The next big high-tech product

Published 10:09 am Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why would Alevo, a European company seeking to develop and manufacture a powerful groundbreaking battery, choose Concord, N.C., as the site of its operations, rather than some other place anywhere in the world?

There are several answers to this question that I will share in a minute, but first some background about Alevo and its battery.

Alevo is producing a lithium-ion battery. Other lithium-ion batteries provide the power for electric-powered and hybrid automobiles.

But Alevo’s product is different. It has the ability to charge and discharge electricity rapidly and multiple times, without the risk of overheating or burning.

It is also much, much larger, about the size of a seagoing intermodal shipping container. The battery, called a “GridBank,” can store about two megawatts of electricity, which would be enough power to supply the electrical needs of 90 homes for a year.

But the purpose of the GridBank’s large storage capacity is not to directly supply the electrical needs of users at remote sites. Instead, that vast capacity is intended to be used to revolutionize the electric utility business by making possible a dramatically different generating and transmission process.

Today Duke Energy and other electric utilities regularly start up and shut down their generating plants to meet the varying demands of their customers. Meeting these irregular demands is incredibly costly. To the extent that the utilities could operate their generating plants in their most efficient mode and find other ways to supply peak or other irregular demands, the savings could be enormous.

Alevo’s GridBank is designed to “level out the grid.” GridBanks are to be connected to the electric grids that transmit electricity from producers to users. They will collect and store any excess energy and then release it when it is needed.

Alevo’s backers have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars. With more than 100 employees and numerous robots at work, the manufacturing process in Concord is under way. When the product is ready, customers are committed.

But Alevo cannot afford to release the battery until all the bugs and potential bugs are eliminated. The company hopes it will be soon but will not yet commit to a specific date.

When that date comes, Alevo will ramp up production and hundreds, even thousands, of good jobs in Concord will be the result.

Again though, why did this Swiss company with mostly Norwegian officers locate its business in Concord?

“Think Charlotte’s Myers Park High School and Davidson College,” says Harrison Wellford, the only American member of Alevo’s board of directors. Wellford is a loyal and grateful alumnus of both schools.

Wellford’s cousin, Charlottean Wellford Tabor, arranged the financing for the acquisition of the Philip Morris site that cost $68 million.

Wellford says that Alevo’s general counsel, Tord Eide, has a similar connection and affection for the region. He spent a year in Concord as a high school exchange student from Norway. He met his late wife there and now plans to buy a house in Concord. According to Alevo’s web site, “it was Eide’s family connections in the U.S. that led Alevo’s manufacturing base of operations to launch in Concord.”

There may be important other reasons why Alevo chose Concord, but the main one is that the former Philip Morris cigarette-manufacturing site provided an ideal locale for designing, testing and manufacturing its high-tech product. For safety reasons, these operations best take place in discrete spaces within the factory complex. The Philip Morris site was ideal.

Another plus for Alevo as a start-up company is the beautiful and expansive park-like campus that Philip Morris developed. It provides an attractive and impressive location for prospective customers, employees, and investors to see and learn about Alevo’s operations.

Whatever the reasons Alevo came to our state, every North Carolinian should wish Godspeed for its GridBank.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. This Thursday’s week’s (May 19) guest is Kristy Woodson Harvey, author of “Lies & Other Acts of Love.”