New York City tries to cram in some energy storage

NEW YORK -- The startup Urban Electric Power exists behind a steel door on a scary-looking block in Harlem. Get buzzed in and one sees a single L-shaped room with dingy brick walls and chemists at their benches. The CEO is in a little concrete bunker on the right.

That CEO, Raymond Johnson, 58, left the fresh air of Boulder, Colo., this summer to head Urban Electric Power because he liked the challenge. The challenge is to mass-produce an extremely cheap, dense, nontoxic battery that could help a big building save money and maybe survive an emergency.

"We're a pretty skinny operation right now," Johnson said. "We have ambitions to be bigger, of course."

Although Johnson was speaking of his own company, he could have been speaking of the energy storage industry in New York City, where a small contingent of inventors, regulators and entrepreneurs are trying to solve some truly New York-sized problems, and be bigger, of course.

New York is growing in population and needs more electricity, just as one of its major power sources faces closure. The Indian Point nuclear power plant, 35 miles north on the Hudson River, may shut down in the next few years, taking with it 2 gigawatts of power generation, equivalent to almost half the peak power use of Manhattan.


From the aircraft warning lights atop 1 World Trade Center to the deepest tubes of the subway, the city and neighboring Westchester County use about 13 GW of electricity on the hottest summer days. That's more than a quarter of the highest power consumption of the entire state of California.

Build a new substation? Not so easy when there's no room. The city's utility, Con Edison, says it would cost $1 billion to make a new substation to serve rising neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. Another option would be to build more transmission lines from Pennsylvania or from upstate, but that's difficult in a city that's so dense that it's taken almost 90 years, according to the New York Times, to build the Second Avenue Subway.

"I would rather cure world hunger," said Doug Staker, a vice president at Demand Energy, a company making batteries for Manhattan skyscrapers.

Staker and others believe a relatively small number of batteries, crammed into basements and parking garages in enough big buildings, could nudge the city's vast power needs downward on the most power-hungry days. That could delay the need to build more plants and power lines, and maybe help turn the state into a center for battery manufacturing.

Urban Electric is one of the more well-known outfits in a growing network of companies and universities across New York that are hoping to knit together into a supply chain. Johnson says deals are in the offing for Urban Electric, as well as a round of funding, and the company has hired six people since summer.

Next up is an installation at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Its traumas read like a catalog for why batteries matter in New York City.

9/11, a superstorm and a penthouse

The BMCC campus is blocks away from where the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. One of the lesser victims was the underground copper wiring that formed the school's communication backbone. It literally "turned to slag in the streets," said Scott Anderson, a BMCC vice president. Not wanting that to happen again, the school built a wireless voice-over-IP system, sourced at its data center on the first floor.

Then, two years ago during Superstorm Sandy, workers had to wade in and rescue those servers from the floodwaters.

Batteries are an integral part of Plan C. Urban Electric's 100 kilowatts of energy storage, along with the data center, are moving up to the penthouse floor, taking up the space of two former classrooms that together sat about 700 students a day.

"We sacrificed instruction in order to have that space because it was critical for us," said Anderson. "If you don't have that, you don't have an instructional program anyway."

Along with a 300 kW solar array soon to arrive on the roof, the batteries will contribute to slimming the campus's carbon by 12 tons a year, Anderson said. Moreover, the solar panels and batteries are expected to net the school $54,000 a year, through lower electricity bills and participation in demand-response programs with Con Edison.

Matching batteries with basements

Most of New York's energy storage will find its way to less plush digs, like the basement of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, a hulking pair of buildings on the shores of the Hudson River in Brooklyn.

A warren of huge, dimly lit rooms with occasional debris and graffiti, the basement looks less like a clean-energy outpost and more like a place where a disobedient gangster would be killed. Behind a red door is a room with 29 tons of advanced lead-acid batteries, so heavy that a special concrete pad was laid to support the weight.

The 170 kW of batteries follow a charge-and-discharge pattern that, if battery advocates are successful, will one day become commonplace in New York.

The batteries fill at night, when workers across the city have gone home and Con Edison's electricity rates are cheapest. During the day, they discharge in short bursts, timed to when demand is peaking on the power grid. Since a business's highest power usage on a single day can establish its rates for the next three months, shaving off these peaks can have a dramatic effect on the power bill. The Army Terminal, owned by the city, will save about $25,000 a year for its participation in the demand-response program, a city spokesman said.

The biggest accelerator for energy storage in New York City right now is a sweet deal by Con Edison: $2,100 for every kilowatt a building can snip off its peak demand. Con Edison's goal is to trim the city's peak by 100 megawatts with measures that either improve a building's efficiency or reduce its power needs, including batteries.

An online map hints at how attractive Con Edison's incentives are to building managers. Blue pins mean complete projects, orange are underway and green pins are potentials. The map has a few blues and oranges, but Manhattan is a thicket of green pins.

The new incentive could cover about 65 percent of a project's cost, according to Nick Davis. He is a managing director at Agrion, an organization that is connecting building managers and battery makers. On the downside, applicants face a tight deadline: Get the storage project installed and running by mid-2016.

"We're seeing a ton of interest," Davis said. "In terms of getting them to actually adopt the storage, that's another matter."

