Long Duration Breakthrough? Form Energy’s First Project Tries Pushing Storage to 150 Hours

Form Energy, the stealthy, Bill Gates-backed startup, has secured its first utility deal for a novel super-long-duration energy storage technology. And its stated capability blows away anything else on the market.

A cadre of storage industry veterans and MIT scientists started Form Energy in late 2017 to tackle one of the hardest problems in clean energy: how to make renewable power available whenever it's needed.

In the early days, founder and former Tesla storage leader Mateo Jaramillo described the deployment as a "decade-long project." But both renewable adoption and Form's lab work moved faster than expected.

Minnesota utility Great River Energy confirmed Thursday that it will pilot Form's technology, identified for the first time as an "aqueous air" battery system. While it's common for lithium-ion batteries on the market today to discharge their full power capacity for up to four hours, Form's 1-megawatt project will do so for up to 150 hours, an unprecedented achievement for the storage industry.

Great River Energy, the second-largest power supplier in Minnesota, announced plans Thursday to phase out coal power, add 1,100 megawatts of new wind capacity and expand market purchases, resulting in a cheaper electricity mix that is 95 percent carbon-free. The generation and transmission cooperative wants to see if long-duration storage works to ride out the lulls in wind generation.

"Long-duration storage will be necessary to maintain grid reliability in the future during extreme conditions, such as a heat wave or polar vortex," President and CEO David Saggau said on a press call.

Form has been working quietly to develop technology for "baseload renewables" or "bidirectional power plants." It attracted more than $50 million  from investors including Gates-affiliated Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Macquarie Capital, Italian oil giant Eni and Prelude Ventures.

This is the first announced deal that will take the technology out of the lab and deploy it in a full-scale power plant context. It is due online in late 2023.

Form Energy's first utility deal

It started with a chance encounter.

In the spring of 2018, Form President Ted Wiley gave a talk on long-duration storage unlocking high-renewables power systems. Jon Brekke, vice president and chief power supply officer for Great Rriver Energy, saw it and approached Wiley to discuss how the concept could work for Minnesota. The state has strong wind production, but also periods where the wind disappears, like in a polar vortex. 

That conversation led to collaboration on analyzing what GRE's portfolio would need to safely shut down coal while maintaining reliability.  

GRE's Coal Creek Station in North Dakota produces 1,151 megawatts, approximately half GRE's energy sales, along with most of its carbon emissions. Though it's supplied from a nearby lignite coal mine,...