Now that the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center leaders have made their long-anticipated announcement about remodeling a downtown Warren building, the pressure is on to deliver on their promise to turn Trumbull County into a hub of energy research and development.
TBEIC (pronounced T-bike) is more than three-years in the making. It was mid 2009 when the idea of a ''green'' business incubator was hatched. That has since been refined to a business incubator that focuses on energy storage.
For three years, those originally behind the concept over-enthusiastically hyped the center. Politicians from former Warren mayor Michael O'Brien to U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan delivered false promises for when researchers, scientists and inventors would be collaborating in the Kresge Building on Courthouse Square.
Political exuberance, especially during election campaigns, can be expected. But now the TBEIC leaders themselves - Chief Executive of National Initiatives Chris Mather and Chief Executive of Regional Operations Dave Nestic - announced a $3.1 million historic restoration on the former Army-Navy store that they say will be completed in fall of 2013.
The investment in downtown Warren is nothing short of fantastic. The commitment to preserve the historic elements of the building is icing on the cake. This compliments the amazing $2.5 million historic renovation completed by the Wean Foundation next door and the National Fire Repair Inc. renovation on the same block.
The potential exists because of two problems in energy creation and usage. One is that the U.S. power grids are not networked, so an oversupply of electricity in one region, say from solar panels in the southwest, cannot be sent to assist the east during peak hours. Another is that energy, such as that from windmills during a windy night, cannot be stored efficiently on a mass scale for use during peak demand the next day.
A representative from the nuclear and natural gas industries recently penned an op-ed published in the Washington Post advocating networking the regional power grids. That would require investment and innovation that could center right here in downtown Warren.
The U.S. Department of Energy plans to invest $120 million in energy storage technology, including $20 million this year. Many startup companies are finding venture capitalists and investment angels (those who invest their own money, unlike venture capitalists) willing to support their projects. Those projects could be focused on Market Street in Warren.
One of the chief concerns about TBEIC is that it could be late to the game. There are already many players in the energy storage arena that have quite a head start.
Advanced Rail Energy Storage in Nevada has several products ready to be connected to the western regional power grid, company chief James Kelly said. McKinsey & Co. is at the beginning stage of commercializing several energy storage products, according to associate partner John Newman.
BrightSource Energy in September struck the largest solar storage deal in the world with Southern California Energy for a project in the Mohave Desert. China's BYD Co. recently built the world's largest battery energy storage bank - the size of a football field.
Greensmith Energy Management Systems offers a suite of energy storage products that it provides to 14 customers, including eight electric utilities.
There are others.
Those in charge of TBEIC scoff at the notion they are late. Perhaps a good analogy to support their assertion is to the auto industry. After Henry Ford began mass producing cars, many others came along to invent power brakes, power steering, power windows, cruise control, automatic transmissions and even future generations of the automobile. More than a century later the industry still supports innovation, such as natural gas- and electric-powered vehicles.
Which takes us full circle back to TBEIC, which more than a hundred years after Ford could, its leaders say, spawn revolutionary products for alternative fuel automobiles.
If they're correct, the potential is whopping. Gill Forer, Ernst & Young's global director of venture capital, told Bloomberg that the $2.6 billion annual investment in energy storage would grow to $9.2 billion by 2015 and $25 billion by 2021. General Electric energy storage leader Prescott Logan said that once mass storage becomes efficient, ''the impact will be huge.''
The community has waited three years for the announcement that came Thursday. If there is steady progress throughout 2013 it can wait another year for TBEIC to flourish.
But that's going to be the end of the line. If TBEIC doesn't show more signs of life by then, it will be time to try an alternative approach.