Added Insights From 2022 Progress Report

Added Insights From 2022 Progress Report

In response to requests for more discussion on the results of our latest survey of the regional core clean tech cluster, we held a Zoom call on June 23.  Here are some of the points we covered:

  1. The increase in jobs and opportunities here is making the area much more for recruiting talent.  People see this as a good place to develop a career with good chances to move among growing companies. 
  2. We haven’t yet seen a big exit that creates multiple millionaires.  That will likely take more companies reaching the point where they go public to tap larger sources of capital. 
  3. We probably won’t see a doubling in jobs in the sector in the next two years like we just did.  Revenue however should grow more than 25% over this period.
  4. The biggest sources of growth were in mobility, conversion of wastes and biomass, and building efficiency.
  5. We have companies in the core cluster all along the “Maturity Chain”.  It is not dominated by early-stage companies struggling to get a foothold.  That’s a big step up.
  6. Other reports have indicated much higher numbers of jobs in the local “clean economy”–like 40,000+.  Why are our number so much smaller?  The major studies we have seen count government jobs in environmental agencies.  We look only at businesses, and of those, only businesses whose products have a significant IP component.   We don’t count businesses which are solely selling other people’s products like solar installers.  It is the IP-based companies which we see as “engines of growth” and pay close attention to them. 

We also gathered some important new information from those that were on the call:

  1. Infinium will also expand in West Sacramento by adding a technology R&D center, to improve its offerings continuously.  This will involve adding significant high-tech jobs and will likely bring some from overseas talent to the area.
  2. Judy Nottoli of CARB noted that there is an unprecendented amount of funding becoming available in the next year to support projects on Low Carbon Fuels, conversion of forestry wastes, and caron reduction.  She pointed to upcoming modifications to the LCFS rules next year and the availability of funding from the iBank’s Climate Catalyst Fund that people should have on their radar.

There was much more to the discussion and if you are interested you can watch the recording of the entire 36-minute session

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

Water From Thin Air:  A New Frontier?

Water From Thin Air:  A New Frontier?

It is hard to tell whether sustainable energy or water shortages will be the biggest crisis in the future, but both are big. We have been watching for any new ideas to deal with water shortages. The standard approaches of desalination continue to be the dominant technologies—steam distillation and reverse osmosis. Both are exceptionally capital- and energy-intensive. They tie one to being close to a salty water source and create issues of disposing of hyper-salty water. And prices have been stuck at $2-3 per 1000 gallons.

Better water use efficiency is still a better option, but eventually, with all the climate change-induced droughts, creating more supplies in certain regions is going to take center stage.
One option that may approach a breakthrough is the extraction of water from the natural humidity in the air. To date, these have just been far too expensive to make sense. And there have been improvements to the 3,000 year-old schemes to collect fog droplets with various types of nets, in limited areas where fog is routine. Now some research teams have been looking at materials to absorb moisture from the air and release it with modest energy use. This too has been looked at for decades, but to date has been crazy expensive. This new research may have cracked the cost barrier. It is based on the use of Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) and a team at Johns Hopkins University may have come up with the best one to date.

MOFs have the highest surface area-to-volume ratio of any known material which makes them ideal for trapping moisture. If you could unfold one gram of the material, it would cover a football field. The idea is to trap the moisture in this framework and then release it with a modest amount of heat (60°C for about an hour) with the exhaust cooled down to condense the water vapor. It was an interesting idea when researchers at UC Berkeley showed that one kilogram of a MOF could yield 100 milliliters of water per day. Now the Johns Hopkins team have upped the result to 8.66 liters (2.3 gallons) of water per day per kilogram of their new MOF. (Their published article is here.) That puts the idea in the range of something that is commercially feasible.

The researchers haven’t taken it that far, but it would not require anything operating at high pressures, and the MOF would be suspended in big metal boxes with air blowing over it, and pretty simple heating tubes and condensers. The whole process of separating water vapor from seawater is left to the sun to perform naturally. The MOF is made from materials that are not that exotic—zirconium, chromium, zinc, copper, and aluminum, for example. And not all that much is needed to create beds that are 2 mm thick. Clever idea that is likely to lead to someone taking it to market.

