nicholas-doherty-pONBhDyOFoM-unsplash
The world is racing to transition away from fossil fuels, investing trillions of dollars in renewable energy and setting aggressive targets.
american-public-power-association-dCx2xFuPWks-unsplash
But this shift cannot happen unless we can store energy from these new sources at massive scale and for long periods of time.
Helena is investing in and supporting a new approach to energy storage that can hold energy longer, more efficiently, and at lower cost. And it does all of this while cleaning up significant amounts of waste in the process.

Energy Vault

GLOBAL
CLIMATE TECHNOLOGY: ENERGY STORAGE AND WASTE REMEDIATION
profit

Helena is a major investor and operating partner in Energy Vault, a breakthrough in energy storage. Energy Vault produces systems that store and release energy at grid-scale, high efficiency, longer durations, and at low cost.

 

The systems harness gravity to operate, vertically lifting and descending massive weights.

Energy Vault's first commercial system in Ticino, Switzerland

All of this is accomplished with an added environmental advantage. Energy Vault’s systems can be made with significant volumes of waste material, creating a major opportunity to clean up materials that otherwise make their way to landfills or sit as multi-billion dollar liabilities for utility companies.

EVTower_Rendering_Landscape_0004

The result is a comprehensive solution that fights two different critical environmental problems of our time: speeding the safe global transition to renewable energy while reducing waste byproducts of fossil fuels.

WSJ_Energy Vault_ February 14 2020
Energy Vault featured in the Wall St. Journal's "Future of Everything" report
The Problem

Transitioning Away From Fossil Fuels Isn't Easy

Since 2009, the World has invested over $2.6 trillion in renewable energy across solar, wind, and geothermal assets. Today, clean renewable energy represents 17% to 20%+ of the power mix in the United States and is quickly growing as additional projects are commissioned and coal plants rapidly retire.

As renewable generation proliferates, one would think our reliance on fossil fuels or energy sources with significant negative externalities would materially decrease. But this has not yet happened.

The modern electrical grid was designed many years ago, with the bulk of our existing infrastructure built without an expectation of any shift to renewable energy generation. To simplify, today’s grid has been built to accommodate one-way transfer of energy produced at large single point sources (such as large coal power plants), fed into the network of power lines that transmit energy, ultimately reaching distribution to homes and businesses. This grid expects power generation to be consistent.

Our grid has a big problem with renewable assets: the source of energy is intermittent.

Thus, our grid has a big problem with renewable assets: the source of energy is intermittent. This does not mean that the energy generation cannot be predicted — we know that the sun shines during the day and we will get more sun in certain places and during certain parts of the year. It means that the energy generation comes in waves and does not steadily provide energy over a 24/7/365 cycle. In other words, the sun sets. If power has to be used close to the time that it is generated, our electrical grid has times of great power generation by renewables and times of very little.

Both cause problems for our electrical grid. Though renewables produce plenty of energy, we lack control over how much energy is produced by these nature-based generation assets. The result is that we cannot control the assets to avoid over-injecting energy when that energy is not needed (and similarly, cannot ramp up production to produce more energy when needed).

If power that is generated then has to be injected into the grid immediately, the grid must to absorb this power and direct it to customers. If customer demand for this power is low, however, the power is stuck within the grid. This leads to serious problems, including blackouts.

ratio3x2_2400
An archival image of New York's Grand Central Station during the famed 1965 "Great Northeastern Blackout."

In 2020, California experienced numerous daytime blackouts caused by large rises in demand for energy. Without sufficient storage capacity installed, grid operators are forced to either import more power from other states or intentionally blackout service areas. When there is little demand for power but a high supply of it, generators often lose money.

Human energy usage does not map well with when renewable energy is available. During the sunniest part of the day, most urban environments require only a moderate amount of power. Most metropolitan areas require the most power when people head home from work for the day and households and families convene just as the sun is setting.

When we lack effective methods for accessing energy when we need it most or for harnessing self-generating energy when we don’t need it at all, we can severely harm our electrical grid, our economy, and our life at home.

