With the onset of new greenhouse gas emission standards and an ever-increasing demand for energy storage capabilities, Ashlawn Energy is helping building owners save money and meet emission standards with their vanadium redox flow batteries. The company is bringing a wave of versatility to the green energy storage scene.

Ashlawn’s founder, Norma Byron, turned her attention to vanadium redox flow batteries after working in the defense industry on power storage with hydrogen fuel cells. There she saw the shortcomings of batteries in the munitions sector. Byron began to learn about the potential of energy storage to facilitate the use of solar and wind to increase stability on the grid. After a friend recommended that Byron look into vanadium redox flow batteries, she contacted the original inventor of the technology in Australia and got a license from the University of New South Wales to develop the technology.

What draws Byron to vanadium redox is its versatility and safety in comparison to other types of batteries like Lithium-ion batteries. Although Li-ion has a higher power density, they can be a fire and explosion hazard. The electrolyte in vanadium ion batteries is 70% water, making them non-flammable, less toxic and inherently safer than other batteries on the market. 

The liquid electrolyte, which is what provides the ions that make up the current to power the battery, can be reused over and over, meaning a lifespan much longer than the five or six years that Lithium ion batteries have. Vanadium redox is also better at long-duration energy storage as the batteries can run up to 12 hours. 

Some of Ashlawn’s competitors mine vanadium out of the ground, which is an intensive and polluting process. Ashlawn, however, harvests vanadium from slag produced as a byproduct through the oil refining process. Through the recycling process, rich concentrations of vanadium can be recovered from the oil, lessening the amount of waste.Additionally, because the batteries can help store energy at off-peak times and discharge at peak times, CO2 emissions are reduced by 34 metric tons annually with each 10 kilowatt battery installed. 

Armed with this technology, Byron launched Ashlawn Energy in 2008. Ashlawn Energy’s vanadium redox battery system, marketed as the VanCharg™ battery system, prides itself in being women-led. The U.S.-based VanCharg™ systems are flexible in that they are made up of battery stack, so depending on the power needs of a particular project, more batteries can be stacked to operate together, and more electrolyte added. Many current projects operate on 80 kilowatts, but this system can go up to megawatt scale.

Ashlawn discovered that their batteries have a wide variety of potential applications, and so the company was faced with narrowing down their target market. Low toxicity, reusable electrolyte and a 30-year life span for this battery system make it ideal for low-rise buildings across many sectors, especially in urban environments. Given this, they turned their attention to target New York City where NYC Local Law 97 is pushing buildings to reduce emissions.

After finding it difficult to enter the market through utility contracts, Ashlawn turned to the private sector and found a myriad of partners that could be more flexible with trying new technology. 

“I found thousands of opportunities in New York City to do this,” said Byron. “We’ve been building out our supply chain of people to work with in the city.”

Ashlawn launched their first pilot program in a multi-family apartment building in Brooklyn. The 20-kilowatt project consists of the VanCharg™ battery installed behind the meter, charging itself at low-use times like nighttime and discharging extra power at high-use times. This shifting of power use is what saves emissions and cuts costs for buildings. Depending on utility rates, buildings outfitted with their vanadium redox batteries can save over 50% on their monthly electric bills. 

Meanwhile, Ashlawn is also working to scale up manufacturing and grow as a company. They came to the Koffman Incubator and learned about the National Science Foundation I-Corps program. At the encouragement of the Incubator, Ashlawn went through the Binghamton-Cornell I-Corps program and participated in the National I-Corps program last summer, earning $3,000 and $50,000 respectively to conduct customer discovery for their venture. 

Joining an incubation system sped up Ashlawn’s business and technological growth. They moved their laboratory technology to the Incubator and began working with Binghamton University students and faculty to set up a small scale battery for testing. Ashlawn has also benefited from the pool of knowledge and the collaborative nature of sharing space with other growing companies.

“I’ve had some engineering issues where I’ve been able to stop people in the hallway and talk to them,” Byron said.  “They come up with great ideas. If I weren’t in the facility, I would never have had access to these people. So it’s been a really invaluable experience for us.”

Currently Ashlawn is building their reputation in NYC and hopes to move to other urban areas. They are working on a second and third pilot projects in the Bronx and Pennsylvania, and setting up a final facility for assembly. Ashlawn Energy is also part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Smart Grid, a web of partnerships to support the modernization of the electricity grid. 

Most important to Byron is creating jobs in the U.S. and giving people the agency to demand better technology for their communities. Poorer communities and minority communities have borne the brunt of polluting, toxic power generation plants. As those facilities are shut down, NYS is looking for energy alternatives. These environmental justice communities are looking to have control over their own energy. 

Byron sees Ashlawn’s technology as a tool to empower communities to better plug into clean energy and draw down costs. “New York is saying, ‘let the people decide the answer to these problems themselves, let them manage their own demand, let them be in charge of the solution’.” Ashlawn is excited to be part of that solution.

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