Category Archives: Cleantech

Recapping CleanTX Foundation’s Solar and EV Event

You might call it big data meets the grid. Panelists from Austin Energy, Meridian Solar, ERCOT, and Pecan Street Inc., came together recently at the CleanTX Forum to pitch the value of cleaner and connected communities. With Austin’s Mueller community as the centerpiece, the discussions focused on the impact of electric vehicles and rooftop solar.
This time, however, the discussion was more than just visionary. This session had real data — from real people.

“Photovoltaic (PV) and electric vehicles (EVs) together drive significant swings in the grid, and we really don’t know what that behavior looks like, we don’t have a laboratory,” opened ATI Co-Director Mitch Jacobsen. “But we do, it’s Mueller.”

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The Mueller community has grown from a novelty to a key hub for companies to better understand just how the smartgrid might unfold. Everything from dishwashers and electric cars are being monitored to track usage, something that’s invaluable to researchers and other groups trying to glean intelligence from the data.

“At Pecan Street the approach is to get to the data first, then look at the solution,” explained Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s director. By having one of the world’s largest concentrations of electric vehicles and more than 400 smart homes, the clean energy non-profit’s perspective is almost unique.

That’s helped Pecan Street bulk up quickly. Just last week, GM announced it would supply its OnStar technology and early access to 100 Chevy Volts in order to better understand the impact of EVs on driving habits and the grid.

 

ATI Director Isaac Barchas gave a brief overview of the electric vehicle (EV) market before shifting to solar’s growth. He dismissed the idea that cities might need loads of new infrastructure as early adopters plug in their clean cars.

“The conversation isn’t all that relevant about rationalizing EVs when all you need is a power cord,” he said.

That might be oversimplifying things a bit, but change can happen fast when you have that type of scale. Not everyone has a gas pump, but power outlets are there. The biggest hurdle, as Barchas mentioned, is the price of pure electrics. With most fully equipped models coming in at close to $40,000, they’re tough to justify for most people. The interesting thing is they could be worth more, especially when you figure in the cost of the battery.

“We don’t know what the aftermarket is for EVs, you’re driving around in a Fort Knox,” he said. But like solar, those costs are coming down too. Advancements in the cooling process and the move to more lightweight materials are two areas where engineering is getting a lift.

More Connections, More Data

 

Chris Holcomb, Pecan Street’s data scientist, says the group is working with UT researchers to identify areas where efficiency can be improved to ease the strain on the grid. He presented a behind-the-scenes look at how his team is building out its own internet of things, albeit one with a human element.

Holcomb’s team wants to be able to tell Mueller residents when to use all those smart devices. And as you’d imagine, Austin Energy and ERCOT have a vested interest in pushing more of that kind of intelligence into as many homes as possible.
Turning on the dryer and plugging in your EV at peak times, especially in Summer, is something that not only strains power loads, but isn’t sustainable. That’s the sort of scenario that Pecan Street wants to pound into the psyche of smart grid doubters everywhere. But not in a rolling blackout kind of way, something more grounded in the day-to-day.

 

“Our goal is to figure out what are the things people want to get done, basically, what can we learn from electricity data,” said McCracken.

One of the things they’re learning about is the domino effect of EV ownership in neighborhoods. Holcomb showed how transmission nodes become clustered around the density of a neighborhood, especially as a new EV plugs into the grid. They’re not yet to the point of predicting EV sales in certain zip codes, but not surprisingly, the data shows upticks in adoption when your neighbor plugs in her new Volt.

ERCOT’s Michael Leggat, senior human factors engineer, is also digging into the data. He mentioned an upcoming pilot project with a 3rd-party aggregator that will measure everything from driver behaviors to real-time grid conditions. With things like scheduling algorithms and GPS technology, he described the level of data integration we’re moving towards, as he held up a shiny Nexus 7.

“With Google Maps hooked into your EV app, you could have the capability to be intelligently routed to your next destination, all based on the capacity of your car’s battery,” said Leggat.

As impressive as that sounds, there’s plenty of work to be done commercializing key parts of the smart grid. Austin will load up on that as soon as this Fall, when the Pike Powers Lab opens in Mueller. By giving UT students and local research teams access to its data and infrastructure, the center aims to accelerate commercialization, research and education.

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Urban Transportation Is Ripe For Change. One Austin Company Is Already Making Waves.

Here’s A Good Look At How The U.S. Subsidizes Energy

Urban Transportation Is Ripe For Change. Here’s What Electric Cab Of Austin Is Doing.

You might call Chris Nielsen an artisan. His company, Electric Cab of Austin, actually makes things. And as good a tinkerer as he might be, his goal is to shake up Austin’s urban transportation market. That means everything from how you flag down a pedicab to the type of bus you’ll board in 2020.

