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CIGS, Sprayable Batteries, Smart Grid and More From Dow Jones Conference

Michael Kanellos: October 21, 2008, 6:18 PM
The Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations conference is taking place this week and, if you can't make it, here are a few highlights. Telio Solar more fully unveiled its strategy at the event. (The company has mostly been in stealth mode, but here's an early story.) The company, the latest entrant into the CIGS market, has licensed a CIGS cell from the Institute of Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware and has devised a manufacturing process to go around it. Telio's process, which revolves around chemical deposition and evaporation, takes 17 steps in all, CEO Gapseong Noh told me in an interview. But the best part is that it heavily leverages the machinery and processes from the LCD world: 60 percent of the steps -- including many of the cleaning, chemical sputtering and laser scribing stages -- come straight out of the semiconductor world. (Noh and other execs come from Samsung, the LCD king.) By leveraging LCD manufacturing know-how and the cell design, Telio says it has been able to drastically cut costs. It built a pilot line for under $4 million in about six months. You probably can't even get another CIGS CEO to raise his hands above his head and spin around three times for under $18 million. Before the end of the year, Telio wants to produce a 300mm x 300mm prototype with around a 10 percent efficiency. By the beginning of 2010, it wants to be in mass production with a 30-MW facility and to be on par in terms of cost with First Solar. Although it leverages existing standards, Telio has concocted some proprietary process stages. A chemical bath for depositing some of the ingredients is one of Telio's major achievements, he said. Planar Energy Devices, meanwhile, talked up a solid state lithium battery that is produced via printing. The company has licensed technology for solid state, large format batteries from Oak Ridge National Labs and printing technology from Bell Labs. The end result, in theory, is a way to make any surface a battery by applying layers of anodes, electrolytes and cathodes to it. The company will aim its thin-film batteries at the RFID and security card market first, and later cell phones and cars. If successful, this will take much of the bulk out of notebooks and phones because a separate battery wouldn't be needed: Planar's battery material could be sprayed onto interior surfaces in a phone. NREL has an equity interest in the company, CEO Scott Faris pointed out. The company is hand-building prototypes now and hopes to be in full production by 2010. Cool Energy touted a Stirling engine/solar thermal system for home that could provide hot water, heat and electricity. In all, the system could provide 75 percent of a family's baseload power, 95 percent of its hot water and 60 percent of its electricity, all for an $8,000 piece of equipment, says CEO Sam Weaver. Some I spoke to were skeptical. The Stirling engines also accomplishes all of this at medium temperatures. Usually, solar thermal systems require high temperatures. Thus, wait and see on this one. Smart Grid is also a hot topic. Powerit Solutions, which provides demand response systems for large commercial real estate developers and industrial sites, will unfurl a newly revamped suite of services on January 1. The company, a Swedish-U.S. affair, says it can release peak power by 10 percent to 40 percent. The trick is that the company analyzes a customers power usage and then tried to anticipate peak power needs so it can scale up or down in advance. The service costs around $80.000 but customers see a payback in about two to 18 months, says Claes Olsson, CEO. Hyperion Power Generation, which has created a small nuclear devices for power generation, also seemed to get high marks from the audience. (Disclosure: Hyperion will also appear at our own Greentech Innovations End to End Electricity conference on November 18.) Ultracapacitor maker APowerCap also seemed somewhat popular while Jon Bonnano talked up the slack-moored offshore wind turbines of Principle Power.

Is This the Way to Build Electric Cars?

Michael Kanellos: October 21, 2008, 5:29 PM

Ultracapacitors have been a star attraction in scientific research for years, but the component might be best suited for a supporting role in the commercial world, says Alex Shnaydruk at APowerCap Technologies.

APowerCap Technologies is trying to bring a novel breed of ultracapacitors — which are essentially holding tanks for electrons — to the automotive and electronics market in a way that better fits economic reality. APowerCap won’t sell ultracapacitors to power electric cars. Instead, it is prepping a line of ultracapacitors to charge the batteries in electric cars, which will in turn run the car. That’s similar to the way General Motors will use a gas generator to charge the batteries on the Chevy Volt, but without the gas.

In a nutshell, the problem with ultracapacitors is cost, he said during a presentation and meeting at the Dow Jones Alternative Energy Innovations conference taking place in beautiful Redwood City, Calif. this week. Employing ultracapacitors to power a car would break the component budget. Other than that massive problem, ultracaps are great. They can be charged in a few seconds and can discharge rapidly as well.