Given the need for reliable power, baseload power generation sources need to be available around the clock. Unfortunately, the most reliable baseload power sources available today rely on fossil fuels or nuclear energy. To provide control and balance out the inconsistency of renewables, we still rely on coal, natural gas, and some nuclear power generation assets – systems designed to allow human intervention to increase or reduce energy generation as markets and consumers demand – to prevent blackouts.

Therefore, as we’ve pushed towards a world of renewables, we’ve also become more dependent on certain dirty energy sources. So how do we make a truly sustainable and renewable power generation regime? How do we fix the intermittency problem with renewables and make fossil fuel generation extinct?

When we lack effective methods for accessing energy when we need it most, we can severely harm our electrical grid, our economy, and our life at home.

The solution lies within finding an economical way of storing renewable generated power that can then be injected into the grid on a more predictable and reliable schedule. In practice, this means taking power generated from, for instance, solar farms and capturing it in a storage device rather than immediately releasing the power to the grid. In a world where we are trying to move toward a decarbonized electric economy, we need grid-scale energy storage.

Without storage, we cannot move toward a fully renewable energy generation economy. Beyond a certain point, adding extra renewable capacity is actually harmful due to over-injection issues. Over-generation, and thus over-injection, in times of low demand (and the opposite) create big problems for the grid. If we can store energy that is generated during periods of low demand and repurpose this energy during periods of high-demand and low-generation we then reduce the need for baseload energy. As such, we enable the efficient use of power and eliminate reliance on fossil fuel power generation assets.

How to Solve It

The Energy Storage Industry

Energy storage is a $59bn+ a year industry with over 160 GWhs installed globally. This has increased massively — by 117% from 2019 to 2020 alone — and is projected to grow by 91% through 2035.

Energy storage is not a new concept. For many years, the electrical grids in many countries have used gravity-based storage devices that utilize a highly abundant resource–water–to store and release energy. This solution, called pumped-storage hydropower (or colloquially “pumped hydro”), starts by taking energy that a client wishes to store and using it to pump water from a reservoir at a low altitude upwards to a reservoir at a higher altitude. When energy is needed, the water is then released from the upper reservoir and through a turbine that generates power through its connection to a large motor or generator. As of 2018, pumped hydro accounted for 95% of grid-scale energy storage in the United States.

clay-banks-xmeNoMLmRBM-unsplash
Lake Mead flowing into the Hoover Dam. When full, it is the United States' largest reservoir.

But there is a problem with pumped hydro. Its topographical requirements restrict where the large systems can be built.

Given the size of the system, environmental groups and local residents often oppose construction plans. Even without opposition, the areas suitable for a pumped hydro asset, which on their own are very few and hyper-specific, tend to be in more rural, less developed areas that are far from existing generation assets and urban centers. Altogether, the environmental restrictions and impact, coupled with the size and related cost of pumped hydro assets, have limited interest in building new assets. In fact, the last pumped hydro asset came online in the US in 2012, with the bulk of our existing assets built in the 1970s. Project overruns around the world stymie future pumped hydro projects.

In addition, pumped hydro systems are simply too big to pair with generation assets. Even if size compatibility were not an issue, renewable assets like solar farms are often prohibitively located hundreds of miles or more from the nearest pumped hydro facility. In the absence of on-site storage alternatives, when a solar farm generates power, it releases this power onto the grid at the interconnect where it is located, at the time the power is generated, at a price determined by supply and demand dynamics at that precise moment. In order to manage fluctuating injection prices and maximize revenue, solar farms, which generate large volumes of electricity at periods of low demand, are therefore incentivized to invest in on-site solutions that allow them to store this energy for injection at periods of high demand when associated injection prices are higher.

ricardo-gomez-angel-xhrZm4WhS2M-unsplash
A weakness of hydroelectric facilities is the efficiency losses incurred from transporting energy across power lines for storage.

Chemical batteries, which currently occupy the second largest market share in energy storage, are one such solution.

With more than 1,200 MWH’s of installed battery storage in the US as of 2018, the battery energy storage market is expected to grow to roughly 20 bn by 2027.The primary battery storage technology is lithium ion, which represented more than 90% of battery storage in the US in 2018. Nickel, sodium, and lead-based batteries also exist, though their use is far less widespread. Some companies are also developing redox flow battery designs, which rely on the flow of two liquids. The cost curve for battery storage has declined 89% from 2010 to 2020, and experts predict continued, yet flattening, reductions moving forward.

