The young pretenders
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Trevor Clawson reports on some of the UK-backed businesses on a mission to help clean up the world
A coach pulls up outside the Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco and a group of UK-based scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs disembark. Over the next few hours these representatives from 15 companies will pitch their technologies to an audience of venture capitalists, strategic investors and potential partners. But this event is more than a routine trawl for funding. All of the companies have been selected through a competitive process to take part in a “Clean and Cool” trade mission organised by the technology development agency Innovate UK and its partner, The Long Run Venture.
There is, perhaps, an element of taking coals to Newcastle. California has assumed a leadership role in terms of US efforts to cut emissions and use natural resources more efficiently. And, with a severe water shortage focusing minds on the issue of climate change, the state and its cities have already imposed an extensive raft of environmental regulations, with more planned. In effect, local legislators have created a market and testbed for “cleantech” businesses, and San Francisco is the epicentre of activity.
A land of opportunity?
So, the UK’s cleantech hopefuls were stepping into a land of opportunity, but with a caveat. The San Francisco bay area captured 43% of US investment in clean technologies – some $4.3 billion – in 2012, but potential backers are wary after major losses on solar power in the 2000s. These days, any company hoping to make an impact must demonstrate not only innovative science but also a viable route to market.
And that is undoubtedly a big challenge for start-up businesses. Technologies that look promising in a university or science park laboratory may require millions of pounds to complete the journey to fully engineered solution; even then there is no guarantee of a market. It is a high-risk business and companies often founder in the so-called valley of death that lies between the development, prototype stage and commercialisation.
So what does the road from prototype to market look like? Six companies taking part in Clean and Cool told the environmentalist about their technologies, how they were developed and their plans for commercial realisation. Some are offering cutting-edge science that promises to reduce overall carbon levels or to revolutionise agriculture, while others are innovating by cleverly applying existing technologies to a problem. The range of firms involved in the Cool and Clean mission demonstrates that the best solutions do not always consist of cutting-edge technology, but often it is about adapting what already works and aligning it with a business plan that addresses needs.
Not all cleantech solutions require years of research and development. Existing technologies can often be applied to a specific but pressing problem. In the case of Demand Logic, the problem is the energy wasted each day by large commercial and public buildings. The company’s approach has been to collect and analyse information from building management systems (BMS) – boilers, coolers, meters, batteries, lighting, pumps and ventilation units, for example – and identify inefficiencies and waste, allowing building managers to take action.
According to Sonny Massero, who leads on strategy and business development at Demand Logic, the system can deliver significant savings: “We’ve done a pilot at King’s College London where we identified savings of £390,000 a year.” The pilot was carried out over three campuses and tracked data from 554 major plant items, including boilers, pumps and air handling units. Overall 100,000 data points were tracked, including individual lighting units. After an analysis, the college identified annual carbon savings of 2,500 tonnes.
Massero believes the market for Demand Logic is potentially huge. “In the City of London alone we estimate that there is energy waste amounting to £50 million a year,” he says.
Having carried out the King’s College pilot in 2013, Demand Logic has been quick to come to market and its clients include another university, Goldsmiths, as well as GE Capital Real Estate and Land Securities. The company also secured a customer directly as a result of its participation in the Cool and Clean mission.
The company’s ability to roll out a commercial service quickly reflects the relative simplicity of the offering from the customer side. Demand Logic provides hardware to collect data from the BMS, which is relayed to the company’s own analytics software. It crunches the numbers from the devices, with excessive demand (and frequency) flagged device by device. Arguably, it is a system that could be replicated by other big data companies, but Massero contends there is nothing else as comprehensive on the market.
Cumulus Energy Storage
Renewable energy remains a key theme in the cleantech sector but the emphasis is shifting from energy generation products to management systems that will allow grid operators to cope with intermittent supply – particularly from wind and solar – and peaks and troughs in demand. Batteries provide a means to store energy generated by intermittent and other sources and release it when required, smoothing out the disparities between supply and consumption.
According to Lux Research, the power storage industry will be worth $117 billion worldwide by 2017, so there is a huge amount of battery-related activity. The sticking point is often cost. How do you provide enough storage at a price that is affordable for grid operators? Nick Kitchin and Darron Brackenbury, founders of Cumulus Energy, believe they can resolve this by using copper-zinc batteries, which they say are significantly more cost-effective than other technologies. Reliability is also a plus.
