Reflecting on 12 years of battery innovation, from CalCharge to Just Batteries

February 6, 2024

The California Clean Energy Fund (CalCEF) realised over a decade ago that batteries play a critical role in the energy transition. Since its inception, CalCEF, which evolved into New Energy Nexus in 2016, has been at the forefront of global initiatives to foster a robust and inclusive advanced battery ecosystem.

Reflecting on the end of the CalCharge program that started it all, New Energy Nexus CEO Danny Kennedy shares insights into the role the organization played in connecting the dots between energy storage technology, innovation, and policy.

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Batteries are the secret ingredient to unlocking the potential of renewable energy, but it wasn’t always inevitable that this nascent technology would take off as it has this decade. CalCEF – the organization I led back in 2106 and which later became New Energy Nexus – had seen the importance of lithium-ion batteries for electric mobility potential; in fact, it had even invested in a fledgling company called Tesla, that some of you may know, around 2005. Several CalCEF board members and staff, who included long time solar and utility executives, knew that grid storage would become “a thing” as the penetration of variable renewable energy increased on the grids.

Fast forward to 26 January this year, the UN’s first ever International Day of Clean Energy, and I’m at the groundbreaking of California’s first commercial lithium production facility, and the world’s first “fully integrated lithium facility and clean energy campus”. Picture this: John Podesta is leading the groundbreaking with a Congressman, Assembly member, and union heads. Senior officials from Sacramento have trekked down to this side road off Highway 111 near Niland (look it up on Google Maps – we’re not in Kansas nor the California many know) along with former Secretary of Transport, Rod Slater. Rod Colwell, the CEO of Controlled Thermal Resources, the startup commissioning this billion dollar facility, is beaming from head to toe after years of talking about getting this thing going.

Key to the story of Lithium Valley is the buy-in of the traditional custodians of the place, the Torres Martinez tribe of the Cahuilla Bands of Indians, who live throughout this part of desert California and northern Mexico. Councilman Butcher was present at the ceremony and his community are working to host energy projects to power some of the Lithium processing that will ensue from commercial production of the powder. Questions remain about the footprint of all this industrial activity and as Eduardo Garcia, the local representative, said the skeptics have to be given a hearing, which they will. But the prospect of a green Lithium battery supply chain, powered by renewable electricity throughout the manufacturing, which could provide enough batteries for all the cars in America, is tantalizingly close. Even a pundit who has long poo-poo’ed this possibility is changing his tune in the LA Times.

Living the CalCharge dream: 2012-2016

This was always the dream of CalCharge: to engender a soup-to-nuts, next-gen technology based on the brains and clean resources of the Golden State, rich with good, so-called “high road” jobs capable of paying family-supporting wages while ushering in climate solutions.

There was no certainty batteries would even be a big part of the mix, given the hype cycles that ensued about everything from a nuclear renaissance to hydrogen. Solar and wind were far from streaking ahead as they are now. As such, storage on the grid wasn’t perceived to be that important and people thought cars would be “fueled” forever. But CalCEF’s founders had also seen the green shoots of effort by entrepreneurs in California doing creative things with an alphabet soup of chemistries (Li, Zn, Br, Na) and their job was to support these entrepreneurs, which they did systematically.

In particular, in 2012 we formed a new trade association for energy storage companies called CalCharge around a cluster of around 18 startups. The mandate was to create a “center of gravity” for the California energy storage sector that enables diverse stakeholders to collaborate, identify barriers to emerging technology success, and develop solutions that help clear the path to commercialization.

In the early years of Calcharge the main event was literally an event known as the “Bay Area Battery Summit”. This gathering of geeks and scientists and journalists covering new tech was held each year at one of the Bay Area’s three national labs – Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley or SLAC, the Stanford Linear Accelerator. It became the place “to be” if you were in batteries in the United States of America. I remember the first BABS (as it became known) that I attended in 2015. It was thrilling in only the way that a lecture theater behind the high security fence line of one of the US’ national labs can be!

We were discussing information that seemed critical for national and dare I say it, planetary security. Speaker after speaker talked of the potential of breakthroughs in energy density and other improvements in battery storage that would allow renewables to take up more than 100% of power demand by pairing wind and solar with the right storage. That their energy density could also move cars, bikes and all modes of transport quickly and cheaper became clearer as well. But challenges for this fledgling industry were also clear.

Supercharging the work: 2017-2021

This is when the CalCharge board decided to supercharge the information-sharing. We made a proposal to the federal government to develop a national networked manufacturing initiative on advanced batteries called Supercharge. This NNMI was supposed to bring together all of the interests, not only in California but across the country, including the American Jobs Project, many labor unions, some of the automobile industry, and New York’s Battery Energy Storage Technology (BEST). Over the course of 2016 we put together a powerful coalition of state agencies and industry, unions and universities and presented to the Department of Commerce our proposed strategy. In October 2016 we were deemed to be worthy of federal support and approved for a US$70 million grant to build out the vision.