But there are drawbacks to chemical batteries. First, they require the extraction of diminishing elemental resources (such as lithium, cobalt, and magnesium) and the vast majority of mining activity occurs in only a handful of countries. These include China, the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC), Australia, Chile, and Argentina. And though Australia owned nearly half of global lithium reserves in 2019, the bulk of this output was refined in China, who has also heavily invested in the DRC, which mined over 70% of global cobalt output in 2017. Countries including Russia, Cuba, Australia, and Canada mined the remaining 30%. Now as ever, reliance on highly consolidated, finite resources carries significant geopolitical risk.

Second, chemical batteries degrade very quickly, a process accelerated by frequent use. Most chemical batteries are expected to last no more than 10 to 15 years and grid scale chemical batteries may last only 7 to 10 years. Additionally, chemical batteries pose safety concerns. A massive 2019 Arizona lithium ion battery farm fire, for example, raised questions about the compatibility of chemical battery storage with solar assets in desert environments that provide optimal sunlight conditions for power generation.

lachlan-dn8SEqz-7Rc-unsplash
Lithium and other resources like cobalt and manganese are essential to the chemical batteries that power many cell phones, laptops and electric vehicles. But the process of mining and extracting these resources in the first place comes at major human rights and environmental costs.

Ongoing research has informed the development of chemical battery variations including solid state batteries (using solid key components, enhancing safety), lead-acid batteries, redox flow batteries (leveraging the flow of liquid key components), sodium-sulfur batteries, sodium metal halide batteries, and zinc-hybrid cathode batteries.

These technologies vary across key categories such as performance, cost, resiliency, efficiency, and sustainability. Some utilize cheaper, more common raw materials than lithium ion batteries, but degrade more quickly. Others have a longer operational lifetime, but generally require ongoing maintenance or part replacement. Some demonstrate built-in resiliencies to higher temperatures, while others are housed in climate controlled environments, making them more compatible with warmer climates. Temperature stabilization methods, however, are generally more expensive than other technologies.

Given the limitations of battery storage technologies, certain players in the energy storage industry have begun to focus on new types of batteries or storage devices that are (1) non-chemical; (2) smaller and cheaper than pumped hydro; (3) grid scale; and (4) affordable and efficient. Examples of these technologies include gravitational storage (using the potential energy of gravity to store and generate energy), thermal storage (which stores energy as heat and generates energy by using the heat to create steam to drive a turbine), compressed air storage (storing compressed air and the energy generated from compression), flywheel storage (storing energy by spinning a rotor), cryogenic liquid air storage (cooling air down to a liquid, storing energy as the cooled and pressurized liquid air), and hydrogen storage (using excess power to run electrolysis, creating hydrogen gas to be stored).

While many of these technologies and the companies developing them are promising, most suffer from several, if not all, of the following flaws: (1) the technologies are unproven and still require millions of dollars in R&D investment; (2) the storage devices are not ready to be built for customers; (3) they are not cost competitive with chemical batteries; and (4) the complexity of the designs make it difficult to build at scale, and ever more expensive.

After deeply studying this field and various alternative storage devices, Helena invested in Energy Vault, believing it to be uniquely positioned for success in this sector.
Energy Vault’s designs are proven and ready for market. The units are cost competitive with chemical batteries and easily scalable. What’s more, Energy Vault’s technology leverages waste material remediation to provide additional environmental benefits beyond any other storage technology.

The Project

Why Energy Vault

DJI_0890

Energy Vault harnesses gravity and the potential energy gravity creates to store energy and release power. The company builds above ground vertical storage devices that are grid scale and long-duration. By lifting and dropping extremely dense mobile masses in coordinated autonomous movement, orchestrated by machine vision technology, Energy Vault can decouple energy from power and store many megawatt hours of power vertically.

Energy Vault’s storage solutions can be easily paired with renewable assets and effectively positioned to replace retiring generation assets. Per company statements, Energy Vault systems “deliver the benefits of a pumped hydro system but at a much lower price, starting size, and without the need for hard to find topography.”