Although based in the UK, Cumulus is carrying out its research and development in Oakland, just over the bay from San Francisco, and is developing units ranging from 1MWh to 100MWh. Once the prototype has been completed, the company plans to start manufacturing, beginning with a 1MWh per month capacity in the UK.
For transport companies, battery technology has the potential to solve one problem in particular: how to economically power in-vehicle refrigeration units or indeed any consuming unit that normally relies on electricity generated by the motor.
Founded in 2012 by Andrew Ling, Perpetualv2G provides a system based on lithium-ion batteries. Power is harvested from vehicle alternators and stored in the batteries, which have a range of outputs. Rather than reinventing battery technology, the key is software that monitors available output from the alternator and allows the storage unit to take capacity without affecting consumption. The system enables, say, a delivery van company to run its refrigeration units when the vehicle engines are turned off, saving up to 40% in fuel costs, according to Perpetualv2G.
“We make it possible for vehicle owners to enable start-stop technology,” says Ling. “So they can keep onboard systems running when the engine is switched off.” In addition, Perpetualv2G’s batteries have inputs to take power from alternative sources, such as solar energy.
Perpetualv2G has installed its system on 100 Sainsbury’s “click and collect” delivery vehicles, so they can run cooling systems when parked outside London tube stations for long periods – in a new service customers can order online and pick up their groceries at underground stations. So far, these vehicles have saved 840 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Carbon Clean Solutions
Carbon capture is seen as a key tool in cutting emissions, but it has proved difficult to roll out on the scale required at an affordable cost. Enter Carbon Clean Solutions (CCS), a company with its roots in India but with a British base. Contemporary carbon capture solutions have involved high capital spending at the outset followed by the ongoing cost of expensive solvents that degenerate over time, says CCS.
Its proprietary CDR Max solvent, however, achieves a 99% carbon capture rate with running costs up to 30% lower than other solvent-based systems, claims the company. It achieves these efficiencies due to the low temperatures required for “dissociation” and a lower rate of solvent degradation, so the material lasts longer. In addition, the solvent is less corrosive, reducing the cost of plant.
The CCS system has already been tested in India at a plant owned by chemical company Solvay and achieved a saving of $23 per tonne of carbon captured when compared with the technology previously used there. CCS claims the system can easily be scaled up by 20 or 30 times to work in larger plants.
One school of thought is that measures to simply freeze or cut emissions will not be enough to avert a climate change catastrophe. Too much damage has already been done. That is the view of Tim Kruger and his company Chess. His is a vision of “carbon negative power” in which the process of generating electricity removes carbon from the atmosphere.
Working at Oxford University, Kruger has tested a system in which limestone is used as part of a process to capture carbon from natural gas. Rather than limiting how much carbon is released, the limestone absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, reducing overall pollution levels. “Thus fossil fuel becomes part of the solution,” says Kruger. The technology is at an early stage and, before scaling up, Kruger plans to build a 200kw prototype next year. Acknowledging that this is a long-term project, Kruger nonetheless believes that proving the science at the prototype stage will focus the minds of regulators. “Once you’ve proved that it is possible to clean it up carbon pollution, you can make companies responsible for doing just that,” he says.
Bio-technology company Azotic is focused on reducing nitrogen levels in the environment, and at the same time provide farmers with a more cost-efficient way to ensure a healthy yield. Nitrogen-based fertilisers are essential to maintaining crop yields but, according to the European commission, the pollution damage they cause – including contributions to climate change and biodiversity loss – costs between €50 billion and €280 billion a year in the EU. There are means to mitigate the impact of nitrogen, such as using sensors to detect areas that require fertiliser and then deploying computerised dispensers to apply the quantities needed. The downside is the high cost.
Azotic’s solution is to coat seeds with a sugar solution. When the plants grow, they fix nitrogen from the air. “Our trials indicate that by using the solution we can reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser required by 50%. That would not only mean less pollution but lower costs for farmers,” says Peter Blezard, Azotic’s chief executive.
He is aiming for a 2% share of a £110 billion nitrogen fertiliser market and, with trials nearly complete, the technology is close to market launch. “It’s the best revolution in agriculture for 100 years,” Blezard claims. In many respects, the technology is an advance on techniques already used in legumes farming, but Azotic’s formula will work on a much wider range of crops.
Trevor Clawson is a business writer.
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