“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, June 06, 2015

More on LightSail Energy

Image credit: Cody Pickens, Wired.co.uk
It's difficult finding post topics if I insist that they meet certain criteria: can't take so long to research and write that my family/work/school life is disrupted; must be something about which I have some level of knowledge and the ability to do sufficient research and investigation to post intelligently; must be something that I think my (very few) readers will find to be interesting; and must not simply parrot something someone else said (other than the clear links to other sites with, perhaps, a comment).

But it's clear that LightSail Energy and, in particular, Danielle Fong are of interest to the sort of person who may follow my blog. I posted an article about Ms. Fong and her firm a few months ago and was surprised to receive a Tweet from her. In the interchange that followed, she was kind enough to agree to show me LightSail's facility should I be in her area. As it happened, this week I had a meeting with another firm (to be described in a subsequent post) at UC Berkeley. LightSail is located in Berkeley and Ms. Fong, despite being jet lagged, agreed to show me around.

Because her Company is in a developmental stage and I was simply a visitor, I felt that it would have been inappropriate to photograph the facility or record Ms. Fong's replies to my many questions so readers will need to take my word for what I saw and heard. I mentioned to her that I would be completely respectful of any proprietary information, she said that she was ok with my mentioning pretty much anything (though, on two occasions, she asked that I be circumspect). I want to be, if anything, overly cautious in this regard.

My first impression was that LightSail's facility looked very much like a prototyping facility. They have a large machine shop with CNC machining equipment, a robust metrology lab, assembly areas, and design facilities. There's certainly no hint of "vaporware."

Image Credit: Progressmedia.ca
Since I have a machine shop in my garage and my Company has a large amount of material testing equipment, I was surprised that, while seeing the facility and the components being assembled was fascinating, Ms. Fong's answers to my endless questioning were even more interesting.

As one can find from various biographical sketches (Fong's autobiographical sketch is here), her educational background is that of a physical scientist and LightSail certainly incorporates this background into its business. But, as our conversation continued, I was compelled to ask how much of her working time is spent on: politics; fundraising, mechanical engineering issues, science, and management. Her answer, unsurprisingly, was that "it depends" but I got a strong impression that it's less science and engineering these days than it is management and fundraising.

I asked Fong about her plans with respect to commercializing the technology. It's clear to me that LightSail can't be a manufacturer, at least in their present facility. She said that they do have the ability to produce a limited number of systems, using components from various vendors and others that they produce internally. I'm rather skeptical of that aspect.

In discussing field implementation, Fong mentioned that LightSail has three sites currently in their backlog. One of them has been mentioned in other news articles, she didn't name the others. I'll certainly be looking forward to following the development of these projects.

Fong responded to my questions about some somewhat negative press regarding some layoffs at LightSail by stating that the need for these layoffs was more operational than financial in nature. She believes that LightSail is a stronger and more efficient firm as a result. As a partner in a mid-sized business, I can certainly acknowledge that this is plausible.

I asked Fong about the merger between two firms, General Compression and SustainX, that could be regarded as competitors in the area of compressed air energy storage (CAES). She generally disregarded the viability of SustainX's system (though SustainX also claims to use water during the compression process to attempt to approximate isothermal compression, one key to LightSail's technology). Among other things, Fong mentioned the sheer size of the SustainX system as being non-viable. Reading between the lines of the various articles discussing the proposed merger, it appears as though Fong is correct as it seems that SustainX will not move forward with above-ground storage (current CAES systems store air in underground caverns, typically salt domes, and General Compression follows this model).

On the political and policy front, surprisingly to me, Fong was not enthusiastic about LightSail's participation in California's energy storage mandate. She is of the opinion that the commercial marketplace is the best filter for storage technologies. Fong mentioned to me that someone from the Department of Energy asked her what policy initiatives might jump start a sound energy path for the U.S. Fong answered that immigration reform would top her list, pointing out the very strong representation by immigrants in successful startups. She pooh-poohed tax reform.

Fong mentioned on several occasions that many of LightSail's technical personnel come from a background in auto racing. While I was surprised to hear this, in thinking about it further, it makes sense. Racing is a world of extremely demanding performance of mechanical components under great pressure and where innovation in mechanical design can win the day (a good driver and lots of money help too). Fong introduced me to a couple of these mechanical technicians in front of a huge valve (perhaps 60 centimeters in diameter) that was likely a titanium alloy with a titanium nitride coating.

I asked Fong about the time frame her firm's investors anticipate for a so-called "liquidity event," i.e., for them to see a financial return on their investments. These investors include Vinod Khosla's "Khosla Ventures," Bill Gates (needs no hyperlink), Peter Thiel, Total Energy Ventures, and now, apparently, Chinese VC firm Haiyin Capital, and others. She replied that they all have a relatively long investment time frame and that LightSail does not feel pressured to deliver an immediate return on investment (though she did mention a couple of very specific time frames).

Finally, we spoke in general about the need for storage and the wastefulness of burning fossil fuels (ultimately limited in supply, fracking, sands, shales, etc. notwithstanding) to generate electricity when various renewable sources can ultimately meet our needs. LightSail's technology, along with many other developing storage technologies, can make this possible by overcoming the inherent intermittency of wind and solar to enable these sources to provide "base load power" and reliable peaking power (though some will argue that the need for base load power is a myth). Following the progress of LightSail Energy will be fascinating, combining my interests in energy, thermodynamics, entrepreneurship, and finance.

Note for the video below: LightSail's technology involves removing the heat (poor thermodynamic phraseology, I know) during compression of air with a water mist and reusing the heat either during expansion or for building heating, process heat, etc. Danielle Fong seems pretty "rad" to me, so "Cool It" by She's So Rad seemed a perfect fit.