ARPA-E sat down with Eric McFarland, CEO of Urban Electric Power (UEP), to discuss the challenges of leading a start-up company, the company’s partnership with ARPA-E, and its participation in New York Energy Week.
Question: Tell us about your technology and UEP’s relationship with the CUNY Energy Institute?
Eric McFarland: Urban Electric Power spun off from the CUNY Energy Institute in 2012 to commercialize an advanced, low-cost zinc-anode rechargeable battery. Building on the CUNY project funded by ARPA-E, UEP is working to reduce costs even further by using zinc-manganese dioxide to create lead-free batteries. These batteries are designed to meet the ambitious cost target of less than $100/kWh. At this price, storage is roughly comparable in price to energy produced from traditional generation, and it opens up the growing market for grid-scale energy storage -- especially from wind and solar.
Q: What is the biggest challenge of creating a new technology?
EM: One of our long-term objectives, of course, is to widely disseminate our technology to a large global market, but it’s very difficult to imagine going from a lab to that market in a single step. There are many steps along the way -- in our case, we’ve identified shorter-term existing markets, including reducing shifting energy use from peak demand times to save money and batteries used to start vehicles, where there are opportunities to start generating revenue and building the business. The challenge of getting into a market that doesn’t really exist yet, such as the grid storage market, is particularly difficult. Even if you have the technology and are able to manufacture it today, there still aren’t the customers to buy it.
Q: With a limited term and budget, ARPA-E projects must quickly accelerate breakthroughs. Why did you think this project would be right for a partnership with ARPA-E?
EM: The project with ARPA-E is really centered at the CUNY Energy Institute, and UEP was conceived of after the project began. In the shorter term, UEP is getting some of the early findings and breakthroughs that the CUNY Energy Institute has already developed into the marketplace and identifying places where we can apply the existing technology in established markets. This gives the ARPA-E project an outlet for immediate recognition of value and also allows private sector support for the project going forward. ARPA-E’s connection with the Energy Institute is perfect to continue the development of grid-scale storage technologies over a longer term, and with UEP as the third part of the partnership, bringing commercial realization to some of the interim results as they are made.
Q: Can you talk about the spin-out process and how you worked with ARPA-E to make that successful?
EM: ARPA-E has been a strong supporter of spinning out UEP from the CUNY Energy Institute. Throughout the process, they’ve been involved in making contacts between UEP and strategic partners and helping us find manufacturers for components of the battery. We’ve taken their advice and their leads to heart, and that’s really helped us get into the manufacturing world. They also helped us pinpoint some of the manufacturing problems we might encounter and what to anticipate, and they have been available for advice even on practical things such as market definition.
Following remarks from ARPA-E Deputy Director Cheryl Martin at Urban Electric Power's new Harlem headquarters, UEP will host a demonstration. For more information on ARPA-E, visit http://arpa-e.energy.gov.