Energy Sharks

Despite the doom-and-gloom tone that accompanies most discussions of climate change and the need to shift to renewable energy, there are many, sometimes hidden, glimmers of hope.  Almost every day sees the new work on fascinating concepts, approaches, and technologies that could change the world for the better.  Many of these ideas are truly Energy COOL.  Not surprisingly, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) annual Energy Innovation Summit is a target rich environment for finding truly amazing Energy COOL technologies and possibilities.

For a number of years, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the Summit has been a‘Shark Tank’ session, where a number of emergent energy tech firms give three minute pitches to four venture capitalists who then ask questions and give recommendations.  This year, seven companies were selected out of a pool of 150 applicants representing a range of technologies and energy challenges.  Those firms were:

In keeping with the format of the event, the following provides a brief (uncritical) description of the firm/project and then reactions from the VC panelists (Colleen Calhoun, GE Ventures; Cody Nystrom, SJF Ventures; William Rensink, Shell International; Zack Schildhorn, Lux Capitol).

Accio Energy is developing an offshore wind technology with a very different approach from any in the industry today. As they describe it:

Accio Energy’s Aerovoltaic system generates electricity using wind and charged water mist. The wind separates positive and negative charges as it moves the charged water mist. The separation of charges creates high-voltage, direct current electricity. The generator itself has no moving parts and consists of wind-permeable flat panels composed primarily of mass-produced tubes.

The claim is that for less than half the capital cost of traditional systems users will see as much as a 40 percent increase in capacity.  Combined, in theory, a halving of the cost of offshore wind electricity.

The panel expressed some serious doubt — allowing, as per all the conversations, a “given” that this technology works but challenging the business potential.  In essence, “the top challenge for offshore wind is financing, to secure it and to do so at an affordable price. To do that, you need to have a track record of reliability … and it is hard to get the reliability track record that enables financing.”  The top recommendation: perhaps seek to go off-grid, “look for the smallest-scale opportunity so that you can get electricity production underway and start developing the reliability data that the big projects will require.”

AmberWave is developing a flexible solar panel, applied on steel, that can be worked to — for example — provide quality, cost-effective BiPV (building integrated photovoltaiics — enabling replacement of asphalt shingles with energy producing PV).

Again, the panelists were blunt in their comments.  The basic question, “how do you not die, this is a field with a graveyard [full] of companies?”  As for recommendations, a strong suggestion to “put it on your rooftop and blog about it, show that it is working in the real world.  … Get some installers involved to brag about the savings through easier and higher quality installations.”  Schildhorn, however, had a recommendation that no solar enthusiast in the audience could feel thrilled to hear:

If I were you, I would do a gut check tomorrow morning. I am a big believer in the long-term value and importance of PV but am a realist about the success/death rate of PV companies. Look in the mirror and decide whether you want to work incredibly hard for years to come in a field littered with failed firms. It will be a tough road ahead.

Axiom Exergy is targeting a major arbitrage opportunity between low-cost off-peak and high-cost peak electricity.  They are focused on the refrigeration in supermarkets, using that cheap off-peak power to chill tanks that are then drawn upon to cover cooling during the day when prices are higher. Refrigeration is a major portion of a supermarket’s energy demand and this arbitrage strategy would significantly lower the cost of refrigeration.

In an industry operating on very thin profit margins, the Axiom “Refrigeration Battery(tm)” offers a serious profit opportunity. As Axiom puts it,

$20,000 in utility savings has the same impact on a store’s profits as $1.2 million in additional sales revenue.

To make their pitch far more interesting in the market space, Axiom is pursuing a ‘no money down financing’ path so that a store would see savings from day one.  Axiom’s payback will come sharing those utility savings with the store.  As to ROI from the investment, Axiom sees a 2-4 year payment in their 11 target states (dependent, likely, on price differences from peak and off-peak power along with reducing demand charges).

The VC comments questioned about how easy this would be to integrate into systems. The key recommendation was “to strive to get ROI below 2 years.  That is what commercial market is [wed] to for easier and quicker decision making.”

EnZinc is tackling one of the greatest challenges and opportunities in the energy space: quality, light-weight, inexpensive, reliable, rechargeable, and portable energy storage.  Their ’sponge’-like approach to zinc-based battery storage could, they suggest, reduce the cost of electric vehicles batteries by more than half. And, as per ARPA-E targeting, that would be a ‘game changer’ in terms of EV affordability and penetration.

Indoor Reality derives from a Berkeley program funded by ARPA-E and is developing a wearable backpack for doing automated energy audits. As a tag line, “Faster, Cheaper, Automated Building Energy Audits”.  Very roughly, this offers the potential for reducing energy audit costs and timelines by an order of magnitude.

The questions and comments focused, in part, on the cost of the backpack unit: projected to be $40,000.  And, the comment, in part:  “drive down these costs and focus on the information technology rather than components which will be[come] a commodity item.”

SLIPS Technologies has a pretty simple mantra: “We solve sticky problems.”  Their product creates a layer so slippery that even a gecko can’t hold on.  Think chemical trucks — all the chemicals come out and the steam required for cleaning is either greatly reduced or eliminated. Much reduced waste (e.g., nothing left in the tank without contaminated waste water) and reduced energy demands (don’t have to generate the steam).  Huge range of potential market spaces — from those chemical tanks to marine fouling on ships.

Honestly, the recommendations here were insightful and intriguing.  ”Go fishing … find the customer with deep pockets and serious problems to solve.” Associated with that was the idea of creating a web series along the lines of Blendtec’s Will it Blend? entitled “Will it Stick?” to create excitement and generate awareness … ‘let your market come to you’.

Will all these companies succeed?  It’s highly unlikely.  But each of them has an exciting new idea that, if it does work, could make a big difference in the renewable energy and environmental space.  Even if they fail it is likely that at least some of their technology will migrate into products that do eventually see the light of day.  Ultimately, it is reassuring to see smart, creative people working to solve some of these problems.  And as the success of the VC commenters illustrates, it is possible to solve major social problems and make money doing it.  So let these companies be an example to anyone out there working on their own new ideas or anyone who has an idea but hasn’t yet taken the leap to turn it into a company.  Maybe you’ll be at ARPA-E next year!

Editor’s Note: A version of this piece first appeared here

Image Credit: Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

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