8 little energy firms pushing big global changes

Pioneers in energy innovation

Nadia | E+ | Getty Images

Energy innovation is about a lot more than fuel made from banana peels.

The annual Energy Pioneers list, compiled by IHS CERA for its IHS CERAWeek conference, is about where old and new energy technology meet.

On this year's list, robots are going places no human has ever been, "big data" is doing things that weathermen have never been able to master, carbon is being captured from waste and turned into fuel simultaneously, fiber optic cables are searching for oil, and future well blowouts are being averted (maybe). One company is even bold enough to claim it can avoid all future carbon emissions. Dare to dream—after all, that's the point of innovation.

We asked eight IHS Cera Energy Pioneers about the novel approaches they are using in critical energy areas and what stands in the way of their success—and our survival. (The full list of 2014 IHS CERA Energy Pioneers is available here).

—By Eric Rosenbaum
Posted 13 March 2014

Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas

Source: Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas

James Cameron spent a bit of his "Titanic" fortune to travel to the only frontier that rivals outer space: the deepest deep-sea trenches. But he wasn't looking for oil and gas, like Liquid Robotics Oil & Gas. The joint venture of Schlumberger and Liquid Robotics has sent its Wave Glider traveling across 300,000 nautical miles—setting a record for the longest distance traveled by an autonomous vehicle. It's been everywhere, from the Arctic and Australia to the Canary Islands and Loch Ness.

Why it matters:

The Wave Glider is the world's first ocean robot that gets its forward propulsion from the ocean waves and uses solar energy to power the onboard computing, communications and navigation resources. Among the biggest issues exploration companies face in the search for new sources of hydrocarbons: dependence on fuel and putting humans or high-value ships/assets at risk.

Data check: The ocean represents 71 percent of our planet's surface. We are dependent on it for 50-85 percent of our oxygen (it absorbs 25 percent of carbon), for food (1 in 6 people depend on it for protein) and as a major source for critical natural energy sources (gas and oil).

EarthRisk Technologies

Source: EarthRisk Technologies

Meteorologists were long mocked for their spotty track record, sending you out the door with an umbrella just as the sun breaks through the clouds. Have things changed much in the era of algorithms and mass computing power? Surprisingly little for weather predictions more than a week out. But the "black hole" that has plagued efforts to predict weather within the 15- to 40-day lead time is a task that EarthRisk Technologies is trying to solve with big data software. It crunches more than 60 years of weather data to formulate the odds of cold snaps and heat waves up to 40 days in advance.

Consider the extreme cold weather across the U.S. this winter and a natural gas price that went up as quickly as temperatures dropped, with utilities even calling into unexpected service "dirty" coal-fired power plants slated for mothballing.

Why it matters:

As the world's energy demand grows, better forecasting will become ever more important in support of policy decisions, capital markets spending and energy market pricing.

Data check: The accuracy of today's weather forecasts breaks down after seven days.

LanzaTech

Source: LanzaTech

Capturing carbon is key to dealing with climate change. So is the development of alternative fuels for industry and transportation. What if both of those huge tasks could be solved by one company? LanzaTech likes to think it's on the right track. It is turning waste gases from steel mills into fuels and chemicals for industrial use, including the rubber and plastics sectors.

Why it matters:

Persuading companies to view carbon emissions as an economic opportunity, not just a problem, would be a huge change. Generating a source of revenue from waste-gas streams is one example.

Data check: Sixty-five percent of steel mills worldwide use technology that could be retrofitted, which translates to 30 billion gallons of ethanol or 15 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel—about 19 percent of the current world aviation fuel demand.

Retroficiency

Source: Retroficiency

It would take a corporate worker only a minute of looking around their office to recognize that it is probably in dire need of an energy update. All those aging, hulking air-conditioning units and Edison-era bulbs lining square foot after square foot of commercial real estate are an environmental nightmare. But companies still neglect basic energy-efficiency retrofits. Retroficiency can do that work in minutes for a building—without even being on site. In fact, Retroficiency has evaluated more than 1.7 billion square feet of building space since March 2011.

Why it matters:

Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to address growing energy demands, but energy firms and customers still don't really communicate well with one another.

Data check: Buildings consume more than 40 percent of all U.S. energy, and up to 50 percent of a building's energy use is often wasted. In a typical commercial portfolio, 30 percent of the buildings account for 70 percent of all energy-saving opportunities.

XL Hybrids

XL Hybrids vans
Source: XL Hybrids

Many lab tinkerers dream of replacing gasoline with a cost-competitive alternative fuel made from algae or hydrogen, but maybe the goal shouldn't be to replace traditional transport fuel outright—instead, just reduce the use of oil. XL Hybrids has developed a battery electric hybrid powertrain for commercial fleet vehicles that reduces fuel consumption by 20 percent.

Why it matters:

XL Hybrids claims that the only economic condition required to make this effort worthwhile is oil priced at as low as $20 per barrel. That will provide a good financial return, the company says, even if fuel prices go below $2 per gallon. (U.S. crude oil currently trades at around $100 a barrel.)

Data check: U.S. oil demand peaked in 2005, according to the Department of Energy. The economy has grown by about 25 percent since then, based on data from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Phononic

Source: Phononic Devices

Something new and cool is coming to the kitchen fridge and AC—no, not a smartphone app that lets you know when you are running low on milk or turns down the temperature five minutes before you return from work. Legacy refrigeration technology—as well as air-conditioning and heating technology—are energy hogs loaded with toxins and noisy, moving parts that need ongoing maintenance. Semiconductor technology already ushered in the age of the personal computer and the LED, so why shouldn't the semiconductor revolution take a crack at disrupting the biggest consumer market of all, the home. That's what Phononic is doing with its solid-state heat pumps.

Why it matters:

It's in line with other key technology transitions inside the nuts and bolts of mass-market products: The transistor displaced the vacuum tube, and LEDs are now doing the same to incandescent light bulbs.

Data check: Almost 40 percent of home energy use in the U.S. is dedicated to refrigeration and climate control. More than 125 million compressors are sold annually for the residential refrigeration market, and window-mounted air conditioners are the fastest-growing segment in climate control (56 million units annually).


Sakti3

Guy Crittenden | Workbook | Getty Images

There's a good reason why Tesla is planning to invest $5 billion in a battery factory. Cost-effective battery production is still a "holy grail" in the energy market—an electric car battery, for example, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Sakti3's battery technology is designed to offer double the energy density of today's commercial cells at half the price.

Why it matters:

Many people would like to see energy-storage technologies go into mass use on the grid and in transportation, but they simply cost too much. Figuring out a way to spend less to generate more revenue from large-scale battery production on a manufacturing line is something that has to be figured out.

Data check: Within a decade, the global grid storage market will be a $600 billion business, according to Piper Jaffray,

AquaMost

Source: AquaMost

You can pick your issue when it comes to the fracking debate: earthquakes, methane gas leaks, rail explosions. But there is no issue bigger than all that water used in hydraulic fracturing—just getting the water needed for fracking to the drilling sites by truck is a huge energy user, not even to mention the debate over aquifer health.

Why it matters:

The growth of unconventional oil production has been matched by water management challenges that threaten both the environment and oil and gas company profits. AquaMost's technology helps companies to either reuse water without damage to wells or dispose of water for less money and with fewer chemicals.

Data check: In secondary or tertiary production of oil and gas from fracking, the water to oil ratio is 8:1 or higher.