Backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, Breakthrough Energy Ventures places first bets on power storage

Abandoned wellAbandoned well
Quidnet Energy co-founder Aaron Mandell says this abandoned well at the Blue Mountain Geothermal Area in Nevada could store up to 30 megawatt-hours of electricity in the form of compressed water. (Aaron Mandell via Twitter)

Eighteen months after its founding, the $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund’s first investments have been revealed, and they both have to do with energy storage systems.

Quartz reports today that millions of dollars are going to Form Energy, which is working on novel chemistries for low-cost, long-term, high-density batteries; and Quidnet Energy, which aims to store power in the form of highly compressed water.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures is notable for its investors as well as its investments: The fund draws upon contributions from high-profile billionaires including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma.

When the fund was created in 2016 as an outgrowth of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, Gates said its goal was “to build companies that will help deliver the next generation of reliable, affordable and emissions-free energy to the world.”

In addition to grid-scale energy storage, the fund’s target technologies include zero-carbon liquid fuels, micro grids, low-carbon building materials and geothermal energy.

Energy storage technologies are powerful enablers for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, which can produce surplus electricity but are intermittent. Grid-scale storage systems are needed to provide 24/7 reliability.

Hydroelectric dam systems are the oldest and simplest means of energy storage, and Washington state’s reliance on hydro helps explains why its electric rates rank among the lowest in the U.S.

Texas-based Quidnet is working on an unorthodox approach to hydro power, which involves using surplus electricity from solar or wind to pump water into shale-rock formations or abandoned petroleum wells.

The water would be stored underground at high pressure. When the pressure is released, the water gushing back up to the surface would turn turbines to regenerate electricity on an as-needed basis.

Quidnet has been conducting field trials in Texas and Nevada to prove out the technology. Now Quartz says the company is receiving $6.4 million in investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Evok Innovations to expand the trials.

The other Breakthrough investment focuses on Form Energy’s efforts to develop better battery technologies.

Tesla and other companies are already pushing the limits for grid-scale storage using lithium-ion battery systems. Massachusetts-based Form Energy is aiming for an alternative chemistry that could bring the storage cost per kilowatt-hour down by an order of magnitude, potentially to less than $10.

One promising approach, known as the air-breathing aqueous sulfur-flow battery, was described last year in the journal Joule. The technology wouldn’t be appropriate for small-scale batteries like the ones used in smartphones or laptops, but it’s well-suited for grid-scale storage systems.

Quartz reported that Form Energy is receiving $9 million in investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Prelude Ventures and other investors.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures’ fund is by no means the only energy investment vehicle for the likes of Gates and Bezos.

Gates, for instance, is chairman of the board for the TerraPower small-scale nuclear energy venture, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash. He also put money into Aquion Energy, a venture that tried to develop a grid-scale, salt-water battery. Aquion went bankrupt last year but has been revived with Chinese backing.

Bezos is an investor in General Fusion, a Canadian company that’s working on an unorthodox technology to generate electricity using nuclear fusion.

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