I invested in a cool company that I think could replace gas with batteries.
Yay, I get to do a financial disclosure! I recently invested in my friend Sam D’Amico’s startup, a company called Impulse. They’re making battery-powered appliances, starting with stoves. Writing about a company I’ve invested in has always been a little iffy for me; the purpose of this blog is to analyze the world, not to shill for my own portfolio, and I definitely don’t intend to make this a regular occurrence. But I think the technology that Impulse has invented is important enough for the future of the climate that I felt like I needed to write about it. Just realize that I am not a financially disinterested party here.
I’m very bullish in general on the idea that batteries are about to change our world. I wrote a big post about it back in August, explaining all the reasons I think batteries are important:
Most of the battery applications I’m excited about — robots, transportation, drones — involve moving energy from place to place. But storage — moving energy around in time — is also a key thing that batteries do. This is obviously going to be important for grid storage — storing up solar power when the sun is shining so you can use it at night or when it’s cloudy. Battery-powered appliances can help with this, because they can store some energy in your home when they’re not being used.
Currently, solar power suffers from a problem known as the “duck curve” — around midday when the sun is shining, solar panels produce a lot more power than people need, so electricity gets very cheap. Without storage, a lot of this solar power just gets wasted. But in the evening, electricity demand peaks just as the sun is going down, so solar power gets expensive. This limits the amount of solar that utilities can install without taking financial losses, and so this problem exacerbates climate change.
So the more batteries we add to our electrical system, whether at utilities or in the home, the less of a problem the “duck curve” becomes. Tesla will sell you a big battery called a Powerwall that you can install in your house; it draws electricity from the grid during the day when it’s cheap, and discharges it to run your house at night when electricity would otherwise be expensive. This saves you money, while also allowing utilities to increase their usage of solar.
That’s one environmental (and financial) benefit of battery-powered appliances — they act like grid storage in your house. But in fact, there’s another huge benefit — getting the country off of gas.
Right now, a lot of American households and businesses burn natural gas to cook food, heat water, stay warm in winter, and so on. Buildings represent about 17.5% of global carbon emissions, and in the U.S. about half of the energy buildings use comes from fossil fuels:
It’s not easy to just replace gas and heating oil with electric power, since that requires doing expensive remodeling of the buildings that currently use those fuels. The wiring in many U.S. homes and businesses simply isn’t robust enough to handle the kind of power demands that a fully electrified building would require — you have to tear out the wiring and install better wiring, and that is difficult and expensive. Anyone who has installed an induction stove knows this all too well.
That’s why a huge building electrification program was a key pillar of the original Green New Deal. David Roberts wrote the following back in 2019:
One of the elements [of the Green New Deal] that has caused the most consternation among critics on the right is its aspiration toward “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States”…
[A]longside reducing and eliminating emissions from the electricity sector, [an important task for decarbonization] is getting all those heating and cooling systems replaced by systems that are hooked up to the grid. In other words: electrification.
This is an ambitious program that is forecast to take a huge amount of investment. Elements of the Green New Deal’s idea did make it into the Inflation Reduction Act, and states are pursuing their own building-electrification projects.
But what if instead of rewiring a whole building, you could just buy battery-powered appliances and plug them into your standard outlet? That’s the basic idea behind Impulse. You put a battery in the appliance — the stove, or dryer, or oven, or heat pump, or whatever — and it can draw power slowly throughout the day through your regular wimpy old 120V power outlet. And then when it comes time to cook your food, or dry your clothes, or cool down your house, or whatever, the appliance’s battery will release the stored electricity all in a rush. FWOOM! No fancy new wiring or massive investment program required. (If you happen to have a 240V outlet, it gets even fancier — the stove can actually supply power to the rest of the house.)
In fact, batteries have now reached the point where they’re able to discharge energy very fast. The variety of lithium-ion battery that Impulse uses is kind of like the battery in an electric motorcycle — optimized for rapid discharge instead of for weight or efficiency. You wouldn’t use these batteries to power a car. But they’re great for home appliances.
In fact, these rapid-discharge batteries give Impulse one of their major selling points: enormous power. Impulse’s first product, a battery-powered stove, provides a demonstration of how this works. Gas stoves heat up food faster than traditional electric stoves. Induction is even faster. But Impulse’s battery-powered stoves can just heat things up incredibly quickly. Here’s a demo where their stove boils a liter of water in an open pan in 40 seconds — 10 times as fast as a gas stove!
Not having to wait for water to boil seems like a big plus, in addition to being able to cook stuff that requires high heat.
High power seems like it will also be a selling point for other electric appliances — dryers that can dry your clothes quickly, heating and air conditioning systems that can change the temperature of your house rapidly, and so on. This isn’t directly relevant to the climate, but I think the advantages of battery-powered appliances over their traditional gas-powered cousins will speed up adoption. It’s nice to own stuff that’s good for the environment, but it’s great to own stuff that’s extremely high-performance and also good for the environment. That was how Tesla broke through and started the EV revolution.
(As a proud corporate shill, I should mention that Impulse stoves also don’t have the annoying buzzing sound that traditional induction stoves make, because batteries allow them to run off of DC instead of AC. Again, not directly relevant for the climate, but good for speeding up adoption.)
It’s also important to point out that policy is playing a role here. I think battery-powered appliances would catch on no matter what, but the climate provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act are going to give a major boost to companies like Impulse. These include hefty tax credits for electric stoves specifically, and for batteries in general.
Anyway, I’m sure Impulse will be only one of many companies putting batteries in everything; even if someone else wins the space, and I lose my investment, I think think this tech is going to change the world. It points the way to a future where homes are part of an overall energy system that’s far more smart and adaptive and distributed and flexible than anything we’re used to. Battery-powered appliances and cars will combine to smooth out the intermittency of solar power, and they’ll also make buildings more resilient against blackouts (which I expect to spur adoption on the developer side of things). They’ll even be able to share power with each other, if one runs low.
That’s why batteries are so exciting to me. They promise a future where clean energy is passed around at will, in large and small packets, across space and time. If the Internet of Things connects objects in a unified network of information, batteries connect objects in a unified network of energy. That’s pretty cool, even independent of the enormous benefits for the climate.