Energy Vault outperforms existing storage solutions – most notably chemical batteries – due to its high efficiency (80% to 90% round trip), lack of system degradation and long operational life. Energy Vault presents a better and more sustainable solution with lower initial capex and levelized cost per kWh price.

20210107_CDU_0007_PICONI (1)
Energy Vault Co-Founder and CEO Robert Piconi

System highlights include:

— Up to 40% lower levelized cost of storage versus incumbent storage technologies. Upfront costs and low operating expenses due to automation make Energy Vault cheaper than most existing energy storage solutions.

— Near-unmatched performance. Meaningfully high round-trip efficiency with a 30-year life (vs. batteries around 10-15 year life).

— Power storage longer than most battery solutions without losing much relative charge.

— Does not experience chemical degradation.

Beyond this, the block component of the Energy Vault system utilizes low-cost materials like on-site soil or waste materials and Energy Vault actually conducts significant environmental remediation by sequestering existing waste materials, such as coal ash, within its blocks for beneficial reuse.

Energy Vault's Brick Construction

Such innovations have allowed the company to reduce costs per unit and maximize environmental impact beyond that of making  renewables a baseload-like power source. And since Energy Vault localizes brick manufacturing, they reduce transportation emissions in the transportation of their building materials.

Helena is particularly excited about Energy Vault as it is one of the only non-chemical energy storage solutions ready to be deployed today. Helena Special Investments has invested in Energy Vault, joining its Board of Directors, and built a strong strategic partnership with the company in its mission to further decarbonize the planet.

Updates

The Current State of Energy Vault

Energy Vault is in the process of successfully completing and operating its Commercial Demonstration Unit in Lugano, Switzerland. This represents the final stage in translating the company’s engineering into practice.

In 2020, Energy Vault was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, a distinction granted to 100 early to growth-stage companies affecting the world in substantial ways. Past Technology Pioneers include Google, Palantir, Twitter, Airbnb, and Spotify.

Given accolades and its superior product offering, Energy Vault has generated significant customer commercial interest. Over 100 companies have expressed interest in building Energy Vault Systems and the company has already secured agreements on four continents.

Energy Vault is keeping commercial plans private as the Company continues to develop its pipeline of projects. Publicly, Energy Vault has partnered with Energy Volt to deploy systems in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and with EV Brazil to commercialize the technology in Brazil and South America.

With our role on the Company’s Board and as a strategic partner and investor, we look forward to working closely with Energy Vault as they commercialize and scale to help the world move towards a fully renewable energy economy. We will continue to support Energy Vault as they execute upon their global pipeline of opportunities.

Energy Storage

Energy storage refers to the temporary transformation of power, or another type of energy, into a contained medium to be held until needed for use. Ideal forms of energy storage absorb nearly as much energy as they’re able to release. Depending on the technology, users of energy storage may see losses of as much as 20% to 30% or even 40% of all energy – demonstrating the value of efficient storage solutions.

Examples of energy storage devices include batteries, gravity-based systems like Energy Vault’s towers, and pumped hydro plants. Lithium-ion batteries, from handheld to grid-scale, , store energy through chemical reactions.

Energy Vault systems are an example of “gravity-based energy storage” — they consume power to lift mobile masses up to store energy and drop mobile masses to generate power. Thermal storage uses power or energy to heat up a material, which then stores that energy until needed for use. Pumped hydroelectric plants utilize excess power or energy to move water from a lower altitude reservoir to a higher altitude reservoir, letting the water flow back down through a turbine to generate a resultant energy when needed.

The overarching goal behind energy storage is to identify processes that absorb some amount of energy to transform a material or conduct a process and that produces a nearly identical amount of energy when the process is reversed.

If the energy into the process equals or nearly equals the energy out of the process, then energy storage can be conducted efficiently without much loss of energy. Depending on the technology, users of energy storage may see losses of as much as 20% to 30% or even 40% of all energy – demonstrating the value of efficient energy storage.

Grid Scale

The size and scale of energy storage technologies varies depending on the desired use case. For instance, some batteries are small and built for a single person or household’s use (i.e. a car battery or a back-up generator battery). 

