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Cleantech in Silicon Valley: Not Just Renewables

Panelists James Hilty of New Zealand's Contact Energy , Peter Mihovec of Prague's InvenCapital, and Danya Liu of BloombergNEF.

One of the exciting parts of my job is mentoring young start-ups in the cleantech space, both in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The activity has allowed me to keep my finger on the pulse of technology and application development in energy, storage and sustainability-related fields.

One of the accelerators I’ve been working with is the Plug and Play Technology Center, a dynamic international institution that accepts early stage or established start-ups in variety of market sectors including energy (“dynamic” is an understatement — I have not been there without seeing large contingents of business people touring the place). Last week I headed down to their  Fall Energy Summit, an afternoon where industry experts discuss trends and issues, and “graduating” companies pitch investors, including investment arms of large energy companies and partners.

This class was full of innovation, and of course reflective of multiple unmet needs in the cleantech and energy sectors.

Carbon capture from the air is increasingly a goal if we are to come anywhere near our temperature reduction goals. Opus12 opened and wowed the crowd with a short pitch: technology that uses only (renewable) electricity and water to profitably capture CO2 for the large scale manufacture of carbon negative plastic, methane, carbon-neutral jet fuel, and a dozen more products. The company recently secured $22M in funding and is working with Shell in scaling up its production.

Mobile charging is another area where despite increasing purchases of EVs and plug-in hybrids, infrastructure still lags. Apartment complexes, corporate campuses, public events and fleet parking lots all require flexible or fixed charging options. Fixed charging is expensive. Freewire Technologies provides versatile and mobile charging stations with dual hookups that can be easily rolled out as needed for onsite charging of EVs, wherever needed. These would be ideal solutions for campuses in transition to fixed chargers or who simply want to provide more charging capacity.

Air quality is key to ensuring we have a safe environment both inside structures and in the open air. This is particularly true when it comes to industrial facilities or residential areas where harmful gases can be released or where leaks can affect the bottom line. Full Moon Sensors presented a pitch detailing its high performance gas sensors that enable instant detection and quantification with accuracy equivalent to near infrared spectroscopy. Their sensors are based on voltammetrics, which can be achieved using low cost materials. The company has already partnered with PG&E and is looking for seed investment.

With advances in AI, climate change risk prediction is a relatively new area. Jupiter Intelligence delivers a risk-focused solution with accurate, actionable information. The company’s global models predict asset-level impact from flood, fire, heat, drought, cold, wind, and hail events at less-than-one-meter resolution — from 1 hour from the present to over 50 years in the future. Predictions enable customers such as utilities to invest in resiliencies and maintenance for such situations as extreme heat at substations, or sea-level rise effects on gas infrastructure. The company is already working with the Hawaiian electric company where island climate change effects are a strong concern.

Predictive analytics for optimized energy production enables operators to reduce costs of renewable power. Ensemble Energy has a predictive analytics platform that combines the latest in data science and advanced analytics with physics-based methods to accurately and quickly identify under-performing assets, predict failures, and in some cases prevent failure from occurring. Its customers benefit from increased energy production, reduced O&M costs, and increased operational efficiencies. Ensemble has a track record in wind turbine operation with documented cases of predicting and preventing pitch bearing failure and generator failure, as well as performance anomaly detection and correction. The company has already engaged with EDF Renewable Energy, Sempra Energy, NovatusEnergy, and Terraform Power.

Of course, the largest cleantech market resides within the oil and gas industry itself, with lots of room for both incrementally greening fossil fuel processing technology, while building in as much renewable energy as possible. Speaker Wouter Van Hempen, CEO of  DCP Midstream, a Plug and Play corporate partner and major energy producer, made it clear that the oil and gas industries offer a major opportunity for technology adoption. He stressed that while as a publicly traded company they live quarter to quarter, they are investing large amounts in technology, including a plan to consolidate all plant control — including analysis of 3 billion data points every day — out of its high rise in Denver, as part of the firm’s primary goals of reliability and safety. He also discussed the urgent need for methane detection and how to better monitor 60,000 miles of pipeline.

He has incentivized employees is 4 key areas, including remote monitoring and scale efficiencies; commercial transformation, including facilitating interaction with customers; financial transformation; and empowering the workforce to enable more actual “tool time,” including getting to a point where 80 percent of employees can help with any problem.

When asked about challenges facing DCP and the industry, he ventured that he has fewer challenges but more of a journey that the company must undertake, including the need to understand operations and for management to get out of the ivory tower and to the areas where innovation is occurring. To get a better picture of operations the company recently spent $25M on IT, and broke even on the investment in the first year.








About Tom Breunig (203 Articles)
Tom Breunig is principal at Cleantech Concepts, a market research firm tracking R&D projects in the cleantech sector. He is a technology industry veteran and former international marketing and communications executive who has worked with organizations in semiconductor design, water monitoring, energy efficiency and environmental sensing. He has spoken at numerous technology and energy conferences.
Contact: Twitter

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