Cleantech Startups Aim to Mitigate, Use, and Adapt to Increasing CO2

It can be hard to wrap your mind around the scale of change necessary to restore the Earth’s climate trajectory to one that will restore conditions resembling those in which modern civilization blossomed. It requires nothing short of “a movement to unmake and rebuild the world we were born into,” in the words of futurist and author Alex Steffen, and one that must advance at unprecedented speed.

“Real sustainability only comes in one variety, now: Disruptive,” Steffen writes in a post earlier this month introducing his climate manifesto—“The Last Decade.” Steffen, an influential voice on the topic, calls for “cities of abundant housing in super-insulated green buildings; of walkable neighborhoods, effective transit, shared vehicles, and abundant bike lanes; of circular flows of resources and frugal excellence; of breakthrough technologies and world-changing designs; of lived innovation and community creativity” and more.

I was on the lookout for innovations that fit the bill at this week’s CleanTech Innovation Showcase, an annual summer gathering of the Northwest’s clean energy and sustainability business sector produced by the CleanTech Alliance trade group. There were several on offer, including a new electric bicycle sharing service that could reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions; a power-producing technology that uses carbon dioxide; and a business trying to replace the humble sandbag—an increasingly in-demand item as carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere begins to load the weather dice, raising the frequency of flooding.

—Vancouver, Canada-based VeloMetro Mobility is aiming its three-wheeled, enclosed electric bicycle at a market that’s somewhere between distributed car rentals such as Car2Go and municipal bike sharing programs, such as the defunct city of Seattle boondoggle Pronto Cycle Share.

Co-founder and CEO Kody Baker describes his company’s Veemo bikes as “a small electric vehicle with pedals.” They offer many of the conveniences of cars, including no-sweat operation, thanks to a 750-watt electric assist motor and a full enclosure for protection from the elements, he says. But they’re bikes, designed to appeal to a large portion of the population that wants to bike in the city but fears falling, being hit by cars, and facing the elements in an open two-wheeler, he says. (The potential to expand the biking population should overcome objections from current cyclists concerned about congestion in the bike lane, he says. The Veemo, with its two front wheels and enclosure, is indeed wider than a typical bike.)

The Veemo. Photo courtesy of VeloMetro Mobility.

The VeloMetro model is designed to appeal to younger people eschewing car ownership and driving in general. As bikes, the 265-pound Veemos would not require a license to drive. Insurance is included in the 28-cent-per-minute rental price.

The company could avoid parking requirements for its rental fleet, too. The idea is for the Veemo bikes to be distributed throughout a city—the way distributed car rental fleets such as Car2Go and ReachNow operate today—rather than returned to a station at the end of each use. The requirement that trips start and end at one of a relatively small number of stations was a shortcoming of Seattle’s Pronto system, which was shuttered in April after two-and-a-half disappointing years.

VeloMetro riders will be able to reserve and manage trips through a smartphone app. Technicians would periodically service the bikes with fresh batteries after every 60 miles or so of travel.

VeloMetro is beginning a limited pilot project on the University of British Columbia campus and plans to expand into the city of Vancouver next year. From there, Baker has his eye on Seattle and Portland, OR.

SuperCritical Technologies, based in Bremerton, WA, is finding a good use for carbon dioxide: generating electricity.

The four-year-old company makes small turbine generators that use carbon dioxide in place of steam. CO2 becomes supercritical—behaving with properties of both a liquid and a gas—at relatively low temperatures and pressures, opening opportunities for cost-effective electricity generation in scenarios where a traditional steam-driven turbine doesn’t make sense.

The company’s modular, 5-megawatt-capacity PowerCube product is small enough to be transported in a shipping container and can operate efficiently at lower temperatures than steam-powered turbines unlocking smaller-scale biomass plants, waste-heat-to-power applications, and remote power generation, says CEO Craig Husa, a serial technology entrepreneur.

For a steam-driven turbine at the heart of a biomass plant to operate efficiently, it has to be so large that the amount of biomass needed to fuel it—typically materials such as slash from forestry operations—becomes too expensive because of transportation costs. Add to that the low cost of natural gas that biomass plants are competing with, and the biomass power industry is struggling, Husa says, citing plant closures in California.

SuperCritical’s underlying technology comes from Sandia National Laboratories, with part of the work sponsored by the U.S. Navy, Husa says. In addition to the use of supercritical carbon dioxide, the company is capitalizing on advancements in turbomachinery, bearings, high-speed alternators, and other compact, high-efficiency components. The startup has a substantial intellectual property portfolio, according to its website.

SuperCritical has a sales and distribution agreement with Caterpillar subsidiary Solar Turbines, which makes gas turbines for remote power generation. A typical 15-megawatt turbine generates a lot of waste heat, but not enough to run an add-on steam turbine power plant, as is the case with larger grid-connected, gas-fired power plants. Husa says that a SuperCritical PowerCube can be easily added to a small, off-grid plant and operate efficiently using its waste heat, reducing the overall cost of power for this application to 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour, which is well below the median commercial retail electricity price.

“It changes their economics,” Husa says.

The company plans to build a biomass plant using its technology at the Port of Bremerton. Husa says the 5-megawatt plant will produce power at a cost of 4.7 cents per kilowatt hour, to be purchased by Puget Sound Energy. He sees lots of opportunity setting up similar operations at ports around the state of Washington which need low-cost, reliable power; economic development opportunities; and often have access to large volumes of biomass.

Husa says SuperCritical can provide “a utility in a box for rural electric locations.” He adds, “The technologies that enable innovations in business models are really powerful.”

—Former vice president Al Gore, speaking in Bellevue, WA, this week at a training session for climate leaders, described the increasing frequency of severe fire and flood events in the U.S.

“In the last seven years, there have been 11 once-in-1,000 year rainfalls,” Gore said at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, which drew some 800 people, according to the SeattlePI.

“Sadly, this is an emerging market,” says Anthony Bergin, co-founder of Diluvium Dry, a Seattle company trying to commercialize an alternative to the sandbag for flood control.

Michael Bradbury, left, and Anthony Bergin, show off Diluvium Dry’s flood barrier. Photo by Benjamin Romano / Xconomy

Diluvium showed off a section of its bright orange, recycled-PVC flood barrier at the Innovation Showcase. Developed and tested in Norway, the barrier is shaped like a capital “L.” Flood water flows onto the horizontal part, weighing down the barrier, sealing it, and strengthening it against the force of rising water pushing against the vertical part, which is 4 feet tall. A set of carbon fiber stays and standard tension cables give the flood barrier the rest of its structure.

The barriers come in 14- and 28-foot lengths that can be quickly linked together, and can turn corners, to create a perimeter around a structure. (They can also be fashioned into a portable reservoir, or used in inland aquaculture applications, such as a seaweed farm in Sweden, Bergin says.)

When the floodwaters recede, the barriers are easy to disassemble and can be rolled up “like an oversized yoga matt” for storage, Bergin says.

The cost is $199 a foot, which Bergin says is competitive with sandbags. The Diluvium barriers are less labor intensive to set up and can be reused without the careful handling required for sandbags that may have been exposed to oil, chemicals, manure, and other pollutants in floodwater.

Bergin says the company is working with manufacturers to refine standards and gain certification to begin marketing the product to governments and disaster relief agencies, as well as individual consumers.

“Anything that’s affected by water, we want to be there,” he says.

As floodwaters continue to rise, the market for products like this will, too.

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