Anyone who has a cellphone knows that its battery life isn’t the same two years — or even one year — after purchasing it as it is on day one. But a company in Oregon is creating batteries for commercial and utility applications that have the same operational capacity for 20 to 30 years — and they’re powering large-scale operations like a vineyard in Sonoma, California.
Energy Storage Systems Inc., or ESS Inc., based in Wilsonville, Oregon, provides safer energy storage at a lower cost than other battery manufacturers by using iron, salt, and water. The iron flow batteries are typically used for microgrids to lower the carbon footprint and reduce electricity costs. “With renewables, you see variations of solar throughout the day, and with wind, you get ramps at night,” said President and CEO Craig Evans. “By storing that energy, though, it can be pushed to a time when it’s needed.”
The company is currently introducing its technology across the world after participating in the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator program, or IN2. Funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and co-administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the program provides early-stage clean energy and agriculture technologies with up to $250,000 in grants and technical assistance from experts at NREL’s facilities in Golden, Colorado, to expedite their path to market. During the program, companies are able to develop, test, and validate their technology. Since 2014, there have been four cohorts with 25 total companies that have been selected to participate.
Evans co-founded ESS Inc. with Chief Technology Officer Julia Song in 2011, after they both worked in the fuel cell industry and saw that energy storage was becoming more of a trend. “The challenge with that technology was it was very cost prohibitive,” Evans said. “We were looking for something different to do to get to a cost point where storage made economic sense for developers.”
Evans and Song worked with a different technology for a year but realized the prices were volatile, so they began looking at iron, salt, and water. “Iron is environmentally friendly; you can source it from anywhere in the world,” Evans said. “We realized the batteries could use low-cost materials that are really durable.”
‘It made us a better company’
When the company first began, Evans and Song were working in Evans’s garage, but they knew they had to move to a more permanent location. They participated in the Portland State University Business Accelerator, which provided them with a lab, office space, and resources to begin making business contacts. One of those contacts was with the IN2 program. ESS Inc. applied for the program and was selected to participate in the first cohort.
“While we participated in the IN2 program with NREL, we were presented with several great questions that challenged us to re-evaluate our business model and practices,” Evans said. “It made us a better company.”
Since completing the program, ESS Inc. has moved from a 2,000-square-foot building to a more than 100,000-square-foot production facility, has gone from employing about 10 to more than 50 people, and has projects in Australia, Germany, and Brazil, among other locations.
“Our vision for IN2 has long been predicated on supporting these companies in a way that allows them to rapidly scale up,” said Ramsay Huntley, clean technology and innovation philanthropy program officer for Wells Fargo. “Seeing ESS Inc. come out of the program and continue to grow really validates that vision. It is exciting to see these entrepreneurs take this opportunity and go forward in ways that we couldn’t even have imagined.”
Evans said he is excited about the growth of the company — and grateful for its start in the IN2 program. “The support from Wells Fargo and opportunity to work with NREL gives us a big boost when we approach contacts about financing,” Evans said. “The IN2 program helped us gain credibility in the marketplace.”