Q&A: SimpliPhi’s Catherine Von Burg on PG&E’s Failures and the Future of Energy Storage

California’s electric grid hails from a bygone era. PG&E affirmed as much by plunging millions of residents into darkness with forced power outages this past week.

Though local governments have tried to wean themselves off the monopolistic utility giant by launching clean energy alternatives, Californians still depend on Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to distribute electricity.

Catherine Von Burg, president of SimpliPhi Power, says there’s a way around that.

As a manufacturer of energy storage systems, SimpliPhi designs non-toxic lithium-ion batteries that pair with solar panels to store energy, manage ongoing costs and provide backup power during an outage.

Since launching in the wake of the California electricity ciss of the early aughts, SimpliPhi has worked with the US Department of Defense (DOD) to provide energy storage during military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The DOD tested the hell out of our batteries,” Von Burg says.

SimpliPhi has also taken off in the entertainment field. The production team of TBS star Conan’s O'Brien tapped the company to supply energy storage to operate the 3D moon effigy that hangs over the talk show host’s head on set. And blockbuster director James Cameron called up Von Burg’s people to power the glowing “Tron Legacy” bodysuits.

San Jose Inside caught up with Von Burg in the thick of Silicon Valley’s PG&E blackouts to better understand the importance of energy storage in the face of power shutoffs and an aging distribution system. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

PG&E’s shutoff cost San Jose at least $500,000, and many have criticized the company for leaving millions in the dark. What do you make of this mess?

It is, in my mind, unconscionable that PG&E offers no other solution and has shut the power down. The utilities and the [California] Public Utilities Commission (PUC) haven’t invested and incentivized people to use distributed energy resources—like solar plus battery in homes and businesses. That's the problem. They knew this was going to be their number one solution for drought and high winds.

PG&E should have done their jobs and met their mandates two years ago. The utility was mandated to provide reliable and safe access to power. And the PUC has done nothing to get the utilities to respond to residents in California who want distributed solar energy generation with batteries.

Why do you think PG&E hasn’t done more?

It’s a protected monopoly. It’s protected by PUC. A government-sanctioned monopoly doesn’t need to be competitive or innovative. Monopolies skew markets. It has created exactly what we have right now—a utilities that doesn't respond to innovations, market demands and cost-competitiveness.

We work with hundreds, if not thousands, of electricians and solar installers. They install the systems with our engineering support. They need the utilities’ approval—with interconnection agreements—but they’re being thwarted by the utilities. It’s appalling. I’ve met with PG&E several times and they should know this technology isn’t a demonstration project. It's not beta testing.

This technology has been deployed all over the world from Africa to Puerto Rico. People in Puerto Rico are now saying “to hell” with transmission lines.

Is the government doing enough to encourage California residents to use distributed energy?

No. What’s the root cause of these power outages? Climate change. We have 413 parts-per-million carbon in the atmosphere. Renewable and distributed energy paired with batteries eliminates emissions from large top-down, centralized power plants.

Our government needs to do more. The Federal Investment Tax Credit (also known as Federal Solar Tax Credit)—a 30 percent tax credit that could apply to solar and batteries—is being drastically reduced in 2020. That’s a real problem. It helps people offset the upfront capital cost of the equipment. Just think about what the state and federal governments pay for the health fallout from greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s the advantage of using distributed energy solutions?

It’s a new model. Right now, we have large centralized power plants—whether they’re gas, oil, coal, nuclear or some combination. So the only way you can get power from that plant is to run millions of miles of transmission and distribution lines into communities and homes. That’s the top down model. It’s antiquated. They’re creating vulnerabilities for everybody because they rely on transmission lines to deliver power. And transmission lines are being shut down.

We’re a company that has distributed-solar energy plus batteries all over the world. We design and manufacture non-toxic and non-hazardous lithium-ion batteries. Our company went to the Thomas fires in 2017. Within two to three days, all the fuel was gone. So you don’t have fuel to run your generator. With a distributed asset, you can rely on the grid, batteries, solar and the generator.

How do your lithium-ion batteries work with solar panels?

When people put solar on their roofs, they don’t realize that it’s grid-tied. When the grid goes down, they lose access to all that solar generation on their roof.

But if you add even a couple batteries to power your critical load, an inverter (an electrical converter) and a charge controller (a regulator that controls the rate of electric currents added or drawn from batteries), it “islands” from the grid and you can run your household all day off of solar.

The solar can charge the batteries. Homeowners can identify their critical loads like their refrigerator, modem, outlets and lights. Your batteries come online to power your critical load so you get through the night. Sun is up in the morning, and you start generating power again. Your home becomes an island unto itself.

You become your own generation plant.

The Northern California town of Paradise is still undergoing cleanup after the devastating fires in 2018. But toxic chemicals have contaminated the air, water and soil. How do lithium-ion batteries impact contamination?

The earliest chemistry [of lithium batteries] was lithium cobalt oxide. But cobalt is hazardous and toxic. It can cause thermal runaway—it's that heat you feel on your phone. It’s also ultimately the cause of laptops and cell phones exploding and catching fire. Those are small-format batteries. In the early days, it was thought that the size alone will mitigate the danger of this cobalt mixed with lithium.

But as we’ve seen 10 to 15 years later, if your cell phone catches fire on your couch or on a plane, it can be catastrophic. So size alone doesn’t mitigate the risk. Now as the industry starts scaling these batteries up in size, you scale up the inherent risk too.

We are using a newer innovation: lithium-ion chemistry. It eliminates cobalt. John Goodenough, along with Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino just won the Nobel prize in chemistry for their innovation of lithium-ion batteries.