“We have strong relationships with local businesses and local government decision-makers, which has helped us play an influential role in the definition and development of new ordinances related to sustainable transportation in multiple areas of public policy,” said Nielsen.

To get a sense of the opportunity, beyond rides back to your house from H.E.B., (though he’ll do that too) The World Economic Forum has a startling data point. We’ll need to build the same urban capacity (housing, infrastructure and facilities) in the next 40 years that we’ve built over the past 4,000 years to meet the demand of urbanization. That’s where Nielsen’s vision for electrification becomes more intriguing.

For starters, utilities and city leadership are being pressed on innovation and need solutions for improved infrastructure. Digitizing the electrical grid, improving traffic congestion and reducing pollution are necessities as cities and towns vie for the quality of life spotlight.

Nielsen says he’s approached Capital Metro with a turnkey package that includes his Low-Speed Vehicle (LSV) designs and drivers at a lower hourly rate.

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A number of transportation groups across the country have already pulled the trigger on similar projects. One example, covered in Scientific American, looked at scenarios in Washington State and California. Washington’s LINK system mentioned a big piece of the upside.

 

“It is no wonder LINK is still bullish on the endeavor: Pezoldt says a comparable diesel-powered trolley would cost about $435,000 and each electric trolley built by Downey, Calif.–based Ebus costs significantly less at $370,000. On top of that, diesel fuel for the same trolley on the same route runs about $1,200 per month, whereas the inexpensive and green hydropowered electricity used for the Ebus trolley comes in at approximately $100 per month—less than one tenth the cost.”

While Electric Cab’s Low Speed Electric Vehicles (LSVs) have been fully permitted since January 2012 for Austin’s Low Speed Vehicles for Hire Ordinance, there’s more to the model than just moving tourists from hotel lobbies to hot spot bars. They want to kill gas-fed routes that originate from all sorts of businesses and government entities. School campuses, prisons, retirement communities and a host of others come to mind.

But that’s the bigger picture. The nice thing for potential investors is the fact that Electric Cab already operates at full speed (OK, half speed until additional funding) with some key alliances in the works. The current model has two components. The first one targets short-range fares, which Nielsen says are often denied by cab drivers. The other segment is the pedicab market, which has its own challenges when it comes to longer routes and safety issues. The company generates revenue by leasing vehicles to drivers for a flat fee, selling on-vehicle display advertising, and by delivering customers to commercial businesses, much like a mobile concierge.

Nielsen wants the additional capital to expand his clean fleet to 25 LSVs. He says each LSV is roughly $9,500, and has an earning potential of $3,500 per month. And returns can be quick, with some units paying for themselves within the first 7 to 10 months under normal circumstances. Just as notable, the maintenance associated with LSV’s is usually very low, while their lifespans are lengthy. According to his figures, an LSV can net an investor more than $40,000 over a 4-year period.

 

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Strategic partners are key as well. The company is in talks with Pflugerville’s Community Cars, a company now run by Austin attorney Stacy Zoern after it merged with Hungary-based Kenguru Services KFT in early 2011. Zoern’s industry knowledge and the need for additional manufacturing and supply chain expertise has both companies eager to explore  joint opportunities.

A few other things might also play out in its favor. Austin Energy has significant grant funding to deploy an electric vehicle charging grid, which could expand rapidly as other regional developments take shape. Pecan Street’s visibility doesn’t hurt either. They’re also exploring a partnership with Formula One to help it utilize large passenger EVs for logistical support and passenger transportation. Apparently, there’s different seating configurations to allow fans to move around the track for the best views.

But perhaps most indicative of its broad appeal, the company is currently working with the  Texas Senior Mobility Project to provide alternate modes of transportation. Electric Cab says Capital Metro has decreased service to that demographic and says its newly available ADA compliant shuttle bus would be the perfect for senior citizens.

I may be a bit biased, but the more I learned about Electric Cab’s business, the more I was intrigued. Whatever the case, with fossil fuel subsidies losing favor, gas prices consistently rising, and more pressure on cities to reduce carbon emissions, what’s not to like about cleaner and more affordable transportation? And besides, we all know another website isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.

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Solar’s Tipping Point Is Already Here

This chart was timely coming out of yesterday’s Texas Renewable Energy Industry Association’s (TREIA] energy forum. The forum addressed a lot of the challenges around “resource adequacy” and the power grid. Solar played a big a part in the discussions for some obvious reasons, but one of the things that resonated with me was the fixed price element. Both panels agreed, that’s something more conventional power can’t compete with. Other thoughts centered on solar’s growing pains, with most shrugging their shoulders at the cost of panels and global competition. I pulled the chart below from this report from McKinsey.


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Austin’s Clean Energy Venture Summit Is Next Week. Here’s A Few Reasons To Get Excited.

