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Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

By Jonathan Shieber

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.

Audi e-tron becomes the first all-electric vehicle to earn IIHS top safety rating

By Kirsten Korosec

The 2019 Audi e-tron has become the first battery-electric vehicle to earn a top safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an achievement that Tesla and other electric models like the Chevy Bolt have not been able to capture.

Scoring an IIHS top safety award isn’t easy. A vehicle has to earn good ratings in six crashworthiness evaluations, as well as an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention and a good headlight rating.

IIHS said Wednesday that the e-tron fulfills the criteria to earn a top safety rating with standard equipment. The vehicle performed well in crashworthiness testing, earning good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests, according to IIHS.

The SUV’s standard front crash prevention system rated superior in IIHS track tests. It avoided a collision in the 25 mph test and reduced its impact speed by an average of 11 mph in the 12 mph test. Its forward collision warning component meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria.

The award provides a much needed boost to the e-tron. There’s a lot riding on the e-tron, the German automaker’s first mass-produced electric vehicle. And while TechCrunch’s Matt Burns found it quick, comfortable and familiar, the vehicle has had a rocky start that included a voluntary recall in the U.S. due to the risk of battery fire.

Tesla has gotten close to the top safety pick designation. A Tesla Model S was tested in 2017 and performed well, but fell short of earning the top score due to poor headlights and an “acceptable” score in the small overlap crash test. The IIHS has never tested the Tesla Model X.

The electric automaker does have another chance. This time, it’s with the Tesla Model 3, which IIHS is currently testing, according to a recent tweet from the organization.

Tests of the 2019 Tesla Model 3 commence next week with the side crash test. pic.twitter.com/yXtbGDC9h9

— IIHS (@IIHS_autosafety) August 7, 2019

The Model 3 has already achieved an all-around five-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite the high marks, NHTSA and Tesla have tussled over how the automaker has characterized the rating in an October 7 blog post when it said the Model 3 had achieved the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle the agency ever tested.

Earlier this month, Hyundai’s hydrogen fuel cell SUV, the Nexo, became the first fuel cell vehicle to be tested and to earn IIHS’s top safety award. 

Hyundai’s fuel cell SUV just scored a top safety rating from IIHS

By Kirsten Korosec

The Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen fuel cell SUV first unveiled at CES 2018, has earned a top safety award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The award, announced Thursday, marks two firsts. The Nexo is the first fuel cell vehicle to earn IIHS’s top safety award. Then again, it’s also the first fuel cell vehicle IIHS has ever tested.

The top safety pick+ award is for 2019 Hyundai Nexo vehicles built after June 2019, when the automaker adjusted the headlights to provide better visibility through curves. Any Nexo vehicles produced prior to June still get high marks, but fall short of the top award. Instead, they qualify for IIHS’ second-tier top safety award. The Nexo joins other 2019 Hyundai and Kia vehicles to earn top safety pick+ awards, including the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Niro hybrid and Kia Soul.

The market for the Nexo is small right now. Within the U.S., the new vehicle, which has a base price of $58,300, is only sold in California. Deliveries of the vehicle to California residents began in December 2018. The vehicle has been available to customers in Korea since early 2018.

Normally, such a limited vehicle wouldn’t be included in IIHS’s routine test schedule, the organization said. Hyundai nominated the vehicle for testing. IIHS says it ended up benefiting too because it gave the organization an early opportunity to evaluate a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

Earning this top safety pick+ award isn’t easy. A vehicle has to earn good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests. It also needs an advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention and a good headlight rating.

The Nexo, a midsize luxury SUV, has good ratings in all six crashworthiness tests, IIHS said. The Nexo’s standard front crash prevention system earned a superior rating. The vehicle avoided collisions in 12 mph and 25 mph track tests and has a forward collision warning system that meets National Highway Traffic Safety Administration criteria, according to IIHS.

The Nexo could someday become more common, and even used in fleets. Self-driving vehicle startup Aurora has been working with Hyundai and Kia for the last year to integrate its “Driver” into Hyundai’s Nexo.

