Volta Technique: making grid-scale energy storage from thin air
While navigating a global pandemic and a just recovery, we want to amplify the stories of those who are working towards a low-carbon future, like Volta Technique. To build a vibrant low-carbon economy, we’ll need innovative tech that supports our needs while preserving the environment. That’s why Bullfrog Power is sponsoring the Centre for Social Innovation’s Earth Tech, an accelerator for startups and nonprofits working on climate and freshwater solutions.
As we work to decarbonize the power grid, energy storage will be essential for meeting peak electricity demand without fossil fuels. But storing energy is difficult and often prohibitively expensive. Amir Pahlevanpour and Kamyar Rouindej founded Volta Technique with the goal of solving one of the climate crisis’ biggest challenges by bringing clean, effective, and low-cost storage to market.
Volta’s proprietary V-CESS technology uses compressed air energy storage (CAES) to efficiently store electricity at low costs for long durations. It can then regenerate power during peak demand periods at a large scale.
Shooting the breeze
Amir and Kamyar became friends during their Ph.D. programs at the University of Waterloo. “One day we were having one of our usual geeky conversations,” Kamyar remembered, “and I explained my research in more detail: an innovative and cost-effective way of storing electricity using air.”
His idea was to use excess electricity to compress air to high pressures and store it underground in tanker-like air caverns. Then, when there’s more demand for electricity, the air is fed through a turbine to regenerate electricity. In essence, it’s a mechanical battery that uses air instead of chemicals to store energy.
Kamyar’s innovative design also has much higher round-trip efficiency compared to existing technology because it recycles the heat generated during air compression. The thermal energy is stored separately, and then used to reheat the air before it enters the turbine.
The idea caught Amir’s attention, and they explored the potential applications and commercial value of the technology. Given that Kamyar and Amir were both entrepreneurial and had complimentary skill sets, they decided to start a venture after graduating. “We heard about the Earth Tech accelerator and decided to apply,” Amir said. “The moment that we heard our pitch had been successful, we knew that we had something that could really make a difference.”
Having spent more than a decade in academia and the corporate world, Kamyar understood the slow pace and hurdles that cleantech innovations face on their way to market. Being part of an accelerator like Earth Tech meant a lot to him. “It introduced us to our cohort, a large group of like-minded individuals and teams who are doing their best to tackle the climate crisis,” he said. “Beyond that, the program gave us visibility and greater access to executives, investors, and the best mentor we could have asked for, Helen Platis. She’s not only a great mentor, but also a true friend.”
Given the pandemic, Volta’s biggest challenge right now is coping with financial instability and risk-aversion from investors. Limited access to capital is stalling their field testing, data collection, and technology analysis. “Nevertheless, we’ve been able to form some important partnerships with other companies and academia that will help us accelerate development and commercialization of our product,” Kamyar said.
Kamyar noted that the average hardware-based cleantech product takes four years or more to reach commercialization. After two years at Volta, the founders are still enjoying the journey of entrepreneurship. “I believe our biggest achievement to date has been creating awareness about climate change and the potential for innovative clean energy technologies to mitigate its environmental effects,” Kamyar said.
The Volta founders believe that raising awareness is the first step towards addressing climate change. “It starts with climate literacy, an understanding of the mutual impact of climate and society on each other,” Kamyar said. “This crisis requires much more attention from the tech and business sectors—they should be prioritizing products that address the root causes of climate change.”
Amir added that if and when the world adopts Volta’s technology, we’ll have fewer gas-fueled power plants, our data centres will use less energy to run and cool their servers, and large commercial facilities will emit fewer emissions to keep their buildings warm or cool. That’s a greener, smarter future worth fighting for.