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LightSail Energy — The Key to Grid Scale Wind and Solar Power?

The modern electric power grid has been called the largest and most complex machine in the world. In the United States alone, 3,200 utilities deliver $400 billion worth of energy a year to homes and businesses along 2.7 million miles of power lines. The National Academy of Engineering , in its 2003 list of the 20 greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, named the electric grid as #1 — ahead of automobiles (#2), water supply and distribution (#4), radio & television (#6), the Internet (#13), and nuclear technologies (#19). This wondrous 20th century invention so crucial to our daily lives, however, is facing unprecedented challenges in meeting 21st century energy needs.

The primary source of power supplying the electric grid remain fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) — a highly polluting and ever decreasing resource at a time of runaway man-made climate change and rapidly increasing energy demand. Fortunately, environmentally-friendly, renewable alternatives like wind and solar are becoming just as cheap to produce, making it possible to replace fossil fuel power sources that currently dominate our power supply — maybe.

Challenges of Adopting Large Scale Wind and Solar Power

Our electric grid was never designed to store generated electricity at any scale. As such, electric power must be transmitted and consumed the moment it is generated or it is lost. Since our use of electricity varies greatly in a typical day, this feature of our electric grid is a problem for large scale adoption of wind and solar power.

Fossil fuels, once extracted from the ground, can be stored. We don’t have to burn it immediately to produce electricity. When demand for electricity is high, we burn more coal, natural gas, and petroleum to produce more electricity. When the demand is low, we burn less. We can likewise stockpile nuclear fuel for nuclear power, and store water in dams for hydro power.

We can’t however, capture wind or sunlight in a bottle. As such, wind and solar must immediately be converted into electricity. The wind however, does not blow at predictable times and at constant strength to power windmills. The sun does not shine at night, and the intensity in which it shines on solar panels during daytime can vary greatly depending on the seasons and weather. We can’t rely on Mother Nature to provide more or less wind and sunlight in accordance with our constantly fluctuating demand. So while wind and solar are by nature clean and renewable, the infrastructure we have to capture that energy is ironically very wasteful.

This is a major reason why in 2014, power generation in the United States is almost completely reliant on polluting fossil fuels (67%), potentially deadly nuclear plants (20%), and geographically dependent water dams (6%). Despite its limitless abundance, environmental-friendliness, and low cost of production, just 4.4% of power generation is from wind, and 0.4% from solar.

Storing Wind and Solar Power in “Compressed Air Batteries”

Lightsail Energy of Berkeley, CA has come up with a brilliant solution that is cheap, scalable, and proven — store generated wind and solar energy in tanks of compressed air.

Their technology allows energy to be stored as tanks of compressed air packed into common shipping container form. These containers can easily be stacked and clustered together to form large reservoirs to be used by utilities to store excess energy generated by wind and solar when energy demand is low. That stored energy can then be converted back to electricity and released into the grid when demand increases and production drops — drastically increasing our ability to make use of energy generated by wind and solar farms.

Recently to much fanfare, Tesla announced the Powerwall, a home battery that can be used to store energy generated during sunny days by rooftop solar panels. The stored energy can then be used later when the sun is not shining, effectively allowing consumers to store sunlight for later use. While the technology behind the Tesla Powerwall is useful for the home, it’s too expensive and not durable enough for large, grid-scale storage.

LightSail’s “compressed air batteries” on the other hand, are cheap to make, safe, long-lasting, easily connectable to the existing electric grid infrastructure, and extremely scalable.

Founded in 2008 by Danielle Fong, LightSail has since attracted $58 million in funding from the likes of Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, Founders Fund, and energy giant Total. Having proven its concept in a laboratory, the company is now in the process of conducting field tests throughout North America, and making plans to do so in Europe.

From Rebellious Youth to Celebrated Entrepreneur

Founder Danielle Fong was born on October 30, 1987 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. One day, at the age of 12 in junior high school and bored out of her mind, she decided to try and leave school by walking out of a seemingly closed door. It worked and she never went back.

Luckily, her parents were supportive and a few months later she enrolled in nearby Dalhousie University. She graduated Dalhousie in 2005 with first class honors in computer science and physics. At the age of 17, she enrolled in Princeton University as a Ph. D. student and worked on the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project to advance the science of fusion power.

Ms. Fong’s work on ITER was driven by a desire to solve what she deemed the great problem of her generation — the need for clean and abundant energy. She soon came to the conclusion however, that given the rate of humanity-induced climate change, the promise of fusion power would never arrive in time before irreparable harm was done to our planet. At the same time, Ms. Fong was noticing how the great entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley were creating their own companies and raising their own capital to realize their visions. Soon afterwards, she left Princeton for the San Francisco Bay Area.

With no network, Ms. Fong began writing down her ideas and posting them online in places she knew brilliant and innovative people congregated. She worked odd jobs (everything from consulting to making dumplings), couch-surfed, and at times worked outdoors until dawn in the warm weather. She experimented with dozens of entrepreneurial concepts before deciding to focus on solving a major piece of the energy puzzle: efficient grid-scale storage.

Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) is a concept that has been around since the 1870s, when city-wide systems were installed throughout Europe. These systems, however, have always been extremely inefficient, losing about half the stored energy when later extracted. Additionally, the compressed air had to be stored in large underground caverns, making geography a limiting factor much like water dams. Other American start-ups like SustainX of New Hampshire have tried above-ground approaches without success. In March for 2015, SustainX announced that it was abandoning its above-ground approach and merging with traditional CAES provider General Compression of Massachusetts.

Ms. Fong and her two co-founders, however, figured out an above ground approach to achieve 90% efficiency using water sprays, carbon-fiber storage tanks, and a super-efficient air compressor/expander design. One of her co-founders provided initial funding and would later become CEO. The other co-founder and later CTO provided his home garage machine shop to build the first prototype. Ms. Fong herself became Chief Scientist and all-around evangelist.

LightSail promises to be a key part of the puzzle to bring about large-scale adoption of renewable energy — before man-made climate change becomes unmanageable.

Learn More About LightSail Energy and Grid-Scale Energy Storage

The following is a sample of the recognition received by Ms. Fong and LightSail:

- 2012 Forbes 30 under 30

- 2012 MIT Technology Review 35 under the Age of 35

- 2013 TIME Magazine 30 People Under 30 Changing The World

Ms. Fong has spoken at a variety of high profile conferences including:

- The Nantucket Project 2014

- 2014 TEDxCERN

- 2014 Pioneers Festival