An eco-friendly battery that cost millions of dollars in tax money to build and could power an entire house for decades was licensed to China by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), claims a new study.
The vanadium redox flow battery was developed at a U.S. government lab close to Seattle. UniEnergy Technologies produced it until last year, when a DOE license transfer virtually doomed it to a Chinese company.
The Northwest News Network and NPR collaborated to conduct the investigation that led to the discovery. They discovered that the DOE had broken its license regulations.
One of the American businesses vying for the license, Forever Energy, chief financial officer Joanne Skievaski said to NPR, “This is technology produced through government monies.” It was developed at a government laboratory. Currently, it is held and deployed in China. It’s aggravating, and that’s an understatement.
Approximately two dozen scientists first proposed the idea for the battery in 2006 when they hypothesized that a unique combination of acid and electrolytes could store enormous amounts of renewable energy in the basement of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. After six years of research and development and more than $15 million in taxpayer funds, they were eventually proven to be correct.
The project’s director, Gary Yang, applied for a license to produce and market the battery at the DOE in 2012. Yang established UniEnergy in the Washington city of Mukilteo after the agency granted the license.
However, Yang soon discovered it was challenging to persuade American investors to support his business, as they all desired quicker profits. He received investment after eventually being introduced by a different scientist to the company’s parent firm, Dalian Rongke Power Co. Ltd., and a Chinese investor named Yanhui Liu.
The manufacturing, however, gradually shifted from UniEnergy’s Mukilteo warehouse to Rongke Power in Dalian, China, throughout the following few years. In 2017, Yang officially sublicensed the Chinese business, enabling it to produce the batteries on its own.
Yang’s initial license mandated that UniEnergy sell a specific amount of batteries in the United States, all of which had to be produced there. According to NPR, Yang acknowledged not meeting these requirements but was not in trouble. By 2019, Rongke Power and the entire battery business in China had advanced so dramatically that UniEnergy engineers were informed they would need to labor there for months.
Yang, however, continued to fight for survival in the United States while refusing to dispatch his staff to Dalian. He gave the license to Dutch company Vanadis Power in 2021, which intended to keep creating the batteries in China, build a facility in Germany, and eventually migrate production to the United States.
Cracks in the DOE first became visible during this license transfer. It took only an hour and a half to transfer the license when a UniEnergy representative called a government manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to let them know about the Vanadis purchase.
According to NPR, it is unknown whether the manager or anyone else at the lab or Department of Energy thought to inquire whether Vanadis Power was an American company or intended to manufacture in the U.S. during that hour and a half or after. Vanadis’ website stated that the batteries would be produced in China.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the DOE cannot reportedly keep an eye on its licenses in 2018. The government acknowledged that they relied on “good faith disclosures” while conducting reviews, NPR reported, in addition to having uneven standards and obsolete computer systems.