MUKILTEO — Snohomish County Public Utility District’s new huge battery system near downtown Everett represents the tip of a booming industry.
Demand for clean energy — a term that covers a wide swath of new technologies — is growing around the world. Demand comes from customers as small as single homeowners to multinational utilities and corporations. Even the U.S. military is adding energy storage systems and other clean energy innovations.
Mukilteo-based UniEnergy Technologies currently is building an energy storage system for the U.S. Navy’s base in Port Hueneme, California. It also supplied a vanadium-flow battery for the PUD’s energy storage system near downtown Everett.
Gov. Jay Inslee praised UniEnergy’s innovations during a visit Tuesday morning to the company’s plant near Mukilteo City Hall.
“Washington is leading not just the country, but the world” in revolutionizing the power industry, he said. “We love clean energy not just because it’s clean, but because it is jobs,” too.
Under Inslee’s administration, the state’s Clean Energy Fund has put tens of millions of dollars to spur growth of energy sector innovators. Snohomish County PUD received more than $10 million for clean-energy projects, including the one using UniEnergy’s massive vanadium-flow battery.
The project, dubbed MESA 2, is in the testing phase after being installed last year. It holds 2.2 megawatts and puts out 8 megawatt hours — enough to power more than 750 homes for 8 hours.
Giant batteries such as the ones made by UniEnergy are critical to shifting from older sources of energy — coal, nuclear, even hydro to some extent — to cleaner renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Those newer sources do not generate power as consistently as older, dirtier sources. For decades that has slowed the rise of cleaner energy sources.
If the wind blows at night, it generates power when demand is low. Utilities could not stick the extra electricity on a shelf until the morning, when people woke up, turned on lights, coffee makers, heaters or air conditioners, and so on. Battery-based energy storage systems solve that problem.
UniEnergy has bet on vanadium-flow batteries, which store energy in fluid and discharge it by creating an electro-chemical reaction. The company’s batteries use a vanadium molecule developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, or PNNL, in Richland. UniEnergy’s founder and chief executive, Gary Yang, helped develop the chemistry.
The company started a few years ago with eight employees. It has more than 60 today, and company leaders say they expect to hit about 200 in the next couple of years.
UniEnergy launched a third fundraising round this year. By this fall, it expects to raise $100 million — $30 million to expand company operations and $70 million for projects, mostly as financing to help customers spread out the cost of a storage system, said Russ Weed, the company’s general counsel.
It raised $25 million from Orix, a Japan-based investment firm, and the Chinese company Dalian Bolong in late 2015.
The cost of vanadium-flow batteries has declined steeply to the point that it’s about the same as lithium-ion, the chemistry used in most utility-scale batteries today, he said.
UniEnergy wants to knock lithium-ion off its perch atop the energy storage market. Vanadium is grabbing more and more market share.
Its increasing competitiveness “is happening right now, because of the PUD project, the Avista project” near Spokane, and other innovators, Weed said.
He turned to face Inslee, who was handshaking his way toward the door.
“Governor, the last time you were here, you told us, ‘Keep it up,’ ” Weed said. “We are.”