SoftBank to invest $110m in brick tower energy storage start-up

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Series B Energy Vault funding marks first time Vision Fund 1 has invested in sector

SoftBank Vision Fund will invest $110m into an energy storage start-up, Energy Vault, that plans to build huge brick towers that can store energy, marking the Vision Fund’s first foray into the fast-growing storage sector.

The Lugano-based start-up said it would use the funding to pursue a rapid global deployment strategy, simultaneously building commercial-scale projects on four continents.

The Series B funding of Energy Vault marks the first time the $97bn SoftBank Vision Fund 1 has invested in energy storage, although renewable energy has long been a key area for the broader SoftBank Group.

Energy Vault’s storage system uses a crane to lift heavy bricks into a tower formation, with machine vision and algorithms to operate the crane.

When excess power is on the grid, for example from renewable energy on a very windy or sunny day, that power can be used to stack up the giant bricks — which weigh 35 tonnes each. Then when power is needed, the crane lowers bricks back down to the ground using the force of gravity to generate electricity.

Energy Vault has a one-quarter-scale pilot tower in Switzerland that became operational last year, and will complete a demonstration unit in northern Italy by the end of this year.

“The beauty of the Energy Vault solution lies in its simplicity,” said Akshay Naheta, managing partner for Emea at the SoftBank Vision Fund. “It’s like what we all learned in fifth-grade science, you can convert one form of energy into another very easily.”

Energy storage is seen as one of the main technological bottlenecks that is holding back the deployment of renewable energy worldwide. Current systems such as lithium ion batteries or pumped hydro storage are, respectively, too expensive and too geographically limited to be deployed on a large scale.

Robert Piconi, chief executive of Energy Vault, said the funding would help the company construct projects on four continents where it has commercial agreements already in place.

“We will be able to do multi-continent deployment concurrently,” said Mr Piconi. “When we launched in November 2018, the demand was so overwhelming and there was no region I could single out, it was across every continent.”

He emphasised that the energy towers can be a cost-efficient way of storing power, because the giant bricks can be constructed from local materials such as compressed soil combined with a special sealant produced by Cemex.

The Vision Fund will take a seat on the board of Energy Vault, and SoftBank is the sole participant in the series B round. Previous investors in the start-up include Cemex, the global cement company.

SoftBank will be a customer of Energy Vault, Mr Naheta said, without disclosing any details.

Energy Vault is also building a tower for the Tata Power company that will have a peak power delivery of 4MW and storage capacity of 35 megawatt-hours.

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