Batteries, Energy Resilience, and Webcor

Webcor CEO/President Jes Pedersen details the work Webcor and Indian Energy will do using three grants from the California Energy Commission.

March 29, 2021

Technology / Innovation

by Jes Pedersen

Construction probably isn't the first industry that comes to mind when you think about businesses that will change the world. At Webcor, innovating to change the world is part of our business plan.

With our partner, Indian Energy, the California Energy Commission (CEC) has selected Webcor for three grants worth $9.5 million to innovate and build the "last mile" of energy decentralization at three locations. These include two military base locations and one on First Nation tribal lands near San Diego. Indian Energy and the U.S. military have contributed an additional $10 million to the research effort that culminates a decade of research and development from the Federal Government.

This work is all about energy resilience.

The U.S. military is dead serious about achieving 100-percent renewable energy resilience. That means that a military base will have a regular, reliable supply of energy even when the power grid fails or is deliberately shut off, regardless of the cause. Think fires. Think Texas.

The Microgrid Solution

Usually, this is achieved through the construction of microgrids, self-sufficient energy systems that serve a define geographic area, like a military base or First Tribes community. Single-family homes outfitted with solar panels can also be energy-resilient; some produce so much energy they feed what they don't need back into the grid. The power company pays them!

As the single largest energy rate payer in California, the military is acutely aware of the consequences of power outages. The military's critical mission could be compromised when the lights go out. Traditional efforts to keep the lights on can lead to astronomical power bills.

You probably heard that in Texas, because of the record-setting freeze in February, the demand energy surged as fewer power sources were available, causing the wholesale price of energy to skyrocket. It is certainly outrageous that a single Texas household, accustomed to paying less than $10 for power, got a bill for well over $1,300. It is another thing altogether for the U.S. military to get a $5 billion bill, since Congress is unlikely to increase the military's power allowance. That means the military would have to foot that bill from its operational funds.

This is why Webcor has been spending time and money to learn how to build microgrids. The military is hardly the only institution that would benefit from energy resilience. Consider hospitals, for example, or server farms.

This explains why the military has invested more than $1 billion in R&D over the last decade. They are bound and determined to get off the grid one way or another.

The CEC grants are very specific in their objectives. We will use these grants to find a non-lithium long-duration energy storage technology system where microgrids will store the power they produce. In other words, we will find a better battery (or combination of batteries).

The Battery Challenge

You may wonder what's wrong with lithium-ion batteries. After all, you use them in your smartphone, your laptop, and dozens of other everyday devices. There are problems with lithium-ion, though. Their lifespans aren't long, with significant deterioration occurring within the first few years they are in operation. They're also expensive when you consider replacement costs over the life of a utility or commercial-scale system. And they are a ‘dirty’ battery technology that is hard to dispose of and can become a problem in the event of a system fire.

President Joe Biden has identified batteries as an element of his carbon-neutrality strategy, placing batter technology squarely at the center of energy transition. That's why we are exploring a variety of options, like flow batteries, advanced polymer batteries, and mechanical energy storage (we have been working with flywheels for years). We are also researching hydrogen storage and generation not only for microgrids but also for vehicles.

Being able to offer 100-percent sustainable microgrids that use renewable generation with long-duration storage is how a general contractor can change the world.

Webcor has a solid head start on this trend. We already know the vendors, having worked with them to help them develop their technologies. We have the knowledge. Because we are a contractor, we're able to plug these technologies into their existing infrastructures without pushing any one product. Because we're product-agnostic, we can deliver the lowest-cost solution, unlike companies like Siemens or ABB, which are trying to sell their proprietary technologies.

Investigator and Matchmaker

Our role, in a nutshell, is as principal investigator and market matchmaker. We are working with the best non-lithium long-duration energy storage vendors in the world, bringing them into the program, and helping them integrate and commercialize their technologies here in California, which will help with job creation and the state's GDP growth. Bringing new battery technology to California also means the U.S. will be less reliant on China, which currently has much of the battery market cornered.

No other general contractors are leading like this. In addition to building these solutions for clients, we will also be able to provide products to our competitors who haven't yet figured out the technology.

Some companies talk a good game about sustainability. At Webcor, we aim to be a game-changer, helping California become energy resilient with 100-percent renewable energy. Batteries included.