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State, Federal Grants Helping Fuel New Use for Used EV Batteries

One San Diego-area company has received money from the U.S. Department of Energy and two grants of $2 million each from the California Energy Commission.

At a nondescript office park in Mira Mesa sit a pair of nondescript cubes, and inside each cube sits a collection of used electric vehicle batteries — one containing Tesla batteries and the other stocked with old batteries from Nissan Leafs.

While these lithium-ion batteries once powered cars that are no longer on the road, they still have plenty of lifespan left in them. A local company with connections to the university has taken what would usually be discarded and found a novel way to reuse them, with help from federal grants and funding from the California Energy Commission.

Mike Ferry, president of Smartville Inc., points to the building’s roof.

“You can’t see it, but there's a huge rooftop solar array up there, and that array overproduces (electricity) during the day,” said Ferry. “We’re now taking that excess and during the critical peak (time for California’s grid), from 4 to 9 p.m. when the sun goes down, we discharge that energy back into the library and we power the building.”

The Smartville energy storage system, called MOAB, combines two battery packs into a single system.

“That’s never been done before,” Ferry said. “Our technology is able to integrate battery packs, not only in different states of health and different histories but actually from different manufacturers (Tesla and Nissan), and control them in a reliable way.”

MOAB originally stood for Modular Assembly Battery system but is now the trademarked brand name for Smartville's technology.

The system also collects data that can predict precisely how long the batteries are going to last.

“This is energy storage that’s using batteries that otherwise are going to be wasted,” said Antoni Tong, Smartville’s CEO. “So there are huge social and environmental implications.”

In addition to supplying power to the annex between 4 to 9 p.m., MOAB also can provide emergency backup during power outages.

The new energy storage system can provide the annex up to 48 hours of electricity if a blackout or energy emergency cuts off the building's power.

Smartville has garnered $9 million in funding to develop and commercialize its technology, which has been enough to cover the company’s budget and payroll for 15 employees who work at Smartville’s headquarters in Carlsbad. The company has received money from the U.S. Department of Energy and two grants of $2 million each from the California Energy Commission (CEC).

“This project is filling a very important kind of hole in the mosaic” for California to achieve its clean energy goals, said CEC chair David Hochschild. Reusing EV batteries for energy storage is “exactly what the state needs.”

More MOAB systems are in the pipeline — a 1- to 4-megawatt-hours project in Fresno; a 0.25 megawatt-hour system at Nissan’s U.S. headquarters in Franklin, Tenn.; and another 0.25 MWh project in Atlanta with Southern Power. Smartville also has a small demonstration project in Chula Vista.

Energy storage is seen as a difference-maker, storing up solar power during the day and discharging electricity later, when California’s power system needs need it. In 2019, only about 200 megawatts of storage could be found on California’s grid. This year, the numbers have grown to about 3,600 MW, and the CEC projects that 49,000 MW of battery storage will be needed to meet California’s 2045 target.

Battery storage has its critics, who say the systems are more expensive than conventional energy sources and doubt whether battery projects can scale to the orders of magnitude and hours of duration required to meet decarbonization targets. Fires have also broken out at some battery storage facilities.

In addition to being Smartville’s CEO, Tong is a research scientist at UC San Diego. Ferry is also the director of Energy Storage & Systems at the university’s Center for Energy Research. UC San Diego has an equity stake in Smartville Inc.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.