By Ryan Harrison on Oct 19, 2018
Even as a child growing up in Barbados, Carlton Cummins found himself hard-wired to make things happen. “There was no Amazon or even a high street back then,” the entrepreneur recalls. “So, if you wanted something, you either waited a really long time or figured out how to make it.”
It is this upbringing that the 29-year-old assigns to his devotion to design and engineering. It was 2011 when Cummins landed a job helping install solar panels on houses. Faced with an over-reliance on imported fuel, Barbados and many other Caribbean islands were taking strides towards renewables.
Solar systems were giving parts of Barbados a convenient source of independent power, especially when hurricanes crippled local power grids. Year-round trade winds were also helping to run wind turbines.
“But what this didn’t change,” says Cummins, “is that the sun doesn’t stick around and the wind doesn’t blow every time you want. And that’s when battery storage technology started to catch my attention.”
This curiosity earned him a scholarship at Brunel University in the UK. In 2016, he co-launched a British start-up called Aceleron, with a mission to recycle waste batteries into low-cost energy storage.
That mission has come into sharp focus recently. The rise of electric cars has put battery technology into the foreground of public awareness. By 2030, there could be 125 million electric vehicles on the road according to International Energy Agency estimates, compared to around 3 million today.
Companies including General Motors, BMW and Toyota are among those preparing for a surge in retired car batteries, investing in what they call “second-life applications”. Batteries are broken down, tested and repackaged for less demanding applications, like home storage. After being taken off the road, batteries could have another seven to 10 years of useful life left, according to research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Cummins’s effort to make use of retired batteries led him to win Shell’s UK and global LiveWIRE entrepreneur innovation programmes, receiving around $55,000 of funding. He was also listed on US magazine Forbes’ 2017 30 under 30 European Science Entrepreneurs list.
Shell Foundation, an independent charity that helps social enterprises, is now supporting Aceleron – in partnership with the UK government’s Department for International Development – as it expands in developing regions by connecting them with off-grid energy product providers.
Aceleron has already launched pilots in the Carribean and Africa. At a plant in Kenya, the company trains local technicians to rewire the batteries to plug into the power packs of solar company BBOXX for portable home energy storage. It is part of Aceleron’s philosophy to “build batteries where energy is needed”.
Cummins describes the thrill of “what energy storage enables”. “Seeing a battery take a village from darkness to light is transformational.”
Technology like this is an important piece of the global energy storage puzzle, says Jordan Broadbent, Business Manager at Shell Foundation. “Carlton and the team have come up with an innovative way of enabling off-grid communities in developing markets while also being an important force within the low-carbon economy in the developed world.”
Seeing a battery take a village from darkness to light is transformational
In Devon, in the southwest of the UK, Aceleron has trialled working with a farmer to solve the problem of his noisy petrol quad bike, which was disturbing cattle. Running the bike on battery power allowed the farmer to quietly monitor his animals without causing distress.
Aceleron is also trialling technology that helps lifeguards. Their recycled batteries plug into an innovative bodyboard designed by Asap Watercrafts, a UK company that makes electric motorised crafts. The kit enables lifeguards to power through surf, making beach rescue easier compared to jet skis, which can be slow to launch.
“The market tells you what it needs,” reflects Cummins on some of these pilot projects. “We’ve left the old model of ‘build it and they will come’.”
The road to Aceleron’s success was “riddled with challenge and struggle”, recalls Cummins, having entered dozens of student competitions and lost. But slowly, there was acceptance from judges. “The idea was actually to get feedback to understand what it is people desire. After we refined the model, there was a click and this kind of cascade of successes.”
Cummins says that successful entrepreneurs have to seek out opportunities, however difficult that may be. He likens the challenge to the role of Tom Hanks in the film Castaway. Marooned on a desert island, Hanks has to learn to adapt fast to survive. “Are you going to lie on the beach and die or look for coconuts?”