When a reminder about the upcoming Clean Energy Summit hit my inbox, I jumped at the chance to make the case for why Austin should be excited about this event. And while I’d be the first to advocate the benefits of a clean energy community, this isn’t a rah-rah session. Let’s look at what’s happening in clean energy to see why this year’s gathering should accelerate Austin’s clean energy future.

The Economic Climate

Clearly this isn’t the best of times for the economy. Unemployment is unfortunately unwavering, wages are stagnant, and now there’s even a potential poster child for clean energy failure with Solyndra’s collapse.

Even so, Cascadia Capital showed cleantech investments totaled $1.42 billion over 113 deals during Q2 2011. While that’s down 10 percent from Q2 2010, one thing to note was the shift to the “capital-efficient energy sector,” displacing investments in biomaterials and biofuels.

Big Fish Getting Involved A Good Sign.

A good barometer for clean energy is to also look at what established companies are doing to get a seat at the negotiating table. Fortune 500 companies are often a cleantech company’s first customer. And if they’re not a paying client, they often provide needed infrastructure or partnerships in key markets.

As an example, GE is aggressively investing in energy startups, telling the Wall Street Journal its deal flow for 2011 is already at 20, easily eclipsing its 2007 figure of 11.

That’s also consistent with data provided by UMASS economics Professor Nancy Folbre, who points out private venture capital has quietly moved towards the clean sector, rising to 16 percent in 2010 from 2 percent in 1995.

The other footnote to GE’s activity, and one startups should pay attention to, is its approach to cultivating its clean energy portfolio. Besides obvious industry partnerships, it created the Ecomagination program, aimed at spurring ideas to help the environment. And while there’s a PR veneer to it, GE is no doubt getting a leg up on what’s happening in the trenches, an innovation-driven sneak-peek if you will.

 

Where Are The Opportunities? How Is Austin Positioned?

Austin’s tech lineage is strong, particularly in software and semiconductors. A good start would be bridging that expertise. If we look at comparisons to the rise of information technology in the United States, the picture is clearer.

BrookingsMark Muro at Brookings Institution sized up how things might play out for clean technologies, making just such comparisons.

“The aggregate green economy, which includes jobs in the public sector and waste management, is just under half the size of the IT producing industry, but measured by jobs, “cleantech” is similar in size today as the computer manufacturing industry (162,000) and roughly half the size of the semiconductor industry (370,000).”

Those numbers are compelling for a few reasons. One, it shows cleantech isn’t as far behind as some pundits would have us believe. Not to mention the computer industry isn’t exactly tearing it up these days. Can you say Tablets? Heck, the most exciting innovation I’ve seen lately is proof that our computers are doubling their energy efficiency every 18 months. I’d also bet those semiconductor numbers decrease as processors increasingly move to smaller, more mobile devices. Unfortunately for some that might correlate to less manufacturing and fewer jobs.

Mr.Muro capped of his post with another important observation.

“..many solar producers are classified in the IT-sector as semi-conductor manufactures; smart-grid technologies are also heavily IT-based. It’s therefore not unimaginable that, with a few strong years of growth and innovation, cleantech could be large enough to fuel considerable increases in aggregate economic growth.”

One of the takeaways here is the breadth and potential depth of clean ecosystem and markets. Famously, many Silicon Valley companies have ‘pivoted’ to capitalize on other markets. The point is, Austin’s clean energy companies have plenty of ways to innovate in a sector that’s tied to so many converging forces. Today’s motherboard producer might be tomorrow’s solar fabricator.

Cities, Infrastructure Provide Opportunities

Getting more hyperlocal, there’s other reasons to pay attention to clean economy activity, not the least of which is better paying jobs. Here’s a few charts I pulled from the Brookings’ clean economy report. The first one is self-explanatory. There’s growth in our own backyard.

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In the second image, you’ll notice that Austin ranks 36th when you compare the largest 100 metropolitan areas. But look at the growth. The growth metric moved Austin up a number of notches and also shows clean jobs grew more than 5% each year. Not too shabby.

And before you scoff at the annual wages, we’re looking at you Mrs. software engineer, it’s important to keep it in perspective. Wages are higher compared to all other Austin jobs Brookings analyzed.

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One other notable piece in the Brookings report was the huge emphasis on energy efficiency. It was the largest category analyzed by Brookings, capturing 13 out of the 39 distinct segments. That’s called bulletin board material if you’re keeping score. (Sorry for the sports cliche, but it is football season)

It shouldn’t be that surprising. Old buildings, old schools, all of them could use some sort of energy upgrade. Couple that with new commercial and residential activity and it’s no wonder ABI Research projects cities will spend $39.5 billion by 2016 to become smarter. The other data point I like to point out is research from the University of Massachusetts that estimated roughly 15 jobs are created for every $1 million invested in energy efficiency.