This startup is helping food app delivery workers start their own damn delivery companies

By Connie Loizos

Following many months of pressure, DoorDash, one of the most frequently used food delivery apps in the U.S., said late last month that it was finally changing its tipping policy to pass along to workers 100% of tips, rather than employ some of that money toward defraying its own costs.

The move was a step in the right direction, but as a New York Times piece recently underscored, there are many remaining challenges for food delivery couriers, including not knowing where a delivery is going until a worker picks it up (Uber Eats), having just seconds to decide whether or not to accept an order (Postmates) and not being guaranteed a minimum wage (Deliveroo) — not to mention the threat of delivery robots taking their jobs.

It’s a big enough problem that a young, nine-person startup called Dumpling has decided to tackle it directly. Its big idea: turn today’s delivery workers into “solopreneurs” who build their own book of clients and keep much more of the money.

It newly has $3 million in backing from two venture firms that know the gig economy well, too: Floodgate, an early investor in Lyft (firm co-founder Ann Miura-Ko is on Lyft’s board), and Fuel Capital, where TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque is now a general partner.

We talked with Dumpling’s co-founders and co-CEOs earlier this week to learn more about the company and how viable it might be. Nate D’Anna spent eight years as a director of corporate development at Cisco; Joel Shapiro spent more than 13 years with National Instruments, where he held a variety of roles, including as a marketing director focused on emerging markets.

National Instruments, based in Austin, is also where Shapiro and D’Anna first met back in 2002. Our chat, edited lightly for length, follows:

TC: You started working together out of college. What prompted you to come together to start Dumpling?

JS: We’d stayed good friends as we’d done different things with our careers, but we were both seeing rising inequality happening at companies and within their workforces, and we were both interested in using our [respective] background and experiences to try and make a difference.

ND: When we were first started, Dumpling wasn’t a platform for people to start their own business. It was a place for people to voice opinions — kind of like a Glassdoor for workers with hourly jobs, including in retail. What jumped out at us was how many gig workers began using the platform to talk about the horrible ways they were being treated, not having a traditional boss and not being protected by traditional policies.

TC: At what point did you think you were onto a separate opportunity?

ND: We knew that a mission-driven company that’s trying to do good by people who’ve been exploited by Silicon Valley companies has to be profitable. I was an investor at Cisco, and I was very clear that the money side has to work. So we started talking with gig workers and we asked, ‘Why are you working for a terrible company where you’re getting injured, where you’re getting penalized for not taking the next job?’ And the response was ‘money.’ It was, ‘I need to be able to buy these groceries and I don’t want to put them on my own credit card.’ That was an epiphany for us. If the biggest pain point to running these businesses is working capital and we can solve that — if business owners will pay for access to capital and for tools that help them run their business — that clicked for us.

TC: A big part of your premise is that while gig economy companies have anonymized people as best they can, there’s a meaningful segment of services where a stranger or a robot isn’t going to work.

JS: Shoppers for gig companies often hear, ‘When you [specifically] come, it makes my day,’ so our philosophy was to build a platform that supports the person. When you run a business and build a clientele that you get to know, you’re incentivized for that [client] to have a good experience. So we wondered, how do we provide tools for someone who has done personal shopping and who not only needs funds to shop but also help with marketing and a website and training so they can promote their services?

ND: We also realized that to help business owners succeed that we needed to lower the transaction cost for them to find customers, so we created a marketplace where shoppers can look at reviews, understand different shoppers’ knowledge regarding when it comes to various specialties and stores, then help match them.

TC: How many shoppers are now running their own businesses on Dumpling and what do they get from you exactly?

JS: More than 500 across the country are operating in 37 states.  And we want to give them everything they need. A big part of that is capital, so we give [them] a credit card, then it’s effectively the operational support, including order management, customer relationship functionality, customer communication, a storefront, an app that they can use to run their business from their phone. . .

TC: What about insurance, tax help, that sort of stuff?

