California launches first “battery university” to push energy storage technology

Great. Now make it portable.
Great. Now make it portable.
Image: AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman
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The United States’ first graduate program in battery technology launches this autumn at a Silicon Valley university. Given the spate of bankruptcies of American battery makers such as A123 Systems and Ener1 over the past year, one might ask if that horse has already left the barn.

But battery storage has emerged as the linchpin for scaling up intermittent sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind—where a continuous steady supply can’t be guaranteed—as well as for commercializing electric vehicles. And California is trying to take the lead in battery research at a time when China is also working hard on it. A123, for instance, ended up in Chinese hands when Wanxiang Group bought the battery maker at a bankruptcy auction.

The two-year master’s program in battery technology at San Jose State University announced today is part of an effort to create an “energy storage cluster” of research institutions and companies in California.

California, like China, is seeking a breakthrough to increase the storage capacity of batteries while making them cheaper. This is a particularly acute need in California, where the state has mandated that utilities get a third of the electricity they sell from renewable sources by 2020. Regulators have also begun to order utilities to include energy storage when they seek approval for new power plants.  While batteries have been deployed on an experimental basis elsewhere to store electricity from wind farms, the technology is not yet commercially viable.

San Jose State University is working with CalCharge, an alliance between a clean energy investment fund called CalCEF and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The lab’s scientists will teach courses on energy storage technology at what officials have dubbed “Battery University.” Much as graduates of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley have founded companies like Google that have changed the world, the hope is that the new program will spawn the next generation of advanced battery startups.

“To make better batteries we need innovation at every level,” Venkat Srinivasan, who runs the lab’s energy storage and distributed resources group, said in a statement. “Having a workforce trained in the art and science of making batteries is critical to achieving breakthroughs and expanding the number of companies operating here in the US.”

Students will be able to take courses in battery engineering and manufacturing, battery markets and policy, and engineering management. The first degrees will be awarded in 2015. Don’t be surprised to see Chinese companies show up at the student job fair.