Graphic from John Hopkins Advanced Physics Lab

Graphic from John Hopkins Advanced Physics Lab

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

New Frontiers in Load Flexibility and Load Management

New Frontiers in Load Flexibility and Load Management

On May 12 we returned to the hot topic of grid edge technologies to match supply and demand while avoiding as much new investment as possible.   These technologies involve a combination of hardware for sensing and control and sophisticated software that can use that control to manage to a better use of distribution grid assets. Some gems came out of the discussion we had not heard about before.

Denver Hinds, Manager of Smart Energy innovation at SMUD, talked about upcoming innovations in rate offerings that will enable the interactive management of load and supply.  This will be different than current rule-based systems which are simple, but crude—such as time of use rates that are always highest in a period like 4-9 pm, even though that may not be the actual problem interval depending on conditions at the time.  The ideal situation would be to have a real-time buy/sell market at the distribution level, with capacity, energy, and ancillary services involved.  That could possibly harvest more benefits for the grid.  However, that is complicated and probably not feasible any time soon.  Accordingly, the next step for SMUD will be to use “Critical Peak Pricing” which will boost prices by 50 cents per kWh only at times of critical stress.  It is hoped this will provide more incentive both for customers to allow the utility to shave demand on the grid and for customers with solar and storage assets to curtail their use in order to sell more power into the grid and get the 50-cent premium price.  That opens some new frontiers for innovators to provide customer-side technologies to make the best use of these upcoming incentives. Participation will be voluntary, with a 10% reduction in pricing in 2800 non-peak hours as a further incentive.  SMUD’s goal in taking small steps at a time is to find out if they can achieve dependable and repeatable load shifts with offers customers can understand.   

Scott Silvia, Regional Sales Manager for SPAN, talked about a very new approach for controlling home loads–replacing the entire breaker panel on the home with a new one which can control every circuit in the house, including a Level 2 charger and a home battery unit.  Adding the ability to manage every circuit in the home means that whatever power a homeowner may have during an outage can be stretched and put to the best use.  Rarely can a rooftop solar + storage installation carry the entire load of a house in case of grid failure.  The conventional approach has been to separate out some “critical circuits” and put them in a sub-panel that can be isolated from the main panel.  But if you have a critical need at the time of a particular outage that’s not on one of the circuits in the sub-panel, too bad. With the smart SPAN panel, you can reprioritize circuits with your smartphone and get power where you want it.  

But SPAN has an even cleverer pitch.  Adding a Level 2 EV charger to a home may by the usual utility rules require an upgrade to the typical 200-amp service to a home.  This is to cover the possibility that the charger running full-tilt coincidentally at a time when several other circuits in the home are maxxed out (think hair dryer plus stove plus AC plus pool pump plus clothes dryer) would add up to more than 200 amps.  While those times may be rare, conventional wisdom says upgrade the service at a cost of $2,000 to $20,000 to avoid the problem.  A SPAN Panel with a variable-output SPAN Charger in contrast would manage loads right at the home to keep the demand below 200-amps. 

Finally, Scott said a SPAN Panel would avoid the need to put controls on multiple individual appliances in the home to which a utility could send a signal to turn off in order to manage load.  Instead, the signal could go directly to the SPAN panel to cut load by a certain amount and the Panel could prioritize loads in a way consistent with a homeowner’s pre-set wishes to achieve the load reduction.  

The SPAN panel is not cheap at $3,500 but because it could avoid the need for a number of other investments to achieve load control, it could be the best option available. 

Ezra Beeman, Managing Director of Energeia, told us about his consulting work on a little-appreciated problem that is hobbling the ability of homeowners to get maximum benefits out of their rooftop solar panels.   He has found that the panels actually put power out through the inverter at voltages too high or too contaminated to be completely useful.  The result is that some of the electricity is needlessly wasted since it causes the inverters to shut off.  His solution would be to have a “smarter” inverter coupled to a “smart” water heater or its equivalent to avoid the overvoltage as much as possible and provide a way to put any excess to good use for a short period. 

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center

Updates on Low Carbon Fuels Projects from Two Waste-to-Energy Pioneers

Updates on Low Carbon Fuels Projects from Two Waste-to-Energy Pioneers

On June 2, we gathered for our second post-pandemic in-person MeetUp in Davis to hear from two companies that have spent two decades in innovating systems to convert wastes to energy products profitably.  

