this year and has fallen 60% since its launch last October.

But his fortunes may improve. He has a backlog, including one for another unit of Sycamore International, which is in the business of picking up more institutional clients who want to get rid of old electronics and permanently erase all traces of data in Sycamore’s secure process. . Sycamore plans to break ground this fall to expand into a new building in West Grove, also equipped with its own solar system.

ESS installed several batteries for San Diego Gas & Electric in Cameron Corners, Calif., a town at risk of being cut off from the grid due to wildfires. It is also working with Portland General Electric, a utility company, to build a half-acre energy center with about eight times the storage capacity of the West Grove unit. Last month it announced a deal to ship 70 battery warehouses to Australia and to open an assembly plant there by 2024.

But the biggest news last month was the Curbing Inflation Act, which contains tax incentives for buyers of energy storage devices that are increased by 10% for domestically produced devices. such as the ESS Energy Warehouse. The IRA also offers credits to purchasers of stand-alone battery storage units, whereas previous tax incentives only applied to energy storage directly associated with renewable energy generation.

“It helps level the playing field for us against our competitors,” ESS chief executive Eric Dresselhuys said in an interview. ESS’s competitors are typically Chinese lithium battery makers, which Dresselhuys says receive state support. Although IRA tax credits are available for all batteries, he said, “it’s worth more if you’re buying US-made products.”

The seeds for Sycamore International’s move to solar were planted more than five years ago at Millersville University, when Figgatt attended the launch of a solar system at the university’s new Lombardo Visitor Center. There, Figgatt met Dave Santoleri, president of TerraSol Energies Inc., a Chadds Ford company that designed and installed the 175-kilowatt Millersville system. Figgatt called on Terrasol to explore the realization of a solar installation in its factory in West Grove.

“I knew flow batteries were a good idea,” Santoleri said. “I did a search and found five companies that made them. Three of them were bankrupt. He found that ESS was still in business and the only manufacturer located in the United States he and Figgatt visited the business in Oregon and were sold.

“We did our due diligence,” Figgatt said. “We know this is newer technology, so we went through a whole verification process with ESS.”

The battery system nearly doubled the cost of Sycamore’s solar installation—the battery itself is around $200,000, though Figgatt is vague about his total investment in the system. Figgatt thinks the whole system will pay for itself in six to nine years, depending on what happens with market energy prices. Meanwhile, Sycamore’s energy costs are fixed.

For Figgatt, the battery backup offers more than just savings on its Peco bill. When the second battery system is installed, Sycamore International will be able to sell some of its surplus electricity back to the regional grid operator to help maintain power levels in the area, an important background role known as frequency regulation.

This will save his business from lengthy storm-related outages. And the voltage produced by its solar system is also finely tuned, which is critically important to operations at Sycamore, where its 70 employees can erase the delicate hard drives of 600 laptops simultaneously while they’re being refurbished.

“When the electricity goes out during some of these big weather events, it’s devastating,” he said. “The network is not as reliable here. The battery is therefore essentially an insurance product. From my perspective, it pays for itself in three days of power outages. »

The importance of energy storage for a decarbonized energy future is so important that US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm visited the ESS plant in Oregon last month as part of of a tour touting the climate benefits of the IRA.

In West Grove, Sycamore International’s August 25 grand opening of its battery storage system also drew praise from U.S. Representative Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat who represents Chester and Berks counties. “This project represents the kind of forward-thinking solution we need to build a decarbonized and resilient energy system,” she said.

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