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Can These Three Smart-Grid Startups Ease Solar’s Integration?

Can These Three Smart-Grid Startups Ease Solar’s Integration?

Originally posted March 31, 2014 on Solar Power World

When you think of smart-grid developments, your thoughts turn immediately to solar integration or metering debates. But you should be including smart water heaters and 3D imaging in the discussions.

Three promising Midwest startups may do just that. A few exciting companies from Illinois are affecting the boom in smart grid innovations — and the disruptors behind them.

Whether they’re part of the portfolio at Energy Foundry, a private impact venture capital fund or the Smart Grid Cluster accelerator platform, these diverse technologies stand to put the Midwest on the map this year.

You may never think of water heaters the same way again, thanks to Intellihot Green Technologies. Yes, they also have a part to play in developing the smart grid. Intellihot designs intelligent, tankless water heaters that are built to reduce energy and water use across industrial, commercial and residential applications.

Founded in 2005, the idea for Intellihot was born from necessity after the founder’s own water heater malfunctioned and flooded his basement.

Reasons to watch?
For starters, Intellihot has exceptional leadership, like co-founder Sridhar Deivasigamani. They’re also an Energy Foundry portfolio company and part of the Smart Grid Cluster accelerator.

Among these American-made products are the i Series and iQ Series systems for commercial buildings. Self-cleaning and more compact, they operate 40% more efficiently than traditional water heaters. Who knows what will happen when you add solar energy to that mix?

Whether it’s the home-use or industrial options, keep an eye on this smart take on hot water — there’s more in the tank for 2014.

Building operations and energy markets may have been two ships passing in the night, but the team at QCoefficient aims to change that. The secret is QCo’s software-as-a-service (SaaS) system, which automates, optimizes and scales energy systems to take advantage of building’s thermal mass and improve efficiency.

Or, as QCo describes it, they essentially turn buildings into batteries capable of energy storage on a multi-MW scale.

Take a look at how QCo’s HVAC optimization software evaluates temperature-settings and helps shift consumption to take advantage of lower early-morning temperatures and electrical prices.

Utilities and grid operators stand to gain, too. QCo’s software can help drive 15 to 30% electricity savings and megawatt storage capacity, while introducing elasticity to grid markets — one of the main objections of utilities to adding solar to the grid.

Reasons to watch?
Another member of the Smart Grid Cluster accelerator, QCo connects HVAC operations in individual and larger portfolios of buildings.

Installed in less than two weeks and easy to integrate with existing automation systems, this is one SaaS company that you’ll want to hear more from in 2014.

Grid operators and municipalities crave data, and CityScan unites it all with street-level insights and 3D mapping to make cities (and grids) smarter.

CityScan uses Mobile Terrestrial LiDAR (MTL) to collect street-level data (such as a downed power line) and produce precise 3D renderings of locations to help enhance city safety, improve response times and even help roll out smart grid developments.

From street sign compliance and permitting to grid inventory and preventative maintenance on power lines, this urban data mine seems golden. And think of what this could mean to solar. If you could integrate their solution with solar plant monitoring systems, what couldn’t solar do for the grid?

Reasons to Watch?
A member of 1871 and the Smart Grid Cluster, the software startup’s already a leader in its field, with some of the most advanced 3D visual data collection out there. Couple that with its stable of talented data scientists, and you’ll start to connect the dots on this data-driven startup.

By Gretchen Fitzgibbons, guest writer on Solar Power World

How Nest Labs, Uber & View Cleaned Up in 2013

How Nest Labs, Uber & View Cleaned Up in 2013

And what it means for cleantech investing prospects in 2014.

You could say cleantech startups started 2014 off with a bang – a big one – as Google shelled out $3.2 billion in cash for home automation company, Nest Labs. This deal isn’t just big news for Nest, it’s big news for home efficiency and green app companies who see it as the start of more promising investment in the New Year.

To see what lies ahead in 2014, we looked back at three cleantech companies who won big in 2013.

Nest Labs: Former Apple Innovator, Tony Fadel serves as CEO of the home automation company, known mainly for their eco-smart thermostats and smoke alarms. Nest’s programmable thermostats use auto-scheduling technology to learn users’ daily habits to modulate heating and cooling, while maximizing energy efficiency. The company secured over $80 million in investments in 2013 before striking startup gold with their recent acquisition by the guys at Google.

View: The Silicon Valley startup manufactures “smart windows,” capable of absorbing varying amounts of light to provide energy efficient thermal management. In early January 2014, View raised $100 million from private equity firm, Madrone Capital Partners (associated with the Walton family), in order to boost production of its patented View Dynamic Glass technology. What piqued investors’ interests? The new technology senses incoming light to automatically transition between four different tints, which reduce heat and glare. Over the past year, View has installed its smart windows into roughly 50 locations across North America including colleges, hospitals, and hotels.

Uber: The car-sharing mobile app, which allows users to hail rides from nearby drivers, secured $258 million in investments in 2013. The San Francisco startup has sparked controversy from legislators and taxi-drivers regarding its low-fares. However, last September the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved ridesharing services, marking a milestone in Uber’s development.