ND: A lot of VCs pushed us in that direction. The good news is a lot of companies are coming up to provide those ancillary services, and we’ll eventually partner with them if you want to export your data to Intuit or someone else. Right now, we’re really focused on [shoppers’] core business, helping then to operate it, to find customers, that’s our sweet spot for the immediate future.

TC: What are you charging? Who are you charging?

JS: A subscription model is an obvious way for us to go at some point, but right now, because we’re in the transaction flow, we’re taking a percentage of each transaction. The [solopreneuer] pays us $5 per transaction as a platform fee; the shopper pays us 5% atop the delivery fee set by the [person who is delivering their goods]. So if someone spends $100 on groceries, that customer pays us $5, and the shopper pays us $5 and the shopper gets that delivery fee, plus his or her tip.

The vast amount goes to the shopper, unlike with today’s model [wherein the vast majority goes to delivery companies]. Our average shopper is bringing home $32 in earnings per order, roughly three times as much as when they work for other grocery delivery apps. I think that’s partly because we communicate to [shoppers] that they are supporting local businesses and local entrepreneurs and they are receiving an average tip of 17% on their orders. But also, when you know your shopper and that person gets to know your preferences, you’re much more comfortable ordering non-perishables, like produce picked the way you like. That leads to huge order sizes, which is another reason that average earnings are higher.

TC: You’re fronting the cost for groceries. Is that money coming from your venture funding? Do you have a debt facility?

ND: We don’t. The money moves so fast. The shoppers are using the card to shop, then getting the money back again, so the cycle time is quick. It’s two days, not six months.

TC: How does this whole thing scale? Are you collecting data that you hope will inform future products?

ND: We definitely want to use tech to empower [shoppers] instead of control them. But [our CTO and third co-founder Tom Schoellhammer] came from Google doing search there, and eventually we [expect to] recommend similar stores, or [extend into] beauty or pet other local services. Grocery delivery is one obvious place where the market is broken, but where you want a trusted person involved, and you’re in the flow when people are looking for something [the opportunity opens up]. Shoppers’ knowledge of their local operation zone can be leveraged much more.

NASA taps SpaceX, Blue Origin and 11 more companies for Moon and Mars space tech

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has selected 13 companies to partner with on 19 new specific technology projects it’s undertaking to help reach the Moon and Mars. These include SpaceX, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, among others, with projects ranging from improving spacecraft operation in high temperatures, to landing rockets vertically on the Moon.

Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin will work with NASA on developing a navigation system for “safe and precise landing at a range of locations on the Moon” in one undertaking, and also on readying fuel cell-based power system for its Blue Moon lander, revealed earlier this year. The final design spec will provide a power source that can last through the lunar night, or up to two weeks without sunlight in some locations. It’ll also be working on further developing engine nozzles for rockets with liquid propellant that would be well-suited for lunar lander vehicles.

SpaceX will be working on technology that will help move rocket propellant around safely from vehicle to vehicle in orbit, a necessary step to building out its Starship reusable rocket and spacecraft system. The Elon Musk-led private space company will also be working with Kennedy Space Center on refining its vertical landing capabilities to adapt it to work with large rockets on the moon, where lunar regolith (aka Moon dust) makes and the low-gravity, zero atmosphere environment can complicate the effects of controlled descents.

Lockheed Martin will be working on using solid-state processing to create metal powder-based materials that can help spacecraft deal better with operating in high-temperature environments, and on autonomous methods for growing and harvesting plants in space, which could be crucial in the case of future long-term colonization efforts.

Other projects will tap Advanced Space, Vulcan Wireless, Aerogel Technologies, Spirit AeroSystem, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Anasphere, Bally Ribbon Mills, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Colorado Power Electronics and Maxar, and you can read about each in detail here.

NASA’s goals with these private partnerships are to both develop at speed, and decrease the cost of efforts to operate crewed space exploration, as part of its Artemis program and beyond.