The first project out of the company is KERS, which stands for Kinetic Energy Recuperation System. It is an “energy recuperation??? system commissioned by a company that supplies components to Formula 1 cars. The KERS charger will consist of 200 of APowerCap’s cells. That is a single cell in the picture. The company showed off a 14-cell prototype at a meeting.

APowerCap will subsequently move onto producing ultracapacitors for electronic bikes, a growing market in Asia and even Europe, as well as power storage devices for notebooks and other electronic devices. Using an ultracapacitor can take some of the bulk out of a phone or other product, he said.

The company is also working with a lead acid battery maker to supplement more traditional batteries. In tests, APowerCap was able to show that a lead acid battery supplemented by its ultracapacitors required only one third of the lead of traditional lead acid batteries, lasted 2.5 times as long, and worked well in cold weather. The overall volume of the battery was also 60 percent smaller. (Lead acid, by the way, isn’t dead. Axion Power International is also building carbon cathodes for lead acid batteries while Firefly Energy is making a membrane for lead acid batteries. Both of these companies have received investment funds from the Quercus Trust.)

“Most of our intellectual property is in the electrode,??? he said. The electrode is made of carbon sheets measuring only a few hundred nanometers thick or less. Current is collected by aluminum strips. Thus, two key components of the battery are made from two of the more common elements on Earth.

“We use just regular carbon,??? he said. How the carbon molecules arrange themselves in the sheets, however, determine its properties.

If the company can move from the science experiment stage to mass manufacturing, it could find a receptive audience. The lengthy charging times of batteries and the limited range remain two of the big stumbling blocks to the greater acceptance of electric cars. (Think of it: Will consumers really want to swap car batteries, like Project Better Place has proposed for getting around the charge time issue.) Ultracapacitors can put a dent in that, although cost would still be a big question.

APowerCap, by the way, comes out of the Ukraine. It has received some funding from local VCs and is now seeking $10 million. It has delivered samples to potential customers, he said. Ukraine isn’t a hotbed of startup activity, but all the countries east of the Vistula are certainly well regarded for their science.

Some large automakers are already thinking in the same direction as APowerCap too. Two weeks ago, I interviewed Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president of the technology development department at Nissan. He said that the company was trying to figure out a way to make an electric car that could charge itself while driving. Nissan’s goal, however, would be to recharge the battery electrically, not with a gas generator. An ultracap might work better than a fuel cell for that task.

Smart Grid Business Models Taking Shape

Michael Kanellos: October 21, 2008, 6:27 AM
One of the reasons the PC market took off so rapidly in the 1980s and '90s was that everyone seemed to quickly know their place in the world. Intel shuttled off memory and focused almost exclusively on processors and chipsets. PC makers in turn stopped making chipsets and other components to focus on logistics and cost cutting. Networking people stuck to networking. The world went horizontal, companies carved out tiny niches, and the whole market grew. The same forces are starting to work their magic in the smart grid world and will likely turn "smart grid" from an amorphous, catch-all category to something that's easier to grasp. EnerNoc, one of the first smart grid companies, for instance, started out as a full-service provider of systems for automatically cutting back power consumption. Now, and increasingly in the future, EnerNoc is going to function more like a software and services company, said T.J. Glauthier, a director at the company during an open house at Foundation Capital yesterday. The company will provide demand management services to industrial clients and this middleware stack, as it were, will operate on top of equipment based around standardized protocols and hardware. In a sense, it will become a or SAP of power consumption for industrialists. Similarly, eMeter can be looked at as a software-as-service (SaaS) company. And who will make this industry-standard hardware? Silver Spring Networks, says Scott Lang, the company's CEO. Silver Spring aims to be the Cisco of the grid (assuming Cisco doesn't decide to become the Cisco of the grid itself.). Silver Spring makes circuit boards that can turn regular electricity, gas and water meters into smart meters that monitor the use of resources in a home. The company also makes routers that aggregates information from various buildings by neighborhoods and routes it to utilities. The company has a deal with PG&E: By this time next year, Silver Spring will have installed one million smart meters in PG&E territory. But horizontalization will work its magic there too to segregate companies into even smaller niches. While Silver Spring makes a whole panoply of equipment for connecting utilities to homes, you might see them inch up the stack, Lang said, spending more time on routers and less time on the access points at the home. Someone else -- contract manufacturers and embedded board makers in Taiwan -- might take over the home meter market. The company in fact already licenses the designs of smart meter boards to third parties. Smart grid companies, or at least some of them, will become power providers. EnerNoc, for example, already has 2 GW of power under management. It can throttle back that much power if needed. (Companies that agree to have EnerNoc control their power consumption of course get discounts and lower power bills for participating.) Because utilties now trust these systems, they count that 2 GW as a power resource.