With the recent influx of green innovations (and new funding), 2014 is shaping up to be a breakthrough year for cleantech.

Produced by Remi Dalton

Electric Vehicles Unplugged?


Where these next-generation electric cars are going, we don’t need plugs.

In late 2013, Yelloblu reported on the state of the electric vehicle (EV) market, highlighting how improved access to EV charging stations could make eco-friendly cars more appealing to consumers.

Frustrated by the continued lack of convenient charging stations, some automakers are looking to remove the need to plug in altogether and see more sustainable energy sources as the key to EV proliferation.

This past week at CES 2014, for example, Ford unveiled its newest electric concept car, which boasts a series of solar roof panels built into the C-MAX plug-in hybrid.

Solar and EVs might seem like an obvious match, but even after spending an entire day in the sun, the power generated is negligible. Toyota’s solar-paneled Prius, for instance, can only harness enough solar energy to run its ventilation fan.

To help resolve low output, Ford’s latest prototype pairs their solar car with a specially designed car canopy comprised of an acrylic roof called a “Fresnel lens.” Similar to a magnifying glass, the Fresnel lens concentrates the sun’s rays during peak hours and transfers them directly onto the vehicle’s solar panels, boosting the impact by a factor of eight.

Additionally, as the sun moves across the sky, Ford’s prototype is able to independently move back and forth under the canopy – ensuring it’s maximizing energy as the sun passes overhead.

After 6 hours of magnified charging, the Ford hybrid is said to be capable of traveling up to 21 miles, a range that covers the average trek for over half of the country's commuters.

While relying on a specially designed solar canopy isn’t exactly cost effective, it’s a step in the right direction and a promising development for the electric car market. And as the price of solar panels continues to fall, we're getting much closer to spending less plug-in time and more travel time away from the grid – at least, until sunset.

Produced by: Patrick French

Battlefield Roof

Rooftop Solar

How the fight between residential solar and utilities is shaping the future of household energy.

On rooftops across the U.S., a battle for the future of household energy is raging. On one side stands residential solar. On the other: American utility companies.

According to industry data, the pace of residential photovoltaic installations is booming, with one new solar unit installed every four minutes by the end of 2013.

But as more households take advantage of the falling cost of rooftop solar, utilities struggle to make up for lost revenue and stem customer attrition. Many utilities fear that as solar transitions from a niche to mainstream energy source, they’ll lose the revenue they need to maintain the far and distant reach of the power grid.

A Stormy Situation

Despite its inherent eco-friendly advantages, solar alone can’t sustain the future of residential energy. Even if every American household installed solar panels, the intermittent energy source still leaves considerable gaps in electricity demand. Though recent innovations have dramatically improved solar cell efficiency, advanced storage technologies lag behind. When the sun goes down, most customers still rely on utilities for a steady stream of power.

Utility companies are left trying to figure out how to make up for the revenue shortfall, and they’re coming to different conclusions.

When only a portion of energy customers utilize solar, a utility company’s costs are absorbed by the rest of the population — which carries the risk of disproportionately hitting lower-income households that cannot afford solar startup costs.

Some utilities are responding defensively, charging premium prices to those who install solar panels on their homes. Others are going straight for the solar companies themselves, fighting for regulations that would curb solar subsidies. Both of these approaches heighten customer resentment toward utilities, exacerbating tense relationships between residential customers and energy providers.

Better Collaboration Is Needed

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the future of household is energy is going to depend on solar and utility companies overcoming the current struggle and working together. And many utilities are already realizing this.

Some utilities are choosing to invest in residential solar companies, offering customers more control over the energy that powers their homes. Edison International, for example, recently acquired SoCore Energy, allowing the major utility to install solar panels for the customers who request them. Other utilities are buying excess solar energy from residential PV and selling it back to other consumers at a discounted rate.

However solar and utilities choose to work together, one thing is clear: energy collaboration will reign supreme. And pioneering solar and utility companies that choose to work together, instead of in opposition, will be able to take advantage of the shift toward alterative energy.

Produced by: Patrick French

Are You Green Enough?

City of Chicago Challenge

Inside The City of Chicago’s Green Office Challenge

Chicago’s competitive spirit may be taking a hammering around the nation’s baseball diamonds but it’s being re-energized by the City of Chicago’s Green Office Challenge. Literally.

About the Green Office Challenge
The City of Chicago co-created the Challenge in 2008 with ICLEI USA. Together, they wanted to create a collegial and inclusive way to reduce energy consumption in the Loop. The Challenge has since branched out into River North and, with support from companies such as Office Depot and Delta Institute, it’s now open to all Chicagoland businesses.

After just three years, the Challenge was already making a big impact:
• Over 263 offices and 98 buildings participated in 2011
• Spending $17,503,891 less on energy
• Saving 124 million kilowatt-hours (equivalent to ~45K homes)
• Reducing more than 85,000 metric tons of carbon emissions

How the Challenge works
The voluntary program is free to Chicagoland companies and runs from February through October, though new companies can jump in at any point. Participating businesses win points along the way for curbing consumption of materials, water and energy.