At the Camp Fire, we received photos from a homeowner whose home survived in the midst of hundreds of homes that were burnt to the ground. But their garage was burnt to the ground, too. In the photos were our batteries.

The cases have been burnt away, but the cells and packs are all intact. They didn’t catch fire. With cobalt, the cells explode. The cases would melt. Everything would be burnt, with metal shards and toxic cobalt everywhere.

You got a contract from the DOD to provide energy for the US Marine Corps. What did that work entail?

In the early days of war [in Afghanistan and Iraq], more soldiers lost their lives in fuel transport convoy missions than in combat operations. The military was intent on alleviating their dependence on fossil fuel. Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) also had pain points. The Department of Defense said, “We are completely dependent on generators powered by lead acid batteries. They’re large cumbersome, inefficient and they don't work.”

We said, “Why don't we use our batteries with your generator.” We started shipping batteries just to offset diesel. Now they have no heat footprint and no noise. It’s like removing a bullseye. Then we engineered trailers with solar panels that would fan out. They were pulled behind humvees, [generating] an enormous amount of power. Those trailers could take up to 20 to 40 batteries. They have special outlets for soldiers’ munitions and communications.

To learn more about SimpliPhi, click here. To nominate a subject for a Q&A, contact the author. Or leave a suggestion in the comment section below. 

Nicholas Chan is a journalist who covers politics, culture and current events in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @nicholaschanhk.

16 Comments

  1. Interesting that SJI has become an informercial outlet. Does SJI get compensated for the link’s clickbait?

    No critical perspective such as, “What prevents your batteries from igniting like Tesla’s and those atop Walmart stores?” And, “How do you indemnify victims should this occur?”

    Do consider placing quotes around Ms. Von Burg’s statements unless they are Mr. Chan’s.

    And for heavens sake, use a different publicity photo. Airbrush her turkey neck and decide which personality to convey. Bitch-goddess on the left face, or fashion model on the right.

    Reference to “aging infrastructure” below her photo is amusing.

      • I have to agree that I might not buy a battery from this lady. It looks like she’s selling Retin A or Botox, not batteries.

  2. I was interested until the part about “climate change” being the cause.
    Do you think she might be an interested party with something to gain here????
    So she’s going to scare and anger everyone into buying her product.
    This story is not worth the ink used to print it.

    • > I was interested until the part about “climate change” being the cause.

      Exactly my reaction.

      I think she may have a good story to tell, but she BEGAN her story with a discredited fib. The utility and value of her solution is NOT tied to “climate change”. It’s tied to the demand for electricity.

      Back to public relations school.

    • DING! DING! DING!

      > [PG&E is] a protected monopoly. It’s protected by PUC. A government-sanctioned monopoly doesn’t need to be competitive or innovative. Monopolies skew markets. It has created exactly what we have right now—a utilities that doesn’t respond to innovations, market demands and cost-competitiveness.

  3. Von Burg does her best to avoid saying what is the “secret sauce” for her special batteries.

    But the clue is tucked away on the SimpliPhi website:

    > Non-toxic, non-hazardous Lithium Ferro Phosphate (LFP) chemistry combined with proprietary architecture, circuitry, methods of assembly and Battery Management System (BMS)

    In other words, LiFePO4

    Everyone in the solar industry and anyone who has put together a DIY solar power system knows about this.

    But, except for the climate change baloney, I think that Von Burg’s story makes a lot of sense.

  4. Despite what the picture lookie-loo’s and science deniers are saying around these parts, I appreciate this interview in so much as confirming that even if you have solar on your roof, if the power grid goes down, you are left without electricity too. Distributed electricity generation has to be the way of the future. it makes economic sense, and capturing some of that energy for your own needs, whether it be via chemical, mechanical or other means, should be part of that equation.

    I have to agree with the minor points others made here, in that this interview does feel a bit like an info-mercial, but we do see the same kinds of things in, say, the Merc’s Sunday Business section, where they interview CEOs and other such leaders of specific companies. I will keep an eye out for other interview ideas, Nicholas, and let you know what I come up with. Than you.

    • > Despite what the picture lookie-loo’s and science deniers are saying around these parts, . . .

      SCCRezzy:

      Denial is a terrible thing. I think the government should force people to admit things they deny.

      We could double or triple energy taxes if the government forced more people to stop their denial about global warming and admit that humans caused the end of the last ice age.

    • I do not appreciate being labelled a “denier”. It hurts my feelings.
      Besides, I thought it was all about the science? And the science says man made climate change is a crock. Look at all of the data, not just the tid-bits the hoaxers are feeding you, and you will see the big picture. However it does take a small amount of effort to read through those confusing science based papers and chart thingys.

  5. Climate change nut jobs be damned, if you want to sell solar cell and batteries to us sceptics you need to approach us on truthful economics.

    This is going to pay for it self in X number of years. The cells will not deteriorate before the payoff date, guaranteed!
    The battery backup will run your house all night long till the sun comes up.
    It will take X hours to charge up my car.
    The batteries will last X years before I have to replace them.
    It’s not about saving the environment it’s about saving me cash or making me cash.

    I’m not spending a dime on a system that’s not working for me. How much would you spend on a fancy pair of shoes that don’t fit?

  6. > Such a frog in a pot of water heating up… “What? I don’t notice anything changing…”

    Maybe the warmth you’ve been feeling is just sunshine.

    We don’t have to pay taxes on sunshine yet, do we?

  7. So Simpliphi batteries survived the Camp Fire? Interesting–not much else did. Show us the photos please!

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