Former A123 boss aims beyond electric cars

A Vionx energy storage system.
A Vionx energy storage system.

David Vieau, who led the Massachusetts battery maker A123 Systems Inc. through its meteoric rise and subsequent bankruptcy, is helping to launch a startup specializing in large-scale batteries that could store electricity generated by wind, solar, and other intermittent power sources.

Vieau, who has worked at a venture capital firm since A123’s bankruptcy in 2012, will serve as chief executive of the company, Vionx Energy Corp. of Woburn. Vionx is the latest firm to enter the market for large, or grid-scale energy storage systems that aim to reduce the need for new power plants and tap the rapidly growing production of wind and solar projects, which are whose costs are increasingly competitive with fossil fuel.

Effective, large-scale storage is considered one of biggest barriers to making renewable energy a major component of US energy production. The role of solar and wind has remained limited because they only generate electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, not necessarily when power is in demand.

But storing the energy would make it easier to match power supplies to demand.

Unlike A123, which pinned its future on an electric car market that didn’t materialize, Vieau said his company will target utilities as well as companies and institutions that use a lot of power. Vionx’s role is different, too: instead of building a factory, designing its own systems, and writing the software for them, it’s focusing on selling, marketing, and maintaining the batteries and letting its business partners do rest.

Jabil Circuit Inc., a Florida company with operations in Massachusetts, is building a factory in St. Petersburg to manufacture the batteries, about the size of a shipping container, Vieau said. The 3M Co. of St. Paul, Minn. is also making components. Siemens AG, the German technology company, will install the systems, including one at the Army Reserve facility at Fort Devens, the company said.

“We’ve created an ecosystem a group of partners around the table that are supporting the commercialization effort,” Vieau said.

Vionx’s batteries use a technology licensed from United Technologies Corp., the Hartford advanced equipment maker. They are designed to last 20 years and pump out electricity for up to 10 hours, compared to around four hours for lithium-ion batteries, Vieau said.

The company said in a securities filing earlier this year that it raised $58 million. Vionx’s investors. include Starwood Energy Group of Greenwich, Conn. and Vieau’s firm, Vantage Point Capital Partners of San Bruno, Calif.

Other Massachusetts firms are working in energy storage. A123 is making batteries to boost the fuel efficiency of cars, and still has research facilities in Massachusetts after being purchased by Wanxiang America Corp, a subisidiary of the Chinese conglomerate Wanxiang Group. Beacon Power LLC of Tyngsborough uses high-tech flywheels to store electricity, and the MIT spinout Ambri Inc. is also targeting the grid-scale market.

The state’s Department of Energy Resources is currently studying energy storage companies as part of a $10 million initiative to help the industry grow.

Grid scale energy storage is a small but growing market. Worldwide, according to the Boston firm Lux Research, only 1,800 megawatts of storage have been deployed — the equivalent of just 12 percent of New England’s peak electricity demand of 15,400 megawatts on Tuesday.

Last week, Jim Robo, chief executive of the Florida utility and energy company NextEra Energy Inc., said battery systems could eliminate the need to build expensive “peaker plants” that only run on hot summer or cold winter days when electricity demand is highest.

Dean Frankel, an analyst for Lux Research, said congested areas that consume huge amounts of power, such as Manhattan or downtown Boston, could use batteries to store energy and release it when demand peaks. But he cautioned that it was unclear how batteries would be incorporated into electricity markets.

“No one in the [battery] industry today can tell you there’s a clear roadmap,” Frankel said.

Still, that uncertainty hasn’t stopped big companies from getting into energy storage, including the Japanese electronics maker, Panasonic Corp., the German engineering and manufacturing company Bosch Group, and the Swiss engineering company ABB Group. Elon Musk, chief executive of the California electric car maker Tesla Motors, Inc. said his company would soon sell battery systems for homes and commercial clients.