Aside from this core focus, businesses are also encouraged to take part in various subcategories, such as innovation, transportation, education and community outreach. Winners at the end of each round receive an award from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and traditionally get good media coverage.

What’s new this year?
The Challenge aims to broaden the base of participants in 2013. As Alex Moree, from the Delta Institute explained in a recent UR Chicago Magazine interview, they want to see Chicagoans “learning more about how they can save energy and why that matters.”

A new, user-friendly website makes it quicker and easier for offices to register and for browsers to see who’s participating. There’s also a “Knowledge Base,” providing tips on green office practices and listing relevant events. You can follow the Challenge on Twitter via @ChiGreenOffice or on Facebook.

Sustainable city
It’s a big year for Sustainable Chicago. Besides co-running the biggest ever Green Office Challenge, they’re also marking the first anniversary of their 2015 action agenda. The agenda maps out City Hall’s plan for a more sustainable Chicago and we’ll be providing updates as the City tracks progress against key milestones.

Posted by: Alex Yester

Sustainable data storage? The answer is within.

Sustainable data storage? The answer is within.Primary tabs

In 2011, we hit almost two trillion gigabytes of digital data and some say we’ll double that again next year.

Keeping all that information requires 500,000 data storage centers, chewing through 30 billion watts of electricity a year. It’s little wonder, then, that the information and communications industries produce as much CO2 as aviation. At about $300,000 per month, big storage centers are also expensive to run.

More efficient options would make a lot of environmental sense and business dollars. Enter George Church of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Recognizing the masses of detailed information stored in our genes, his team is investigating how to harness that capacity for digital archiving.

They’ve already successfully encoded 70 million copies of Church’s book into a minute strand of DNA. Using similar techniques, they say we could download the entire Internet into just 4 grams of the stuff.

It’s an approach that would have massive energy implications because DNA doesn’t need to be plugged in to store information. Stable and sturdy, it’s able to survive 100s of thousands of years under any earthly conditions. That means no heating or cooling is required. Imagine if we could back up all the world’s data into a vial tomorrow. We may never have to build another storage center.

Admittedly, the process needs to be streamlined before it would be viable. Encoding Church’s book was an intensive process. They first digitized it into binary 1s and 0s then converted it into the genomic language of A, T, C and G. Finally, that had to be rendered into a 3D double helix. Reading the books requires a painstaking reversal of the process.

But if we can design purpose-built DNA writing and reading technologies, this could be a great way to save information and the planet.

A shot in the arm for solar

A shot in the arm for solar

Described as “the Apollo Mission of our time,” recent figures suggest the Department of Energy’s ambitious drive to achieve grid parity for solar has been embraced by the private sector.

Launched in 2011, the SunShot Initiative’s Incubator program invested $17 million in seven companies with the aim of cutting the cost of solar electricity by 75%.

Stimulated by the show of political will, private investors have rushed to support the same companies, to the tune of $1.6 billion in 12 months. Such a flood of private capital shows that, under the right circumstances, business has a good appetite for clean energy.

SunShot aims to lower barriers to solar adoption by bringing the cost-to-consumer down to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. Their strategies for reaching these goals include:

1) Reducing the cost of PV solar cells while increasing efficiency and new market
2) Shortening the pathway to commercialization for promising technologies and strengthening local solar manufacturing
3) Reducing the cost of concentrating solar power (CSP) and developing utility-scale solutions
4) Investments in education, policy analysis and technical assistances
5) Promoting training within the US workforce to increase solar job creation

Having already brought renewed investment to the sector, it is also hoped that SunShot will reduce some of the “red tape” associated with solar permits and inspections. That could have an equally important affect on solar’s commercial attractiveness.

Watch this space for a profile of some of the innovative technologies flowing out of the program.

Posted by: Julia Sparkman

Follow us on twitter @yelloblu.

Rolling out chemistry’s green carpet

Rolling out chemistry’s green carpet

After 40 years of waiting, green chemistry’s night of nights is coming to the U.S.

The biennial AkzoNobel Science Award for sustainable breakthroughs has opened to North American scientists, through June 22, 2012.

First contested in the Netherlands in 1970, the prize has spread to Sweden, the UK and China. Now, for the first time, Canadian and US materials scientists and chemists can enter to win a $75,000 cash prize for significant advances in sustainable science.

Last year’s UK winner, for example, was Professor Peter Bruce of St Andrews University, whose research into lithium-air batteries could double the range of hybrid cars to 300 miles.

It’s a discovery that may have even more enduring ramifications in Bruce’s homeland of Scotland, which supplies much of the UK’s clean energy. There, renewable electricity generation leapt a remarkable 45% from 2010 to 2011, and they’re thought to have access to some of Europe’s most productive wind, tide and wave resources.

Efficient storage technologies will be crucial to harvest that energy during times of peak production and redistribute it during times of peak demand.

It’s hoped that the AkzoNobel North America Science Award, which is being hosted in collaboration with the American Chemical Society, will uncover similar groundbreaking innovations here. Candidates can learn more about the award here. The rest of us will find out who won in February 2013.

Posted by: Eammon Conaghan

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