A separate Con Edison program is targeted at Brooklyn and Queens in order to put off construction of that $1 billion substation. The utility hopes to offer $200 million to customers who take energy-saving measures.

Everyone involved in the city's battery market has big hopes for the state's wholesale reorganization of its power system, which may make it far more appealing for building managers to install batteries, even without incentives (EnergyWire, Oct. 29).

'Shave the tips off all the peaks'

One of the first energy storage systems to arrive at a building in Manhattan was at the Barclay, a 58-story apartment tower right next to the World Trade Center. Two years ago, the owner shoehorned 225 kW of lead-acid batteries into two spaces in the parking garage.

Before batteries, the tower's approach to reducing electricity use was effective but blunt. When Con Edison appealed for lower power consumption on hot summer days, workers would manually shut off some lights or shut down a boiler.

That worked fine for a while, but recently, as the electric grid has become more stretched, those appeals have come more often. Barclay residents can pay more than $8,000 for a two-room apartment, and they were starting to complain when the lobby lights were off, said Josh London, a vice president at Glenwood Management Corp., which owns the Barclay.

Now the skyscraper's batteries, in tandem with a computer program, "shave the tips off all the peaks," he said.

"We have learned an immense amount about what our building actually does," London added. He expected, as many building managers do, that there would be a morning and evening power rush hour, as well as midday spikes in the summer when residents cranked the air conditioning.

"We were wrong, there were constant spikes," he said.

The system, built by Demand Energy, a battery maker in Washington state, has saved the building $75,000 in power bills for each of the last two years. London expects that the system, which cost about $1 million, will pay itself off within five years.

Glenwood is installing $300,000 battery systems at nine of its other high-rises in Manhattan. Each will store about 100 kW (the first system at the Barclay, London said, turned out to be oversized).

Batteries are slowly arriving in pockets across the Big Apple. Eos Energy Storage, based just outside city limits in New Jersey, is building a $250,000 zinc-hybrid system at a Con Edison machine shop in the Bronx; EaglePicher, a battery company out of Missouri, is building a 300 kW battery bank at the 42-story Citylights building in Queens; and Green Charge Networks, a California startup, is using its lithium-ion batteries to charge electric cars at the Avis rental shop at LaGuardia Airport.

Those pockets can't be too deep, however, because of the risk of superstorms and rising seas. At the Citylights building, EaglePicher had to raise its installation 5 or 6 feet to agree with New York's newly revised floodmaps, according to Mark Matthews, the company's vice president.

Think small, think big

Back at Urban Electric Power, Valerio De Angelis, the head of product and systems engineering, proudly showed off the only recent battery design to be both invented and commercialized within the confines of New York City.

Urban Electric's special approach is a zinc anode and a manganese dioxide cathode, a design invented 10 blocks uptown at the City College of New York. The company has received $9 million in funding from the Department of Energy, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and Con Edison, and is something of a poster child for the possibilities of bringing lab ideas to market.

The company's base materials are cheap and abundant. Urban Electric claims its batteries are lighter and less toxic than lead-acid batteries, are less flammable than lithium-ion, and -- perhaps most important -- could be mass-produced for less than $100 a kilowatt, a price point that has been unsuccessfully sought by other makers of exotic battery designs. Reducing costs is key to speeding the adoption of building-scale batteries.

It is also, for the moment, a sort of artisanal product, like a Brooklyn hamburger. Each battery is assembled in hand, including the clumps of grayish-white zinc and the gunmetal-black manganese. They are flattened with a hydraulic press that makes a loud chuffing sound, like a 19th-century train engine.

De Angelis, who is also a chemical engineer at City College, shambled around the lab with tousled gray hair and a blue V-neck. His contributions were the things that surround the battery, sometimes called the balance of system. The housings are plain white polypropylene, the inverter is an off-the-shelf brand, the control board is borrowed from the auto industry. The balance of system is meant to be easily assembled, stacked and racked, and can be completed for "a four-digit number," De Angelis said.

Asked why he chose this form factor, De Angelis pinched his thumb and pinkie together, with a bare half-inch of space between them.

"In New York City, space is at a premium, and that's why electricity costs are so expensive, because it's so dense," he said in the accent of his native Italy. "Rather than 'give me a room,' I can say, 'give me part of a hallway.'"

The tone of De Angelis and everyone else at Urban Electric is optimistic. Across the street is a crater of a construction site that is slated to become the Taystee Building, a former bakery and a hub for a planned revitalization of this part of Harlem.

Johnson, the CEO, mentioned SolarCity, the rooftop solar installer that recently broke ground on a manufacturing plant of record-breaking dimensions upstate in Buffalo (EnergyWire, Sept. 25).

"We have visions of doing something similar in this state," he said.

De Angelis and Johnson walked through a door into another high-ceilinged room, a former brewery that Urban Electric will turn into a manufacturing floor. At this point, it was just bare space, with stacks of cardboard boxes and big blue jugs of zinc in the corner.

Starting next year, Johnson said, Urban Electric will start up a pilot manufacturing line in this room that could produce 800 kilowatt-hours of batteries a year. That's nice, but Johnson said he already knew that demand would surpass its output before it's even finished. Too little space.

Twitter: @DavidFerris | Email:

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