Why eVTOLs could be providing regional air service sooner than you think

By Darrell Etherington

At Uber’s Elevate summit in Washington, DC earlier this month, researchers, industry leaders and engineers gathered to celebrate the approaching advent of on-demand air service. For Dr. Anita Sengupta, co-founder and Chief Product Office at Detroit’s Airspace Experience Technologies (abbreviated ASX), it was an event full of validation of her company’s specific approach to making electric vertical take-off and landing craft a working, commercially viable reality.

ASX’s eVTOL design is a tilt-wing design, which is distinct from the tilt-rotor design you might see on some of the splashier concept vehicles in the category. As you might’ve inferred from the name of each type of aircraft, with tilt-wing designs the entire wing of the aircraft can change orientation, while on tilt-rotor, just the rotor itself adjust independent of the wing structure.

The benefits of ASX’s tilt-wing choice, according to Sengupta, is speed to market and compatibility with existing regulatory and pilot licensing frameworks – and that’s why ASX could be providing cargo transport service relatively quickly for paying customers, with passenger travel to follow once regulators and the public get comfortable with the idea.

ASX founding team Jon Rimanelli and Dr. Anita Sengupta. Credit: ASX

“Depending upon the aircraft configuration you selected, like us, for example, we’re basically a fixed wing aircraft,” Sengupta explained. “So we would not be classified as a rotorcraft, we’d be classified as a fixed wing aircraft with multi-engine, just with obviously special certification features for the VTOL capability. And of course, special check out for the pilots, but the pilots also would be fixed wing aircraft, pilots, they wouldn’t be helicopter pilots.”

ASX’s vehicle design means that it can either take off vertically when space is tight, or do a more traditional short horizontal take off like the airplanes we use every day. That not only makes it easier to use for pilots with more conventional training and experience, but it also means it can slot into existing infrastructure relatively easily and make use of underused regional airports that already dot the U.S.

“Most people who don’t fly for fun don’t realize that there are general aviation airports all over the place, that are underutilized, because only people like me, who fly for fun [Sengupta is also a pilot], use them frequently,” she said. ” Like where we’re located at Detroit City Airport, on a given day, there could sometimes only be like three planes that go in and out of it. So this is infrastructure, which is already funded, paid for and operated by governments, but isn’t utilized. And you can use them in this new UAM [Urban Air Mobility] space, whether it’s for people or for cargo, it’s actually a really good thing, because the challenge of any new transportation system is the cost of infrastructure.”

ASX has also moved quickly to get aircraft up in the sky, which is better help in terms of its own path to commercialization. It’s built six scaled down demonstration and testing aircraft, including five one-fifth scale and one that’s one-third the size of the eventual production version. These testing aircraft can demonstrate all their modes of flight within easy view of the Detroit City Airport airspace control and monitoring.

“We believe, and when you’re really cash strapped your small company, getting a lot of work at the subscale just allows you to do a lot more iterating, prototyping, and learning, basically how to control the vehicle,” Sengupta told me. “From a software perspective, it’s only when you get to that point, when you’re comfortable with a configuration, that it’s really worth your while to go off and build the full scale one. So with this next round [of funding, ASX’s second after raising just over $1 million last year]we’re going to go off and build this out at scale.”

Ultimately, Sengupta and ASX want to help usher in an era of air travel that creates efficiencies by changing the economics of regional and electric flight, and its attracting interest from investors and industry partners alike, including global transportation service provider TPS Logistics, with which it just signed a new MOU to work together on sussing out the opportunities of the eVTOL logistics market.

“Right now you you see a lot of congestion in airports, within beings, you’re going to have congestion coming in, you’re going to have to build a different professional parking lots and runways and all kinds of huge expense, if you can use these general aviation airports as regional centers to do that travel, you can take it away from the commercial, so they actually solve a lot of other problems,” Sengupta said. “For routes of let’s say 300 miles, you probably would need to do a hybrid power solution first, just because the energy density better isn’t there yet. But that’s the whole nicer than having it be fully fueled. And then hopefully […] hydrogen fuel cells is obviously something where you can get the energy needed in each of those regional flights. So by kick-starting this electric aviation use case for the shorter range, urban flights, you kind of kickstart the industry to push it over to fully electric vehicles for regional travel.”

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