More efficient energy storage is broadly accepted as a key bottleneck to many areas of technology development. It’s crucial to growing the share of the world’s energy needs that can be met from renewable resources and also to power the increasing array of ever more sophisticated, and often more power-hungry, technology being developed. It’s also an area of tech where major breakthroughs have proven conspicuously much harder to come by than elsewhere.
All of which means it should perhaps come as a surprise that the world’s biggest technology investor has, until now, never made an investment in an energy storage start-up. But it’s about to with Softabank’s Vision Fund confirming it is about to sink $110 million into Lugano-based energy storage start-up Energy Vault. The investment will be made by the original Vision Fund, not the second iteration which is now amassing capital, and will constitute a Series B investment round for Energy Vault.
Energy Vault’s power storage system is certainly highly innovative. A crane lifts heavy bricks, placing them carefully on top of each other using computer vision and AI algorithms. The power the crane uses to build the tower comes from excess power on the grid. The problem with renewable energy sources such as solar and wind is that when it is sunny and windy they generate energy very efficiently. Often even producing more power than the grid needs to be distributed at exactly that moment in time. It’s at those moments Energy Vault’s cranes swing in to operation, making use of the excess energy.
Later, when the grid needs power, the crane picks up the 35 tonne bricks from the top of the tower and lowers them back to the ground. That operation uses the force of gravity rather than energy but the friction it generates is enough to generate substantial amounts of electricity that then flow back into the grid.
The Vision Fund’s Akshay Naheta, managing partner for the EMEA region, commented:
“The beauty of the Energy Vault solution lies in its simplicity. It’s like what we all learned in fifth-grade science, you can convert one form of energy into another very easily.”
Energy Vault currently has one quarter-sized pilot installation operational in Switzerland and plans to build a full-scale ‘demonstration unit’ in northern Italy by the end of the year. The money raised from its Series B round will, confirmed the company’s chief executive Robert Piconi, go towards funding new units on four continents. It already has commercial agreements in place for the units.
The technology is also cost efficient as the giant bricks used to construct the towers and generate friction can be made from locally sourced materials with even compressed soil viable if combined with a sealant produced by Cemex – the cement company that was one of Energy Vault’s early investors.
Softbank, which runs the Vision Fund will, as well as taking a seat on Energy Vault’s board, also become a customer though no details have yet been released. The company has also confirmed it is to build a tower for Tata Power with a storage capacity of 35 megawatt-hours and peak generation of 4MW.