City Mayors Get Behind Clean Energy And Efficiency

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Another positive sign for CEVS is having the eyes and ears of local government. That was echoed in the form a recent letter to Washington from U.S. Mayors, entitled a “Common-Sense Jobs Agenda.” Local officials analyzed parts of Obama’s Jobs Act, emphasizing how the clean economy can spur job growth and stoke the economic fires.

The group (Mayors) has been vocal recently, penning an earlier report (June 2011) from its national conference, in which 86 percent of the 396 cities surveyed saw building retrofits and clean energy conversion as economic priorities.

So whether you’re a startup, an investor or you just want to see Austin continue to evolve, there’s plenty of reasons to get behind clean energy. Get out and support these companies, your grandkids will thank you.

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Who’s The Mayor Of Cleantech?

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Image by George Dearing via Flickr

With dwindling resources and tight budgets, local governments might not be the first place to look if you’re a startup pitching clean technology. The data tells a different story, however.

An April survey of almost 400 mayors in all 50 states, showed 75% of cities plan to increase cleantech deployments over the next five years.

Some of the key findings paint a vivid picture of what’s motivating the heads of city. 

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U.S. Conference of Mayors.  (PRNewsFoto/U.S. Conference of Mayors)
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For starters, energy efficiency, while it may lack green glamour, is an immediate win. Cities are realizing that efficiency retrofits using better automation tools and dashboards are sending savings right to the bottom line. In other words, smarter buildings are becoming the norm for smarter companies.

• LED and other efficient lighting (76%), low-energy building technologies(68%), and solar systems to generate electricity (46%) are the top three choices among mayors as the most promising technologies for reducing energy use and carbon emissions.

On Wednesday, the Cleantech Group released its investment numbers for Q1 showing energy efficiency was the growth highlight, even as overall investments dipped more than 30% for the period.

“Our global VC numbers point to continued strength in energy efficiency, which tops the charts in both amount invested and deal count,” said CEO Sheeraz Haji, in a prepared statement.

Another key finding in the mayors’ report was related to climate change, showing one in three cities have already configured its effects into capital planning and capital improvement programs.

That should signal a strong opportunity for startups offering cleantech and renewable solutions. Corporations will be bulking up to serve local governments as they look for technology support and infrastructure upgrades. Young companies offering sustainability software, smart grid tools and of course IT-driven solutions are poised to capture significant business. To achieve that, startups need to dig deep to understand what’s really driving local governments to adopt a resilience strategy. Ironically, it seems, cities might ultimately lead much of the activity taking place around ‘adaptation.’

Maria Gallucci at SolveClimate News had a recent piece referencing a June report called Caring for Climate, [PDF] that echoed the point.

“While 86 percent of the companies surveyed said that investing in adaptation solutions is a viable business opportunity, less than one-third are taking action to build climate resilience in the communities where they operate.”

The Central Texas Connection

ATC_CEO_Summit At the ATC’s CEO Summit in May, Austin  Mayor Lee Leffingwell mentioned a number of things that puts Austin in the center of many of the reported trends. During his presentation, he mentioned Life Sciences and clean energy as two of the biggest areas of job growth in Austin.

The mayor stressed better transportation and resource management, emphasizing sustainable energy approaches and better water management.  In a matter-of-fact manner, Leffingwell  told more than a hundred CEOs, “those are things you have to plan for 50 years down the road.” 

Stratfor’s CEO and author George Friedman, who also spoke at the conference, said attracting R&D centers for industries like biotech and life sciences would be critical for cities like Austin.

“Don’t become silicon hills — attract industries like biotech — it’s important to know who your target is,” he said.

A neighboring Austin community is showing how that’s done.
The Pflugerville Community Development Corp. has a deal in place with local electric vehicle (EV) company Community Cars Inc. If the EV company meets certain commitments for establishing its local presence, more than $100,ooo in funds will be available to the Austin company founded last year by Austin attorney Stacy Zoern.

These types of initiatives show what can be achieved when local officials have a proactive approach towards cleantech. They’re already trying to lure startups to city centers, so why not go the extra mile to ensure it’s a sustainable choice for long-term growth? That’s a win for everyone.

Mayors Report – Clean Energy For US Cities

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Pike Research Shows The Relationship Between “Tech Geeks” & “Cleantech Nerds”

Pike Research surfaced some interesting data after compiling information from some its surveys. The aggregate showed there’s a strong connection between tech early adopters and cleantech users, which isn’t too surprising as even cleantech is starting to see shades of ‘consumerized IT’. I’d guess that’s why the smart grid and smart meter percentages are fairly close.
 
 
 

 

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