First up, Michael Kleist, VP of Business Development, took us through the latest status of Sierra Energy’s FastOx waste gasifier development.  Sierra has been developing this process for two decades.  They achieved a major milestone in building a test facility at the 165,000-acre Fort Hunter Liggett in Monterey County and commissioning it in 2019.  It is now processing 10 tons of waste per day.  Sierra is using this plant to do test runs of various wastes in order to learn what it needs to improve or adapt to handle this variation.  The plan is to perfect a design for a 100-ton per day commercial unit.  Sierra got an investment from Breakthrough Energy Ventures to make the completion and operation of this unit possible.  It is now seeking another investment round to move up to offer the larger plant.  The FastOx process is a high temperature destruction of wastes using pure oxygen to avoid complications of using air (which is 80% nitrogen) and to provide the high temperatures it requires.  The offtake streams demonstrated on the plant include a hydrogen rich synthesis gas (that can be made into methane, methanol, or even gasoline and diesel), purified hydrogen, and non-leachable solidified slag and stone (nothing that would be toxic).  No ash would be produced.  Other advantages of FastOx are its avoidance of moving parts, using an updraft fixed bed, control of tar formation, a very high yield of synthesis gas, and ability to run on heterogeneous post-recycle mixed waste and even RDF.

Next, Bill Walden of Trinity Renewable Technologies explained its new anaerobic digestion process.  In contrast to the thermochemical approach of FastOx, the Trinity process occurs at much lower temperatures and relies on biological processes.  The goal for Trinity was to be able to convert the material in organic waste that has the highest energy potential—the lignicellulose.  Most anaerobic processes cannot deal with the lignin fraction, and convert only the cellulose.  Trinity obtains rights to use an extremely thermophilic microbe discovered in Russia that breaks down the lignin very efficiently.  The Trinity system actually uses to reaction vessels, one operating at high temperature for the pretreatment of the lignicellulose, then a more conventional digester that operates at a more moderate temperature and uses an “induced bed reactor.”  (Although Bill did not reveal the exact temps, my guess is that “high” means 190-210°F, and “moderate” means 130-150°F which is common in digesters.)  The result is the near complete destruction of all the solids in the waste, very unusual for a digester system.  The products of the digestion are methane with a few other sulfur-rich gases, carbon dioxide, and an inorganic nutrient-rich irrigation water.

The target customer for Trinity is a dairy which typically digests only the wash water coming out of the milking barns to generate methane.  The leftover manure is usually just stacked up and left to compost, unfortunately releasing fugitive methane.  The value of the Trinity system is that it can increase the captured methane yield by a factor of 2-4, according to Bill.  He said they are close to some deals for building systems in the dairylands of Wisconsin.  

In the discussion which followed, we talked about the impact of low-carbon fuel rules on the market prices for products of these two very different processes.  (We had a discussion specifically on these rules last September and you can look there for a better understanding of them.)  Unfortunately, the existing rules and calculation methods under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in California do not yield a very good result for FastOx.  The gas produced is not considered to have a relatively low Carbon Intensity Score, even though there clearly is a fraction in the waste of organic material that should be treated favorably.  Sierra’s response has been to focus on customers who do not care about the California score—customers overseas or customers who simply want to avoid landfilling their waste.  Sierra has found so many potential customers of this type that it sees a bright future for its upcoming 100 ton per day commercial system.

Trinity has been hit with another quirk in the California system which ends up penalizing dairies for producing methane from the unconverted solid waste fractions, which seems upside down from what was intended.  In all likelihood, the Trinity system will be most attractive if the output can be sold with a substantial California credit.  That credit system applies, even if the methane produced is far from the borders of California.  Bill mentioned effort underway to correct the calculation method through legislation to remove the “quirk” that penalizes anyone trying to do a better job of methane capture at dairies.  

From this discussion it seems some fresh ideas on dealing with wastes are about to bear fruit.  It’s only taken two decades. 

Be sure to join us for a future monthly MeetUp in the evening and keep an eye on the upcoming schedule for our Perspectives podcast held several times per month in the morning. 

Thomas Hall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStart's Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.

CleanStart Sponsors

Weintraub | TobinBlueTech Valley, Revrnt, River City Bank

Moss AdamsPowerSoft.biz, Greenberg Traurig, California Mobility Center


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