McKinley Park tech firm aims to clean up green energy
BY SANDRA GUY Staff Reporter October 20, 2013 5:11PM
Said Al-Hallaj (CEO) and Kristen Perhach (Contractor) in front of one of the large batteries AllCell produces for Solar Grid Storage at the AllCell plant at 2321 W. 41st Street in Chicago. | Provided photo
Updated: November 22, 2013 6:06AM
The clean-power ideal of pumping the sun’s energy into the electric grid is suddenly potentially ugly.
Utilities and electric-grid operators are finding it increasingly difficult to control the voltage while juggling solar, wind and other alternative energies flowing into electric grids.
It’s a big worry, because energy produced by solar panels jumps up and down based on how quickly the sky changes from sunny to cloudy. And a surge or sudden drop could cause a power blackout.
A 12-year-old company in the McKinley Park neighborhood aims to avert such a disaster with its battery technology.
AllCell, the first spinoff business from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s tech park, makes the management-system “brains” for large-format batteries — high-premium workhorse batteries — that store electricity for everything from electric bikes to solar-energy farms’ output.
The company’s 42 full-time workers assemble and produce the lithium-ion battery packs in a converted warehouse at 2321 W. 41st.
They put a patented “secret sauce,” which is a composite containing wax that changes from solid to liquid when it’s heated, inside the battery packs. The material surrounds the batteries and serves as a backup breaker circuit to ensure the batteries’ temperature stays safe.
“Our goal is to make these batteries safe and to last long,” says AllCell CEO Said Al-Hallaj.
His dream is to have AllCell’s battery-management technology — its fancy name is phase change material or PCM — become the “Intel Inside” brains for batteries that run in all kinds of extreme conditions. Intel Corp. made its computer processors a trusted household name with the “Intel Inside” ad campaign.
AllCell is taking a big step toward its goal by announcing at this week’s Solar Power International trade show at McCormick Place a partnership with Solar Grid Storage to stabilize the flow of solar power into electric grids at six sites nationwide.
Other big-growth opportunities lie in the electric-car industry, cellphone towers, battlefield emergency power and robot-controlled warehousing.
“We’re trying to let the marketplace dictate our growth,” Al-Hallaj says.
The company’s secret sauce has no moving parts, requires no energy to operate and protects the battery from fire or other damage. It stabilizes batteries that control the electric grid’s voltage, ensuring that nothing on the other end catches fire, and frees the system from needing liquid or refrigerated-air cooling. It’s the only lithium-ion battery system in the nation to use phase-change materials to keep the batteries cool.
Solar Grid Storage sells power at peak times to PJM Interconnection, the Valley Forge, Pa.-based operator of regional power grids, and charges customers for emergency power during outages.
Solar Grid’s customers are solar farm operators in Laurel, Md.; Robersonville, N.C.; Denville and Hackettstown, N.J.; the Philadelphia Navy Yard; and the Franklin County school system in New Jersey.
AllCell plans to double its workforce in two years and double its revenues each year for the next two years (sales totaled $1 million in fiscal 2012) by expanding into the other new battery-storage categories.
The company made most of its money last year by outfitting electric bikes, scooters and motorcycles.
Electric bikes and solar farms are set for big growth in the United States, experts say.
Electric bike sales doubled in the past year, to 159,000 from the summer of 2012 to this past summer, and is expected to skyrocket in coming years as people grow more accustomed to them, according to Ed Benjamin, co-author of Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports.
As many as half of all bicycles could be electric bikes in another 12 years, according to the industry report.
Solar power installations — commercial, residential and utilities — increased 76 percent in 2012 from 2011, accounting for about $11.5 billion in total sales, according to industry figures. The industry is predicting 30 percent growth this year.
Yet the growth isn’t a slam dunk for emerging technology firms like battery manufacturers that store solar energy.
The companies may find it tough to gain access to capital without having demonstrated the feasibility of their technology, said Zach Pollock, an analyst at GTM Research, a clean-energy research firm based in Boston.
Potential financiers also remain concerned about the long-term reliability of batteries and inverters — devices used to convert the direct current produced by batteries and solar panels into the alternating current that powers appliances. Pollock said innovators face a Catch-22: They must prove their technology works in order to grow, but project sponsors want proof that a technology works before installing it.
Time is on the innovators?? side: Wind and solar account for 6,500 megawatts and 237 megawatts, respectively, of a total 185,000 megawatts generated for the electric grid that includes Commonwealth Edison, according to grid operator PJM Interconnection.
So until solar and wind energy generate bigger output, the issue of controlling voltage spikes and valleys can be watched, said PJM spokesman Ray Dotter.
“We are monitoring to make sure it doesn’t become an issue in the future,” he said.