Plus the new chemistry lets Imergy’s batteries operate in temperatures as high as 55 degrees Celsius (131 degrees Fahrenheit) without an expensive cooling systems, opening up markets in India, Africa and other hot, electricity-starved regions that rely on pollution-spewing diesel generators for power.
Imergy won’t begin commercial production of its batteries until this summer but for the past two years it has been operating 5-kilowatt versions of the battery in India. In a control room at Imergy’s Fremont, California, headquarters, a video screen monitors the operation of the 70 battery units, many of them at telecommunications installations.
The room also contains a 5-kilowatt battery – which will sell for between $10,000 and $20,000 – and a bigger 30-kilowatt box. While you might put the smaller battery – it's about the size of a big tool cabinet – in your garage, flow batteries are too bulky to power cars or computers.
Imergy executives claim that once their 30-kilowatt battery is in production they will be able to generate electricity for $500 a kilowatt-hour. That’s expensive but competitive with lithium-ion battery storage.
Dean Frankel, an energy storage analyst with market research firm Lux Research, doubts Imergy will hit that number, noting that the company has yet to secure a supply of low-grade vanadium from fly ash or sludge.
“I believe that they claim they can extract vanadium from sludge but what I don’t believe is that they can do it cost-effectively at scale today,” Frankel told The Atlantic.
Apparently Imergy’s customers think they can. Watkins says paying clients include telecommunications firms in India and deals have been signed with well-known U.S. companies, though he declined to name them.
“We know everyone in the Valley,” says Watkins.
Real estate often tells the tale of the rise and fall of Silicon Valley tech firms. Back when Watkins ran Seagate, the company acquired a rival Silicon Valley hard drive maker called Maxtor. That company’s headquarters, a few miles away from Imergy’s offices, was subsequently occupied by Solyndra, the ill-fated high-tech solar panel maker that went bankrupt in 2011 after securing a half-billion-dollar government loan guarantee. Solyndra’s fate was sealed by the rise of Chinese solar manufacturers who flooded the market with cheap solar panels. Solyndra simply could not compete.
To avoid a similar destiny, Watkins already is creating a Chinese operation with Chinese partners, much like he did at Seagate.
“I always get China on your side,” says Watkins. “Look, everybody steals. Americans steals, the British steal, the Germans steal, the Chinese steal. We just all steal less from our friends. And our goal as a company is to make friends.”