Sycamore International Inc. Bets on Iron Flow Batteries, Solar Power and the Reduce Inflation Act

In a repurposed mushroom barn in Chester County, Sycamore International Inc. recycles electronic equipment, including refurbishing 30,000 old laptops a month for resale. Steven Figgatt, CEO of Sycamore, says his West Grove company is all about the circular economy.

In keeping with its sustainable mission, Sycamore installed a rooftop solar system earlier this year to convert its operations to renewable energy. But Figgatt, 36, only declared his business off the grid at the end of August, when he commissioned an innovative new battery storage system that ensures his business runs on solar power even when the sun isn’t. shines.

“We call it our Energy Independence Day,” he said.

Figgatt took a risk with his choice of energy storage technology, selecting a novel system called an iron flow battery, the first of its kind on the East Coast.

Iron flow batteries are among many promising grid-scale energy storage technologies vying for acceptance in a market where renewable energy is rapidly expanding to replace greenhouse gas-emitting power sources.

As renewable generation grows in importance, the market for energy storage systems is expected to play a key role. Wind and solar systems produce power intermittently, depending on the weather, and grid operators say they will need more storage systems as renewables take a bigger share of the power generation market.

Manufacturers of battery storage devices anticipate a boost from the Reduce Inflation Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law on August 16. The law contains tax incentives for purchasers of energy storage devices.

A flow iron battery is significantly different from a lithium ion battery, the device commonly used in electric vehicles, mobile devices, and some commercial applications.

The big selling point of the iron flow battery is that its electrolyte, the material that conducts an electrical charge, is not a metal mined in a hostile country. Instead, the electrolyte is made from ferrous chloride, which is basically iron, salt, and water, all of which are widely available. Unlike lithium, it is non-toxic and will not overheat or explode.

Sycamore’s long-lasting battery can discharge its power for 12 hours, about three times longer than a lithium battery, or about as long as the sun doesn’t shine. It can store about 400 kilowatt hours of energy, enough to power about 28 homes for 12 hours.

The iron flow battery is also guaranteed to withstand 25 years of charge and discharge cycles without deteriorating. It promises to be up and running long after the Energizer Bunny sits on the sidelines.

“It was exciting to try something new,” said Figgatt. “I mean, I love that there are no toxic chemicals, no risk of fire hazard that you have with lithium-ion batteries. And it can cycle all the time, too, unlike lithium-ion batteries that have a finite number of cycles before they need to be replaced. This is something unlimited, so we are going to use it all the time.”

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The downside to flow batteries is that they are big, heavy and stationary: Sycamore’s battery is housed in a 40-foot shipping container that weighed nearly 20 tons before 19,000 liters of electrolyte was added. They are not designed for cars or mobile devices, but for large-scale support of the power grid.

Most of the nation’s long-term energy storage is in pumped-storage hydroelectric plants, such as Constellation Energy’s Muddy Run facility in Lancaster County, where water is pumped into a reservoir at a higher elevation and then released to generate power when needed.

Flow batteries store energy in electrolyte tanks, which pass through an electrochemical membrane to extract electrons during the process of charging and discharging.

The iron flow device that Sycamore purchased is called the Energy Warehouse, manufactured by ESS Tech Inc. of Wilsonville, Oregon. The company has been developing a commercial iron-flow battery for more than a decade, and last year went public in a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company, becoming the first long-life battery maker to be publicly traded. bag. Like many tech startups, its shares have fared poorly this year, down 60% since launching last October.

But your luck can improve. It has a backlog of orders, including one for another unit of Sycamore International, whose business is attracting more institutional clients who want to dispose of old electronic devices and permanently erase any traces of data in Sycamore’s secure process. Sycamore plans to start this fall to expand into a new building in West Grove, also equipped with its own solar system.

ESS has installed several batteries for San Diego Gas & Electric in Cameron Corners, California, a city at risk of losing power due to wildfires. It’s also working with Portland General Electric, a utility, to build a half-acre power center with about eight times the storage capacity of the West Grove unit. Last month it announced a deal to ship 70 battery warehouses to Australia and open an assembly plant there by 2024.

But the biggest news of the last month was the Inflation Reduction Act, which contains tax incentives for buyers of energy storage devices that increase by 10% for domestically produced devices, such as the ESS Energy Warehouse. The IRA also provides credits to purchasers of stand-alone battery storage units, whereas previous tax incentives applied only to energy storage directly associated with renewable generation.

“It helps us level the playing field against our competitors,” Eric Dresselhuys, executive director of ESS, said in an interview. ESS’s competitors are typically Chinese lithium battery makers, which Dresselhuys says receive state support. While IRA tax credits are available for all batteries, he said, “it’s worth more if you buy products made in the US.”

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The seeds for Sycamore International’s move into solar power were planted more than five years ago at Millersville University, when Figgatt attended a solar system launch at the university’s new Lombard Welcome Center. There, Figgatt met Dave Santoleri, president of TerraSol Energies Inc., a Chadds Ford firm that designed and installed the 175-kilowatt Millersville system. Figgatt recruited Terrasol to explore a solar installation at its West Grove plant.

“I knew flow batteries were a good idea,” Santoleri said. “I did a search and found five companies that made them. Three of them were out of business.” He discovered that ESS was still in business and was the only manufacturer located in the US He and Figgatt visited the company in Oregon and were sold.

“We did our due diligence,” Figgatt said. “We know it’s a newer technology, so we went through a full research process with ESS.”

The battery system basically doubled the cost of Sycamore’s solar installation: The battery itself costs about $200,000, though Figgatt is vague about his total investment in the system. Figgatt estimates that the entire system will pay for itself in six to nine years, depending on what happens with energy prices in the market. Meanwhile, Sycamore’s energy costs are flat.

For Figgatt, battery backup provides more than just savings on his Peco bill. When the second battery system is installed, Sycamore International will be able to sell some of its surplus power to the regional grid operator to help keep power levels consistent in the area, an important background role known as frequency regulation.

It will prevent your business from long storm-related interruptions. And the voltage produced by its solar system is also fine-tuned, which is critically important to Sycamore’s operations, where its 70 employees may be wiping the sensitive hard drives of up to 600 laptops simultaneously as they undergo refurbishment.

“When the power goes out during some of these big weather events, it’s devastating,” he said. “The network is not that reliable here. So the battery is basically an insurance product. From my perspective, it pays for itself in three days of power outages.”

The importance of energy storage for a decarbonized energy future is so significant that US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm visited the ESS plant in Oregon last month as part of a tour touting the benefits climate of the IRA.

In West Grove, Sycamore International’s Aug. 25 ribbon-cutting of its battery storage system also drew praise from US Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat who represents Chester and Berks counties. “This project represents the kind of forward-thinking solution we need to build a resilient, decarbonized energy system,” she said.

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