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A power move: Northwest companies charge toward battery tech revolution

caption: Trevor Swan demonstrates one of the steps in producing a multi-layered test battery at Group14 in  Woodinville, Washington.
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Trevor Swan demonstrates one of the steps in producing a multi-layered test battery at Group14 in Woodinville, Washington.

Electricity demand in Washington state is about to grow dramatically, as we shift away from fossil fuels.

That means we’re going to need better batteries and a lot more of them.

Companies in Washington state are racing to become leaders in this growing industry.

Here’s why we need batteries:

  1. Because the sun doesn’t shine 24 hours a day.
  2. And the wind doesn’t blow all the time either.

Batteries store up energy when it’s available and give it away when it’s not.

But old-school batteries are mostly produced by China, which controls most of the world’s graphite supply.

Graphite is a special form of carbon, and some forms of graphite are specially produced for use in batteries.

At a warehouse in Woodinville, a company called Group14 is developing the next generation of batteries that won’t rely on graphite.

These aren't the little AA batteries in your junk drawer. These are batteries that can power a phone, a car, a ferry, or even a whole city.

CEO Rick Luebbe walks the floor, describing the unusual equipment.

In one room, Trevor Swan uses a machine to build tiny test batteries layer by layer.

Another room contains mammoth tanks full of silane, a dangerous gas that burns when exposed to air. What's left behind after it burns is silicon dioxide.

That means if there's a silane leak, there's always a tell-tale sign: a little pile of sand beneath the hole. There are no piles of sand on the floor today.

In another room, a conveyor belt emerges from a kiln. It’s carrying trays of... something black.

“And we see the tray coming out, with what appear to be overcooked brownies," Luebbe says. "That is actually the purest carbon in the world. "

caption: Pure carbon at Group14 in Woodinville, Washington.
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Pure carbon at Group14 in Woodinville, Washington.

Luebbe says his company's batteries combine carbon with silicon, instead of using specialized graphite. Silicon is an abundant material and allows for more powerful batteries. They can hold more electricity, and you can charge them super-fast. Which is great for car batteries.

“So now you can charge an EV with a silicon battery in less than 10 minutes," says Luebbe. "It completely changes the way we think about the utilization of electric vehicles relative to how we use gas-powered cars"

caption: Rick Luebbe at Group14 in Woodinville, Washington.
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Rick Luebbe at Group14 in Woodinville, Washington.

Luebbe says silicon wasn't used in the past, because silicon batteries swell up when you charge them. But Group14 developed a battery core that can absorb the charge harmlessly, like a sponge absorbs water.

Group14 isn’t the only company working on this kind of tech. There’s a cluster of them around Moses Lake, in Eastern Washington.

That kind of research is critical as we shift to renewable sources of power, like solar and wind. That's according to Kevin Schneider, who heads research for the Department of Energy at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Wind turbines are intermittent; they don't run 24-7. There's times that you know the wind will blow. And you take all that power — it’s very valuable," Schneider says. "But if they stop at any given time, some other generator has to produce that power because we as consumers expect the lights to stay on."

Schneider says the electrical grid is a thing in delicate balance. The supply of electricity must match the demand precisely at all times, to avoid blackouts or equipment failures.

caption: Kevin Schneider manages research on the electrical grid for the Department of Energy at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.
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Kevin Schneider manages research on the electrical grid for the Department of Energy at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.

Hydroelectric dams help with this, he says, because their electricity-generating turbines can spin faster or more slowly, depending on power needs at any given moment.

Fossil fuels also help keep the grid stable, since operators increase the flow of fuel into the generator. But fossil fuels also pollute and produce greenhouse gas emissions, which is why Washington state requires utilities to divest from them by 2045.

There are people whose job it is to balance electrical supply and demand by buying and selling power on the market, sometimes several times an hour.

"Things like batteries, they can be help to kind of ride through those peaks and smooth things out,” Schneider says.

And that stability’s going to be crucial, he says, because our rising demand for electricity will push our current power grid closer to its limits.

That point is echoed by Josh Jacobs, executive vice president of Puget Sound Energy.

“I think the soundbite for the regional forecast is, roughly a 30% increase in loads over the next 10 years,” he says.

HEAR MORE about the battery boom and its relation to a 1980s cartoon about robots on the latest episode of KUOW's economy podcast, "Booming."

Jacobs says in response to future demand, his utility is involved in two new wind projects in Montana.

Seattle City Light is working on solar projects in central Oregon, according to Siobhan Doherty, power management director at Seattle City Light.

But these new sources of power may not come fast enough to supply another growing electricity consumer — big tech.

Data centers running AI models are popping up across the country. The largest of them suck up a quarter of the electricity that powers Seattle, according to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Kevin Schneider.

Even if the new data centers are not built in Washington state, but are built instead in Oregon, Jacobs says their power consumption will drive up costs here, due to increased competition.

Which brings us to another benefit of batteries. Experts say, not only do they smooth out the peaks and valleys in supply from minute to minute, they also lower the price of power.

Batteries store large quantities of power when it happens to be the cheapest and sell it when it's the most expensive, kind of like buying a whole bunch of toilet paper rolls when they’re on sale and storing them in your closet.

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