Renewable energy is now widely available and increasingly affordable, helping mitigate the climate crisis. However, due to the intermittency of certain sources that rely on factors such as wind or sunlight, renewable energy hasn’t reached its full potential, stopping it from completely replacing fossil fuels. Energy Vault, a Swiss startup, might have found a solution to this problem. They have developed a technology that uses kinetic energy and gravity to store renewable energy, whilst cutting waste, by storing it in a tower of bricks.
Founded in 2017 by Bill Gross, Andrea Pedretti and Robert Piconi, Energy Vault has gradually been picking up steam. It hit the headlines in 2019 when it closed a Series B funding round, receiving a $110 Million Investment from Soft Bank. The company has since constructed a Commercial Demonstration Unit in Switzerland, a grid-scale gravity energy storage system connected to the Swiss national utility grid.
How Does it Work?
Energy Vault’s technology is inspired by pumped hydro plants that rely on gravity and the movement of water to generate power. Pumped hydro consist of using excess energy to pump water from a lower elevation to a higher elevation. Then, during periods of high electrical demand, the stored water is released through turbines to produce electric power.
Energy Vault’s solution is very similar, except instead of pumping water, excess energy powers cranes, pilling up 35-ton composite bricks into a tower. These bricks are then returned to the ground and the kinetic energy generated from the falling brick is turned back into electricity.
Energy Vault claims that plant capabilities will range from 20-35-80 MWh storage capacity and will have 4-8MW of continuous power discharge for 8-16 hours. This is all controlled by specially engineered control software that ensures bricks are always placed in exactly the right spot, no matter the weather conditions.
Why the Need for Energy Vault’s Gravity Batteries?
Although electricity coming from renewable energy is growing at record rates, the intermittency of certain sources remains an issue. Developing energy storage infrastructure is crucial to fighting the climate crisis, helping us transition away from fossil fuels.
Several options are available when it comes to storing energy. Classic batteries, such as the popular lithium-ion found in electric vehicles is an option. But lithium-ion batteries degrade over time and rely on increasingly scarce mineral resources, making them inconvenient for large-scale projects.
Then there are options such as pumped hydro and Energy Vault’s solution, which aims to be cheaper and more efficient. The company boasts a 30+ year life with zero degradation, along with 85% round trip efficiency.
Energy Vault’s EVx Platform and Resilience Centre
On top of its original tower design, the Swiss startup has already announced a second version of the concept. Energy Vault calls the new product: “a natural evolution of the company’s proven technology”, and boasts the same performance attributes of zero degradation of the storage medium, 85% round-trip efficiency, 35 years of technical life, no risk of fire, no critical end of life disposal material, and a local, sustainable supply chain for the manufacturing of the mobile masses (made of locally sourced soil).
EVx has a modular architecture that can scale to multi-GWh storage capacity. The platform is 40% shorter in height than the previous tower product and utilizes the same technology to move the mobile masses.
The EVx platform is the building block of the Energy Vault Resiliency Center, the GWh scale product line that specifically addresses the need for grid resiliency to manage critical events like wildfire or extreme weather events.
Energy Vault has received investment from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures to help advance this project. The amount of the investment was not disclosed.
Storing Energy, and Cutting Waste?
The company has also started putting emphasis on another environmental benefit to its solution: cutting waste.
The mobile masses or composite blocks can be made from remunerated waste material for beneficial re-uses, such as coal combustion residuals, fibreglass from decommissioned wind turbine blades and waste tailings from mining processes.
For instance, Energy Vault has recently partnered with Enel Green Power, to recycle materials no longer needed at wind plants.
Furthermore, on the 20th of July 2021, Helena announced a strategic partnership to identify additional opportunities for Energy Vault’s breakthrough waste remediation technologies as the company begins the deployment of its innovative energy storage system worldwide. This also included a $20 Million Investment from the global problem-solving organization.
The recent announcements from the Swiss startup Energy Vault show a promising future for the company that promises to bring low-cost, efficient and environmentally friendly energy storage to the world. Hopefully, these investments will help propel the company forward in its contribution to tackling the climate crisis.
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