An energy storage device you might use every day: the AAA battery.

 

Many electric vehicles utilize lithium-ion batteries.

Grid-scale storage, on the other hand, describes energy storage devices that interface with the national power grid, typically storing large amounts (many MWhs) of energy and helping minimize issues for the grid.

Pumped-storage hydroelectricity is an example of gird-scale energy storage. Water is pumped from a lower to higher elevation, then released to yield electric power.

Problems arise when the difference between the supply of energy being injected into the grid and the demand for using energy rises. When there is too much energy being injected, grid-scale storage holds onto the excess energy. When there is more demand for energy than supply, grid-scale storage injects the energy stored during periods of excess production to meet demand. 

Grid-scale energy storage has created a future where excess energy that would be injected into the grid during periods of low demand gets stored until it is needed, generally during periods of low energy generation.

Weights

Energy Vault’s energy storage systems lift heavy and highly dense objects to store energy and release those objects to release energy. For the purposes of this page, we are defining these objects as “weights”, but they are also frequently referred to as “bricks” or “mobile masses.”

They can be constructed from a variety of materials including some types of waste material. By harnessing these types of low or negative cost materials to manufacture the weights, Energy Vault is able to yield two benefits: further price competitiveness compared to other types of energy storage and the beneficial reuse of significant volumes of waste materials that may otherwise make their way into landfills.

An Energy Vault “press” machine, used to solidify individual weights in high density formation.

Waste Remediation

Waste material generally refers to all material considered harmful to the well-being of humans or Earth’s ecosystem, as well as non-harmful waste material. Wastes are usually defined in part by characteristics such as ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, and carcinogenicity.

Harmful waste materials therefore includes harmful byproducts from the burning of coal for energy production, wastes from industrial chemical processes, and tailings from other mining processes.

The burning of coal, often in coal-fired power plants, produces byproducts known as “coal-ash,” ranging from fly ash to boiler slag.

Some wastes are organic and can be incinerated for safe disposal, whereas others require permanent to semi-permanent storage facilities, including landfills. In cases of extreme toxicity, storage even in remote landfills may not adequately prevent the release of toxins into the natural environment.

Energy Vault, through its innovative material science and its partnership with CEMEX R&D lab, has developed the capability to sequester certain waste materials in the construction of its energy storage solution .

Negative Externalities

Externalities are the secondary and related outputs of activity on uninvolved parties, which in many cases are unintended. For example, the carbon emissions generated at coal power plants are not a desired output but instead a byproduct of generating power. Importantly, externalities have an impact on those not directly involved in the activity.

The pollution from a coal plant harms almost everyone living nearby. Externalities can be negative, as in the case of pollution, or positive, as in the case of education (bettering society, not just the students themselves). In the absence of proper legislation and regulation, no one is directly (legally) responsible for externalities.

Negative externalities pose significant problems when actors do not choose to handle their externalities of their own volition. However, clever companies figure out how to profit by taking ownership over negative externalities – for example, businesses selling goods made from pollutants.

 

Photovoltaic Generation Curves (The Duck Curve)

The Duck Curve (Data from the US Department of Energy and The Australian Gas Light Company)

A helpful way to visualize this issue is known affectionately as the “Duck Curve.”

In the graph above, note the sharp decrease in demand for energy during mid-day, and the sharp increase in demand during the evening. Think about how this connects to your personal energy usage: you’re less likely to use electricity in your home around noon, when there’s an abundance of natural sunlight when and members of your household are at work or school vs. during the evenings, when the sun has set and you’re preparing dinner.

Profit

Helena’s purpose is to identify solutions to global problems and implement them through projects. Each project is a separate, unique effort.

Sometimes, we believe that the most effective method to implement a project is through for-profit action, including investment and/or the founding and operation of businesses.

These projects are designated as “profit” on their associated project pages on this website. This page is an example of such a project.

To implement efforts through for-profit means, entities including Helena Special Investments, LLC, a privately-owned limited liability company that operates in business activities that have the potential to transformatively address societal problems while targeting attractive returns to investors, are utilized.