Excellent conversation with Nick Kitchin, CEO of Cumulus Energy Storage, developers of scalable, low cost batteries for the electrical grid. We discussed the pros and cons of copper/zinc batteries and why they are the best solution for long term grid energy storage, the importance of supply chain considerations when scaling energy products, why microgrids are such a massive opportunity, why Sheffield is an amazing place to build a company focused on advanced manufacturing and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit about Cumulus.
KITCHIN: Cumulus is designed to help electricity get to where it needs to get to at the right time. It means developing grid scale energy storage, basically big batteries. We are based in Sheffield in the north of England, and my two co founders, Darren and Mike, are based over in the Bay Area.
MCWALTER: In terms of the founding team, did the technology and idea come first, or did you have an existing relationship with your co founders, and this was an idea that you cooked up together?
KITCHIN: The Cumulus story really starts in March 2012 at a wind energy conference. Us founders had some Friday night discussions about how we could work together and if so, what would we do? And we very quickly honed in on energy storage as the key disruptive technology that we could put into the offshore wind industry. And so we started a conversation about big batteries in particular using rechargeable copper/zinc as the best chemistry. It wasn’t really about the battery chemistries specifically, it was more about the opportunity that we saw seven years or so ago and what could we do that was different from everybody else? And where were the openings in the marketplace?
MCWALTER: What did the early users look like?
KITCHIN: We initially looked at two industrious, one is the water industry and the other is mining. We realised that if we could put a membrane in between the copper and the zinc discs in the copper zinc battery, we could then make rechargeable batteries at the right kind of scale. And because copper/zinc is a 200 year old battery technology there is a certain amount of de-risking by using tried and tested chemistries which sped up our development program.
From an industry like mining’s perspective they’ve currently have high carbon solutions powering their equipment on site. If you can then replace that with a low carbon solution, for example solar plus our long duration storage batteries you can change power sources and decarbonize.
MCWALTER: What are the advantages and disadvantages of copper/zinc versus lithium ion batteries?
KITCHIN: Overall, lithium is really good at the high power, short duration, high energy density applications like in your mobile phone. Copper/zinc is really, really good at the high energy, long duration applications where the energy density is less important. There are several large scale lithium ion long duration implementations, particularly in South Australia. But the number of cells involved in creating a product like that is absolutely huge. Whereas our solution is working towards the point where we’ve got containerized production and our own gigafactories and that is a much lower cost and much greener solution compared to lithium. There will always be a range of technologies. Each technology has its own benefits and specific place in the overall energy storage market.
MCWALTER: What does the supply chain look like for copper/zinc batteries?
KITCHIN: For copper/zinc, we have a really simple supply chain. The world produces a lot of copper and zinc and so we don’t have the same supply chain issues that the rare earths have like cobalt or lithium. Not that I’m saying lithium is constrained. But cobalt certainly has its own issues, and the rare earths associated with some of the applications as well. So copper/zinc, is very green in the sense that it’s 99.5% recyclable; literally everything we use can be recycled apart from the membrane. And so we will have an end of life value, unlike lithium. In other words, we’ll be paid to do the recycling rather than having to pay to do recycling. Together there are a whole series of different things that we thought about and designed into our system to make it a very low cost, great application.
MCWALTER: What are the pros and cons of funding from private sources versus government grants?
KITCHIN: When you are taking government grants the positive is that the government is showing private investors that there is a real market here as they are willing to put taxpayer money into it. The downside, of course is it takes a long time to prepare the applications and then it takes an even longer time to actually get that through approval and finally get the grant awarded. So first, the dust the ground bit on the finance side of things. business angels, family offices, VCs, and then moving on to funds and all the rest of it. It’s relatively simple to get the first few rounds of finance, but when you’re approaching commercialization, you’re looking for between 2-10m GBP, and you’ve got to get to the point where you’ve got you to move from pre-revenue to post revenue. That’s the difficult part of the overall fundraise but once you’ve done that, then you’re in a really good territory.
MCWALTER: Thinking back over the last few years would you have done anything differently?
KITCHIN: Essentially, something like this does take time to develop, you can’t get away from it. It’s not like doing a software app. You do have to build it up into a design, build, test structure and go around that cycle on a regular basis. It just literally takes time. So I don’t think there’s a significant shortcut that we could have gone through to get to where we are today. The technology development has been pretty good, to be honest, and having a foot in both the UK and the US, particularly in California has helped a lot. With the R&D facility over there we have been able to get hold of the right people very, very quickly and have a very flexible team.
MCWALTER: How do you think about recruiting talented people?
KITCHIN: Well, the first thing I would say is it is literally about getting the right people to do the right right job. We’re looking for team players, obviously, and we’re looking for people that can push the founders and challenge the founders and help us move along a bit. The majority of people that we’ve recruited are to date have been people with degrees or masters and a few PhDs. That’s the kind of level of people that we’ve needed for our development team. And when we get to full production, we’ll be extending that out significantly creating a lot of employment across the spectrum. We’d really like to re-employ a lot of people from the automotive industry which is currently going through huge changes. We can re employ those people and employ them in the energy storage assembly plants. That’s a key part of our strategic outlook.
MCWALTER: What are your views on the decarbonization pledges of large enterprises?
KITCHIN: I think if you break it down into the departmental case one big example is data centers. In the data center market you have the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and with the total electricity consumption of the data centers themselves, those firms are in a position to actually drive that to be more efficient. The flexibility that comes with the right kinds of energy storage, from a site management point of view means there’s a really good fit.
MCWALTER: What are the biggest cleantech opportunities for entrepreneurs?
KITCHIN: If you look at where we’ve got significant numbers of people, in excess of a billion people right now with no electricity, for example Africa with 600 million people and India with 300 million people. There is the chance to say, just like with the telephone system where these countries skipped landlines and went straight to mobile. So the same thing can happen with energy in these countries via microgrids that do not need great long transmission systems. Rather there can be a series of micro grids with locally produced and delivered energy from a combination of renewable generation, probably solar plus storage. There’s a huge opportunity. Similarly in India, where you’ve got remote regions dependent on diesel generators, you can replace those with solar plus storage and create micro grids. It’s amazing. And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t believe anybody has yet really fully clocked just how big this energy storage market is going to be as these areas open up to clean energy.
MCWALTER: What are the advantages of working in Sheffield, UK?
KITCHIN: We have Sheffield University, that is a really big one. We’ve got the advanced manufacturing research center (AMRC). You have Boeing and Rolls Royce and a wide range of cleantech businesses. Because we are colocated and all working on advanced manufacturing, you’ve got this support network, and synergistic conversations you can have with all sorts of different people at different times. It’s a really, really good network and you can get apprentices, you can get design work done, you can get manufacturing done, it’s just all there. It’s great.
MCWALTER: A Lot of regions or cities are trying to recreate Silicon Valley, should they rather select specific industries to focus on where they can really shine?
KITCHIN: Absolutely. AMRC has the advanced manufacturing focus itself as it was built on a former coal mining area. So we’ve got disused coal mines, we’ve got heat, and distributed networks which make it easy to focus on advanced manufacturing rather than consumer software apps. So yeah, I agree with you. California has got its own characteristics, different towns have other advantages for example Leicester and textiles. They’re all different. So let each place build to their own strengths.