Clean energy for the baseload grid.
Professor Yet-Ming Chiang says there’s a secret handshake amongst the truly committed in the cleantech industry. If you’re deeply data-driven and scientific, those qualities can be at odds with optimism and tenacity. When you’re struggling to balance this dynamic, you’re likely a cleantech entrepreneur. It takes one to know one.
Yet first met Ted Wiley as professionals in an overlapping sector of the battery industry. When Ted moved to Boston in 2013, he reached out to Yet to meet for coffee because he was one of the few people he knew in the city. “I wanted to be around people who care about the same things that I care about,” Ted says. Because the conversation was casual and collegial, Ted thought nothing of it when Yet returned the invite earlier this year for another coffee sit-down. “I knew he was working on something new,” Ted says, “but I was still surprised when he said, ‘I think I’ve found something huge and I want to take it out into the world. Do you want to join us?’ And of course my answer was yes.”
It was an easy yes given Yet-Ming’s reputation. A renowned professor at MIT in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, he has a track record of developing major innovations in the world of batteries. He co-founded A123 Systems, a lithium-ion battery company. He’s also co-founder and Chief Scientist of 24M Technologies, which enables a new, low-cost class of lithium-ion batteries. “Yet won’t brag about himself, so I will,” Ted jumps in. “Yet is truly one of the pioneers who led the commercialization of lithium-ion batteries for automobiles and the grid.”
Yet is in good company with Ted too. Ted is a Harvard Business School graduate with 13 years of market development experience at Aquion Energy, MassChallenge, and McDonough Innovation. He was also an Entrepreneur in Residence at Sigma Prime Ventures. Yet was thrilled to team up with Ted. “It’s so hard to find great entrepreneurs in cleantech,” Yet says. “The bottleneck for me has always been finding the right entrepreneurial co-founder – my last two companies didn’t get off the ground until that happened. Now that Ted is here, we can truly get to work.”
What are they building? Baseload Renewables. The startup has a simple but hugely ambitious goal: to enable renewable energy to replace fossil fuels as baseload electric power. Yet started with the end in mind, knowing that the eventual solution would have to be incredibly cost-effective in order to scale on a global level. He started with the functions of the current energy baseload and moved backward. The company is planning a wholesale replacement of the whole grid, removing carbon from the equation. When you imagine a 24-hour period, the energy grid currently demonstrates some peak generation and then some energy below that, known as the baseload. “More than 50% of emissions are coming from the baseload,” Ted says. “A full 98% of carbon emissions in the U.S. grid originate from gas and coal. You can currently put batteries next to solar and wind power and create an output for four hours but we want to develop a battery to shape renewables into a 24-hour block.”
The initial research was conducted in Yet’s lab under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR). With the goal of decreasing the cost of storage on the grid by at least a factor of five over current technology, a JCESR project team led by Yet focused on new ways to use abundant natural elements. They concluded that sulphur costs less per stored electron than any other component, since sulphur is a natural bi-product of both gas and oil refining. The MIT innovation could be described as building energy storage out of waste. Yet and Ted believe that this approach has the lowest possible cost for storing a given amount of energy of any rechargeable battery. To say that replacing coal and gas with renewable energy could radically impact the climate and planet is an understatement. “You won’t talk to anyone who doesn’t think what we’re trying to do is a little bit crazy,” Yet says. “It’s hugely ambitious, but the impact could be enormous.”
“In The Engine, a group of people came together and raised a flag and said, ‘we want to work on hard problems,’” says Ted. “There’s not another place like this. There’s a huge ecosystem for other software ventures and easier stuff. But here is one of the finest institutions in the world making the most difficult happen.”
Replacing fossil baseload generation with renewable energy could potentially meet global carbon reduction goals and, if Baseload Renewables is successful, the global market holds trillions of dollars of potential. Yet and Ted are joined by Marco Ferrara, who rounds out the team with a PhD in electrical and nuclear engineering, and developed a commercial energy storage modeling software product while at 24M. He did the early modeling of renewables-as-baseload that convinced the founding team that their shared vision is achievable. Billy Woodford, a former grad student of Yet’s, is the fourth cofounder. “He required the least amount of supervision of any grad student I’ve ever had,” Yet says of him. Ted describes Billy as having a photographic memory.
This founding team is made up of true believers in cleantech and they are some of the best minds in the industry. At a business level, there are simpler ways to make money than this breakthrough technology, but this work is the founders’ true calling and it’s ready for commercial development. When you’re this committed, you have to be grounded in equal parts effort and optimism. Next order of business: save the world. Remember that secret handshake?