Some of Invinity Energy Systems’ vanadium flow batteries on display
The Vancouver firm is leading the way as a flow battery provider
There likely aren’t too many publicly traded companies sandwiched between two breweries in Vancouver’s Grandview-Woodlands neighbourhood. But Invinity Energy Systems’ chief commercial officer Matt Harper isn’t exactly complaining: “We’re right in the middle of Powell Brewery and Andina, so it’s always a question of, Are we going east or west today?”
Born in Halifax, Harper grew up in Vancouver and studied mechanical engineering at UBC, where a co-op job at Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems paved the way for a career in the hydrogen and fuel cell space.
In 2013, he and a couple of fellow engineers who had previously worked together founded Avalon Battery to more effectively utilize vanadium flow batteries, which were relatively bulky and mostly used for grid energy storage. Lithium-ion batteries dominated the energy storage game at the time (and still do), but flow battery supporters have long argued that the technology is superior to lithium-ion in several ways, including cycle life.
“One of the things we saw emerging in renewables in general was the solar industry—solar power had been a niche market around that time in Canada but was being rolled out at a very large scale in the U.S.,” Harper recalls.
“We saw there was a phenomenal opportunity for the technology to serve the solar space, but also saw it had to be embodied in a different kind of product in order to do so.”
After a couple of rounds of financing, Avalon commercialized its product, eventually rolling out what Harper says is the largest-ever fleet of flow batteries deployed in the field.
Then, a plot twist. In 2019, one of the world’s largest vanadium producers approached Avalon’s leadership with a proposal.
“They said, Look, we want to put money into the company; we think what you guys are doing is great,” Harper says. “But there’s another company over in the U.K. called RedT Energy doing very similar work. And we think if there was a way to merge the two companies together, that would have tremendous benefits.”
That kicked off a series of discussions leading to a tie-up that concluded in March of last year, creating Invinity. As Harper puts it, the pandemic meant that the merger happened “by the skin of its teeth” as it created significant disruption in the global financial markets just as the team was looking to complete what was essentially a reverse takeover of London Stock Exchange–listed RedT.
After the merger
The combined business, which still trades on the LSE, now has manufacturing lines in Vancouver and Bathgate, Scotland. Of its 140 or so employees, Harper estimates 50 to 60 percent are in Vancouver, with Bathgate accounting for 20 to 30 percent and the rest split between offices in London and San Francisco.
“Lithium-ion batteries definitely have a head start in terms of serving the electric grid, but we’re not far behind,” Harper maintains. “What we’ve done in the last six months is grow operations, particularly in Vancouver, to address that need.”
Invinity sold 18.6 megawatt hours worth of vanadium flow batteries last year, more than double the total for its in its entire previous history.
The company has also inked a deal with Siemens Gamasa, the wind turbine manufacturing wing of German industrial giant Siemens. “They literally could have done a deal with any battery manufacturer in the world,” Harper says. “We started to work with them about three years ago on a demonstration product. They tested our battery; it did everything they wanted; they stress-tested it, didn’t break.”
For Invinity, the next stage will be about maturing the business, Harper says. But that doesn’t mean a relocation is in the cards. “Refining the product, the way we deliver it, building the capacity—Vancouver is a great place for that,” Harper explains.
“We often say that the electrochemical systems engineering and technology space is one where the city has 60 years of experience, going back to the ’60s and ’70s, when Vancouver was front and centre of electrochemical systems development for the pulp-and-paper industry.”