The innovative storage battery maker Zinc8 Energy Solutions announced last Friday that it had signed a letter of intent to occupy space at iPark87, formerly TechCity. The firm’s operations at that location could create as many as 500 well-paying manufacturing jobs, Zinc8 CEO Ron MacDonald said.
Great news for Ulster County, right?
“Could” is a word indicating conditionality. What’s the likelihood that will happen? And how long will it take until it happens?
Right now, Zinc8 is a promising fish in a big research-and-development pond, the storage and dispatch of energy. Zinc8’s niche consists of the storage of energy for relatively significant periods of time.
This past January, Zinc8, with Nyserda support, promised eight hours of storage to the 32-building Fresh Meadows Community Apartments of Queens. The company is demonstrating the potential of its long-duration zinc-air storage technology via a number of contracts in New York State.
There’s a local example of energy storage less than an hour’s drive from Kingston. Built in the late 1970s, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) pump storage plant in Prattsville stores and generates energy in a cumbersome way. Water from the Schoharie Creek is pumped up a mountain in times of slack demand for electricity, stored in a reservoir, and released to power four large turbines at the foot of the mountain at a time of peak demand in New York City.
The principle is the same: store energy off-peak, and use it when you need it.
What if powerful batteries could do the same job as pump storage does, but do it more cost-effectively and with fewer negative environmental consequences?
Billions of dollars are at stake. If producers of intermittent energy — or constant energy used intermittently — could provide power on a continuous basis at an affordable price, they would find a wide variety of potential customers to whom to demonstrate the capabilities of long-duration zinc-air storage technology. The technology could be particularly useful for producers of intermittent energy, like wind and solar projects.
How does this technology work? Power from the grid or renewable source is used to generate zinc particles. Oxygen is released to the atmosphere as a by-product. The zinc particles are stored in potassium hydroxide (KOH) electrolyte until required. When power is needed, the zinc particles are recombined with oxygen to generate electricity. The zinc oxide byproduct is returned to storage for later regeneration.
The storage story
Lithium-ion batteries have long been among the problem areas in today’s economy. The trillion-dollar federal Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Law passed in August of last year allocated seven billion dollars to improving the country’s battery supply chain. In addition, the $369-billion Inflation Reduction Act recently signed into law includes “green” tax credits and a system of targeted incentives to encourage investment in clean power.
The big money for new battery technology has attracted competitors the way honey attracts flies. IBM promised revolutionary changes three years ago but didn’t deliver. Other very large companies could decide to jump in themselves or to invest in similar firms.
The International Zinc Association, which has a program called the Zinc Battery Initiative (ZBI), includes several long-duration battery storage firms.
“We think we are on the leading edge of this storage story as a new technology,” Zinc8 founder MacDonald said. “The long-duration storage market is galloping ahead. Up until three years ago, nobody talked about this because there was no technology that could handle more than six hours of storage. Now the market is just becoming bigger and bigger.”
Help in any way
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is a good fan to have. To encourage Vancouver-based Zinc8 to set up shop in the Hudson Valley, the New York senator was quoted in industry publications as saying that he would help the battery company secure federal incentives.
“I made it clear to Zinc8 CEO Ron MacDonald that I stand ready to help their potential expansion in the Hudson Valley in any way, including fighting to secure the historic federal battery research and development incentives I passed in the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Law,” said Schumer last month. “Zinc8’s investment in the Hudson Valley would further power New York’s leadership as a global battery manufacturing hub.”
Last Friday, it was announced that Zinc8 had accepted Schumer’s offer.
“New York was good to me, and I wanted to see if we could be good to New York,” Ron MacDonald said with a touch of gallantry. It was he who signed Zinc8’s letter of intent for the i87 space.
The Hudson Valley’s high ranking in human capital — its well-educated and responsive human resources — may have provided support for Schumer’s arguments.
In its R&D phase, Zinc8 is led by a core group of experts. Its website says it “has assembled an experienced team of professional engineers, scientists and business managers to execute the development and commercialization of a dependable low-cost zinc-air battery.” Eight names are presently featured on the website. MacDonald told a local governmental source that Zinc8 now has 55 employees and independent contractors.
MacDonald, who heads the team, was in his younger years a Liberal member of the Canadian parliament representing a Nova Scotia constituency.
Zinc8 understands that these are still the early innings for the transformation of the energy market, MacDonald said. “We believe that long-duration energy storage solutions will play a significant role during this transformation, and that fact has been reinforced by the growing demand in the energy storage market.”
Don’t sell the steak, the advertising people used to counsel us, sell the sizzle.
The enterprise has been supported financially by a private placement of $15.53 million in April of last year. By the end of June of this year, working capital had dwindled to about $6 million — a burn rate of close to a million dollars a month.
Green for the greens
The company expects to begin commercialization of its zinc-air energy storage systems next year. That may not be easy to accomplish. The shift from R&D to manufacturing requires a transition in skill sets.
“I think we are perfectly poised for entering into a rapidly expanding market for energy storage,” an optimistic MacDonald has told the business press. His previous predictions of a development timetable have sometimes proven optimistic.
“I told him how perfect Ulster County was,” said Schumer of his recent pitch to MacDonald. “I told him that iPark is ready for a new home…an eager home, that Ulster County, the elected officials, the businesses, the community will go out of its way to welcome a green company like this.”
Ulster County executive Pat Ryan, whose father and grandfather had worked at the IBM facility, thanked Schumer. “You are restoring trust in this community and certainly our country,” he said, and he added that he was “so damn proud that we are not taking any more excuses, we are taking real action, and everybody’s a part of it.”
According to a county government source, MacDonald has met with the new presidents of SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Ulster.
EPA regional administrator Lisa Garcia announced at the Friday press conference that the three mounds of asbestos-laden debris that have graced the premises would be removed starting this Monday. As of Monday at noon, they were untouched, the only observable movement coming from a piece of plastic tarp covering one of the piles flapping in a slight breeze.
The asbestos removal work under EPA supervision will now reportedly begin on Wednesday. It should be completed in three or four months.
A note of caution was struck by iPark owner National Resources CEO Joe Cotter. National Resources has promised to invest $200 million over ten years in what Cotter described as “the ugliest challenge my company had ever taken on.” The deal with Zinc8 could take some time to work out, he warned, and building out and refurbishing the space would also take time.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Cotter.