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Talking energy storage with Yann Brandt

The book is still being written on energy storage. But the time to start preparing for the "storage decade" is now, according to FlexGen's COO.
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FlexGen COO Yann Brandt joined Episode 35 of the Factor This! podcast to answer your burning questions about energy storage. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

For thousands in clean energy, Yann Brandt is their eyes and ears.

Since 2012, Brandt has delivered his musings about the industry to email inboxes five days a week. SolarWakeup started with a few-dozen subscribers. Today, more than 6,000 industry insiders start their day with Brandt's perspectives top of mind.

The newsletter didn't begin with some grand scheme by Brandt to drive business leads or build a media empire. But it has evolved to become an indispensable resource for industry players new and old.

"I was literally working for a startup in a windowless office," Yann recalled on the Factor This! podcast. "I was really worried that I would lose touch with the relationships that I'd built."

FlexGen chief operating officer Yann Brandt

Brandt's greatest skill may be in connecting the dots. While the newsletter started with a focus on solar, his curated list of articles and columns these days increasingly revolve around the energy storage industry.

In 2021, Brandt joined energy storage solution provider FlexGen as the company's chief commercial officer. He was recently elected as the first-ever chair of the Energy Storage Division at the Solar Energy Industries Association.

His ability to digest complicated industry movements and distill them for an information hungry audience is more useful now than ever. The energy storage revolution has just begun, and traditionally solar-focused companies are branching out into batteries, emboldened by new federal incentives.

What differentiates one energy storage company from another? How do investors view the nascent sector? What are some risks that lie ahead, and how can those risks be turned into opportunities?

No one has all of the answers yet. The book (or newsletter) on energy storage is still being written.

But Brandt says he will continue to share what he sees, when he sees it, to help the industry make wise decisions. With the energy storage market bound for massive growth over the next decade, you should probably check your email.

"Oftentimes we talk about markets maturing with the analogy of baseball game: the first inning, second inning, whatever," Brandt said. "The energy storage market is here for warmups. There are some really great players ready for primetime, but the market itself is really learning how to do things."

Picking a battery providerFlexGen's battery storage system in Fort Wayne, Indiana (Courtesy: FlexGen)

The grid-scale, front-of-the-meter energy storage market is still in its infancy. That can create pitfalls for developers to avoid and lessons to learn.

As the market establishes itself, developers, EPCs, and asset owners could struggle to differentiate between emerging energy storage solution providers. For example, there are manufacturers, software providers, and those who do both.

FlexGen doesn't make batteries, they "make them work," Brandt says. The company is largely technology and chemistry agnostic, instead focusing on the operating system that turns energy storage projects into revenue-generating assets, though they will help customers with sourcing, if needed (FlexGen signed a 10 GWh master supply agreement with CATL last year.)

CATL announced the deal with FlexGen during RE+ 2022. Credit: CATL

Brandt, and FlexGen, believe the energy storage market will follow a similar growth pattern as solar market procurement. Project developers will procure batteries directly from the manufacturer, like many do today with solar modules.

He said he expects to see a rush of OEMs entering the market, especially for inverters and power conversion systems.

Whichever energy storage provider you choose, Brandt urges developers to build out their supply pipelines now. Supply chains are likely to remain strained as the market grows.

"Don't get caught off guard," Brandt said. "You need to start planning your project far more in advance in energy storage than you do in solar."

Supply-side pressure will ease as OEMs enter the market and build out their teams in the U.S., Brandt predicts. Incentives for domestic manufacturing included in the federal Inflation Reduction Act should also diversify supply chains.

Brandt warns not to be deceived by providers with timelines that don't seem realistic. He also says to be wary of new technologies, because they're much harder to get to market.

Operating the asset

Fundamentally, energy storage systems do two things: charge and discharge. But how those binary functions are managed represents the revenue opportunity.

With solar projects, many of the factors that determine whether a project will succeed are settled before the asset generates a single electron.

But the lifecycle of an energy storage asset is just beginning on commissioning day.

"You can't just buy a battery and put it in a field and say, 'Alright, plug it in,'" Brandt said. "In that way, energy storage is a little bit more complicated than solar."

That's why selecting the right software solution provider is so important. How an asset is used will determine its financial success and longevity.

Investment opportunity Nexamp added energy storage to two existing community solar farms in the grid-constrained ISO New England market. The Clark Road community solar farm (pictured) has 7.1 MW of solar capacity and 3 MW/6.1 MWh of storage. (Courtesy: Nexamp)

Markets are still learning how to value energy storage assets. Today, most energy storage assets are being deployed in the CAISO and ERCOT markets, which are friendliest to energy storage.

But the price signals that currently drive energy storage deployment weren't designed for these assets. Appropriate policy changes are coming, which Brandt said represents a massive investment opportunity.

"You want batteries to do the thing that is most valuable to the grid and consumers, not the thing that was best for a gas or a peaker plant," Brandt said. "(There is) huge amount of upside in the investment criteria."

Energy storage is no longer an "esoteric" financial product driving down the cost of capital. Instead, he said that energy storage represents tax equity's greatest investment opportunity since the start of the Investment Tax Credit.

Once improved price signals are adopted, developers and investors will quickly respond. And Brandt will be watching to help connect the dots.

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