July 30, 2020: East Penn is withdrawing investment in its wholly owned Australian subsidiary Ecoult, which developed battery management software and complete module solutions for custom integration into energy storage applications. These solutions utilized the UltraBattery, according to an internal memo released this week.
The UltraBattery is a hybrid lead battery capable of rapid charging and discharging in partial state of charge. It had been seen as a potential game-changer in providing an alternative to lithium batteries in the energy storage market.
No jobs in the US will be lost following the decision. EPM funding of the Australian workforce will be phased out as existing customer responsibilities are completed or transferred.
East Penn said: “The decision was based on multiple factors including evolving market strategies and changes in the energy storage sector as well as streamlining operations and communications.”
The licence for the UltraBattery IP will remain with East Penn.
One industry commentator said: “When the UltraBattery first appeared, it looked as if it were going to be a technology that would save the lead battery industry.
“But the initial promise never seemed to be forthcoming in large-scale energy storage products. Its uptake was patchy. Over time the technology proved to be glitchy.”
Put simply, said the observer, it’s because the market for grid-scale energy storage is a fiercely competitive one and anything to do with lead — even advanced lead products — doesn’t get a look-in nowadays. It’s lithium only, with flow batteries coming in a poor second.
This market attitude was summed up in a recent interview with Batteries International, in which Ben Irons, co-founder of Habitat Energy, the UK grid-scale storage platform designer, said: “It’s very obvious to everyone in the market that lead acid is for a completely different set of applications. We don’t even mention them — let alone think about them.”
According to US government statistics, less than 2% of new large-scale energy storage projects use lead batteries — despite the fact that it is the cheaper option.
One other factor that East Penn alluded to was systems integration.
The family-owned battery firm said: “The company feels that the partial state of charge service remains a valid path for the lead battery industry to attain consistent high performance against the wide range of power profiles encountered in energy storage and other cycling applications.
“However, system integration continues to be a challenge within this highly competitive environment.”
As part of the race to enter this market, systems integrators have been as important to successful sales as have the batteries that they use.
East Penn said that: “Any open projects will be transitioned by the third quarter of 2020 to East Penn’s headquarters in the US.”
East Penn will continue to develop the UltraBattery for automotive, motive power and reserve power applications, according to a company spokesperson.
The original idea for the UltraBattery came from Australian research organization CSIRO, which had found that a combination of a battery and an electrochemical ultracapacitor operating in sulfuric acid — where a high surface area carbon electrode is connected in parallel to the negative plate and uses the high capacitance of the positive plate — solved the partial state of charge problem.
A limited company was formed between CSIRO and investors/licensees called Smart Storage in 2007. The business name was changed to Ecoult in 2008 by John Wood, when he was appointed CEO of the firm.
In May 2010, East Penn acquired Ecoult from CSIRO, along with the global licence to manufacture the UltraBattery (outside Japan and Thailand, where Furukawa Battery holds the head licence).
Contracts won by Ecoult include a 1.6MW microgrid for the US Department of Defense in August 2017. In January 2017 India’s Exide Industries agreed to manufacture batteries for the Asian energy storage market.
“Being at the forefront of new battery technology is important to East Penn,” said Bruce Cole, senior VP for industrial sales.
“Our investment with Ecoult has helped us to explore the potential of what lead battery technology can do in new exciting ways. We will continue to study and innovate new battery technologies and their systems accelerated by the many things we have learned from the team at Ecoult.”
In 2012, with assistance from a US Department of Energy ARRA grant, Ecoult installed a 3MW UltraBattery frequency-regulation system in the PJM grid in Pennsylvania, US, at the factory site of East Penn Manufacturing. The initiative was designed to prove the field capability of the UltraBattery in high-rate partial state-of-charge duty for MW-scale systems.