Defense giant says battery storage is next ‘Apollo program’

Source: Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The energy division at the nation’s largest defense contractor sees battery storage as its next “Apollo program.”

In a little over a year, Lockheed Martin Corp. plans to introduce a “coordinated chemistry flow battery” system that can provide up to 10 hours of storage, company officials said today.

The technology promises to spur greater demand for intermittent power sources like solar and wind, said Leo Mackay, Lockheed’s senior vice president for internal audit, ethics and sustainability. It could also help utilities build grids that aren’t sized for peak load.

“That’s a societal cost that we pay for having to size our utility grid that way,” Mackay said at a roundtable with reporters.

“If you could be more atomized — more specific, more site-specific or manipulate the grid in different ways — you open up a chance to make renewables more marketable, and you might even change the structure of at least a portion of the utility market.”

The technology uses a water-based chemistry that may end up being less expensive to build and maintain than existing batteries, said Frank Armijo, vice president of Lockheed Martin Energy.

“The challenge with existing flow batteries is that they lean heavily on materials like zinc bromide, which are extremely expensive and toxic,” he said. “Ours is neither of those.”

It’s an ambitious project, and defense contractors have a mixed record when it comes to ventures into new areas.

Still, competitors like Leidos Holdings Inc. have started working on smart grid and other energy contracts in recent years. Battery storage is a rapidly growing facet of the energy industry, and Lockheed already produces a lithium modular battery that can store between two and four hours of energy.

The Department of Defense, in particular, has been a heavy investor because more efficient storage promises to ease pressures on its supply lines in desolate combat environments like Afghanistan.

Mackay said Lockheed Martin sees a major business opportunity, even for a company best known for making satellites and fighter jets.

“One of the ways I think people can grasp what it is we really do is it’s a succession of Apollo programs, where there was a big goal — let’s get to the moon this decade,” Mackay said.

That next Apollo program for the energy division is the flow battery, Armijo added.

“The biggest driver, we believe, in this whole industry is going to be economics,” Armijo said. “If it costs more to put in a new substation than it does to put in a new flow battery, a utility is going to choose a flow battery.”

Defense-based demand

Lockheed Martin has been flying under the radar in the energy industry for decades, building nuclear reactors for Navy ships and solar and battery storage systems for its space programs.

But the company has looked recently to make a bigger foray into the energy sector, forming its energy wing — and Armijo’s position — in 2016 to consolidate related contracts, Armijo said.

That’s thanks, in part, to demand from the Pentagon, Lockheed’s biggest client and one of the single largest energy consumers in the world.

But developing countries like India and China are also driving huge demand for renewable power — and therefore energy storage systems, Mackay said.

“One of the few places we can actually sell into the Chinese market is in the commercial energy sector, where we are working with them because there are demands for cleaner energy,” Mackay said. “In the case of the Indians and the Chinese, if they were to industrialize using fossil fuels, they would choke on the smoke and fumes.”

The company also has goals for renewable energy use and emissions reduction by 2020, which it details in its annual sustainability report, set to be rolled out Thursday.

Lockheed won’t disclose how big its energy business is. But Mackay said there is a “standing interest” at the Pentagon in energy and fuel efficiency technologies, even as energy politics ebb and flow at the White House and the Capitol.

DOD is still interested, for example, in reducing its reliance on fossil fuels to avoid price fluctuations, regardless of what the Trump administration and its top officials in the White House might say about energy.

“In some sense, what I seem to see over the years is the interest is fairly constant,” Mackay said. “The rationale offered for why the government is interested in it may differ.”