As you might remember a month later a new government was formed in the United States, which did not seem interested in the energy transition or promoting new technologies with industrial strategies. We were never awarded the actual funds from the grant despite winning the bid, and instead the United States went into a period of uncoordinated effort around these issues.

There was a small grouping inside the federal government known as the Federal Consortium on Advanced Batteries (FCAB) that kept the light on for such thinking and of course many entrepreneurs and scientists and others in nonprofit and for-profit sectors, who pursued better batteries for those four years of the Trump administration. In parallel, the European Union, China and many other nations really stepped up their efforts in the formation of their own industrial strategies for batteries.

Back to the future: 2021-now

By the time Trump lost his second election the United States was behind, and in some ways had had a sort of “Sputnik moment” – bested in its own tech. Lithium-ion chemistries in particular, which American companies and scientists had contributed to more than any, were now being made at scale mostly in China and in a value chain that mostly left America out except as the buyer of these batteries.

On the first day of the Biden administration an executive order was put out to work out the problem of dependency that America had on a number of critical supply chains including pharmaceuticals, semiconductors and batteries. CalCEF, now known as New Energy Nexus, was asked along with the NY BEST and NattBatt, the national battery industry association, to support the government in its quest to solve this problem.

New Energy Nexus was engaged a number of times by LG Energy Solutions, at the time the top battery maker in the world, to find the best and brightest chemists and startups in the battery space. These “Battery Challenges”, which we went on to develop for Kia and Hyundai as well, have helped keep the Korean battery industry abreast of the cutting edge in chemistries.

We also grew our programs in California to support energy storage companies because so much of the state’s climate and energy mandate required more storage on the grid. We developed support for dozens of startups including Cuberg, Coreshell, Sepion and SparkZ. In New York we teamed up with Stan Whittingham’s lab and our old friends at New York BEST and others upstate to pitch to the Department of Commerce again a vision called New Energy New York. And in Australia we built a program to decarbonise the upstream production of raw lithium from spodumene resources through our innovation challenge with our partner, EnergyLab.

Bringing it home

In a little known corner of the country, literally where Arizona and Mexico meet California there is a nationally significant resource of lithium coming out of the geothermal brines that also produce about 5% of California’s electricity. If this resource were turned into reserves and a productive capacity, which has been the focus of many startups since 2010 with a company called Simbal, then America could provision its own batteries with a no-carbon source of lithium. As incredible as that sounds this is the prospect facing California and in particular Imperial County with its Lithium Valley now that CTR has begun building a Li powder and power production facility.

Lithium Valley is the name that has been given to this potential eco-industrial precinct that could grow up around the geothermal power plants already operating by the Salton Sea. Here in the poorest county in California there is an opportunity to produce clean lithium and turn it into precursor chemicals, active cathode materials, battery cells and ultimately battery packs. We published a report “Building Lithium Valley” in 2020, which became the basis for consideration by a Blue Ribbon Commission of the California Legislature and other efforts around the vision of a clean industry hub in the southern Californian inland counties. The local indigenous community have taken a lead in advancing this vision, governed by their values and long-term commitment to the place. Watch this space for more on this concept soon.

New Energy Nexus now stands ready to work with the Torres Martinez and the Cahuilla Indians, on whose land this potential could be achieved. Our aim is to do this right, by which we mean include communities who have historically been taken advantage of by extractive industries at the design phase of the industrial development.

If lithium is recovered from the geothermal sector at scale and gigafactories spring up in and around Imperial County it will be important that the tribal communities as well as farm workers and others who live in the area are at the table. To enable this, we are working with the Torres Martinez on a tribal innovation accelerator proposal, as well as with young people interested in STEM education on a Youth Entrepreneurship Accelerator (YEA!) last year.

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Youth Entrepreneurship Accelerator (YEA!)

Just Batteries

Across the globe, New Energy Nexus teams are looking for ways to advance this linchpin technology – batteries – in ways that are just and equitable. Our impact reports have started to track our progress with the cohorts of entrepreneurs who we train and introduce to partners and capitalise each year. We call this updated vision Just Batteries and look forward to keeping you posted on our progress.

The exciting prospect is that we imagine a world just a few decades hence wherein sufficient lithium and other battery metals have been recovered from the earth’s crust or its brines and need never be extracted again as virgin raw material. Instead, by the ‘40s we could be in a fully circular economy, recovering sufficient material for our energy storage needs from an urban mining process which will be much more economic than new mines or geothermal recovery of lithium. If this is to be realized it is important that those communities this decade and next, from whose land lithium and other battery metals will be recovered, are involved in the full cradle-to-cradle value chain of better batteries.

As for CalCharge, we have wound it up (as of late January 2024, I am resigning as President and we have mothballed the entity and its CRADAs with the national labs). Entrepreneurs looking for support from New Energy Nexus in California for battery-related technologies can apply to our CalSEED and CalTestBed programs. These offerings have all of the advantages and many more than Calcharge provided. Moreover we think we have come to a time that requires global collaboration – not just national – in order to both advance advanced batteries and ensure that they do not become the plaything of geopolitics. Charge on!