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March 22, 2021updated 26 Mar 2021 4:09pm

Success stories after 5 years of BEV clean energy investments

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the clean-tech fund backed by notable figures such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, recently raised another $1bn to help innovative clean energy start-ups and bring emission-reduction ideas to the market. Entering its 5th year of investments, we identify the BEV portfolio’s best, brightest, and most successful clean energy start-ups.

By Yoana Cholteeva

Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) was started by Bill Gates to support the research and development of new innovative technologies that target sustainable and smarter solutions for a more sustainable world.

The aim of BEV is to boost the energy transition across every possible sector by backing up visionaries that can have a significant impact on climate change improvement.

BEV’s ‘patient capital’ strategy stands out from traditional technology venture capital approaches, which typically require return on investments in five years.

By comparison, BEV makes its investments over a 20-year period, offers larger amounts of capital to companies that can be commercialised, and plans to partner closely with university research centres.

The fund’s approach has proved preferable to small firms, with start-ups working on novel energy technologies requiring years of upfront research and development in partnerships with universities or national laboratories.

Fusion System’s innovative power solution

In one of the notable start-up projects backed by BEV, American company Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue the so-called Holy Grail of energy: fusion power. 

Built within MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Centre, progress towards fusion power could potentially offer an inexhaustible, zero-carbon source of energy and solve numerous problems within the power industry.

In addition to the BEV investment, this project has also been backed up by Italian energy company Eni, which contributed $50m in investment towards the innovation. 

The collaboration is exploring the use of superconducting magnets to carry the plasma of superheated subatomic particles in a doughnut-shaped device called a tokamak. The joint efforts, accelerated by decades of federal government funding, led to the creation of the first experimental device, Sparc, which is estimated to enter testing rounds by 2025. 

As part of this collaboration, the partners are hoping to take fusion energy to commercial levels and help establish a new industry.

MIT president Rafael Reif said: “This is an important historical moment. Advances in superconducting magnets have put fusion energy potentially within reach, offering the prospect of a safe, carbon-free energy future.

“As humanity confronts the rising risks of climate disruption, I am thrilled that MIT is joining with industrial allies, both longstanding and new, to run full-speed toward this transformative vision for our shared future on Earth.”

CarbonCure’s carbon dioxide technology

CarbonCure is a Canadian start-up developing a technology that uses carbon dioxide captured from a variety of waste emissions, such as ethanol and ammonia, to lower emissions from the concrete manufacturing sector.

CarbonCure’s first plant was created in 2015, with more than 300 of them currently being operational.

In February 2018, the company announced the opening of a facility, intended to serve in a potential $400bn market opportunity for carbon dioxide usage in the concrete sector.

CarbonCure uses carbon dioxide from industrial emitters where established gas suppliers collect, purify, and distribute the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is then stored at concrete plants in pressurised tanks that are refilled regularly by the gas suppliers.

The collected carbon dioxide is then injected into a wet concrete mix, where it reacts with calcium ions from the cement to form a nano-sized mineral, calcium carbonate, which becomes embedded in the concrete.

This provides a solution to two problems by making the concrete stronger and helping to eliminate carbon dioxide, otherwise released in the atmosphere.

For the purpose of this operation, CarbonCure equipment is retrofitted into concrete plants in one visit; a CarbonCure Valve Box is connected to the carbon dioxide tank stored onsite and automatically injects a precise dosage of carbon dioxide into the concrete during mixing. 

In addition, the CarbonCure Control Box synchronises with the plant’s batching software to ensure easy addition of carbon dioxide to the mix.

As part of its mission, CarbonCure aims to achieve a 500-megaton-per-year reduction in embodied carbon, which is the equivalent of taking 100 million cars off the road according to the company.

Since its popularity rose in 2018, the company was recognised as BloombergNEF’s New Energy Pioneer in 2019. Last year, CarbonCure also received the 2020 North American Company of the Year Award by Cleantech Group and appeared on the Global Cleantech 100 list. 

Fervo Energy’s geothermal technology

The San Francisco-based start-up Fervo Energy is working on enhanced geothermal systems, trying to commercialise the ‘mixed medium stimulation’ concept and expand the energy output of existing geothermal sites, as well as new sites that can’t be effectively tapped using well technologies.

Geothermal energy is an important but currently limited clean energy resource. The biggest barrier to large-scale geothermal deployment is exploration risk and insufficient well productivity.

Fervo Energy uses a novel approach to geothermal drilling that increases well productivity by at least four times, incorporating horizontal drilling to dramatically increase reservoir contact of geothermal wells. It additionally uses advanced distributed fibre optic sensing to monitor and optimise flow rates to further increase well performance. 

The company has been working with oil services firm Schlumberger on a US Department of Energy-funded pilot project since 2018 to deliver power at the cost of $0.5 to $0.7 per kilowatt-hour and expand US geothermal power capacity by as much as 30%.  

The Fervo approach lowers the cost of development and opens up a resource for geothermal energy of over 100GW, up to 20% of US electricity supply.

Successful commercialisation of Fervo’s technology could unlock a new geothermal resource capable of supporting up to 100GW of electric power development by 2050.

Natel Energy’s fish-friendly hydropower approach

In March 2020, supplier of sustainable hydropower solutions Natel Energy announced that it had raised $11m from Schneider Electric Ventures and BEV to deliver renewable hydro power to communities with its fish-safe Restoration Hydro Turbine at Freedom Falls, Maine, US.

The company is using the funding to accelerate deployment of this low-impact, distributed baseload energy, while also maintaining the health of watershed ecosystems and surrounding communities.

Prior to this investment, Natel Energy deployed its Restoration Hydro Turbine, which increased fish safety and contributed to a compact footprint that reduces installed cost by over 20% compared to conventional low-head options. The project currently produces 35KW of power to a restaurant and a school, with excess output added to the grid. 

Natel’s approach of Restoration Hydro aims to build cost-effective hydropower projects that can help restore watersheds, generating renewable energy.

For this purpose, data and analytics come in place with HydroForecast and Lens, software solutions offered by Natel’s subsidiary, Upstream Tech.

These technologies assist with decision-support for all watershed stakeholders, including hydropower utilities to design, build, and optimise green and grey watershed infrastructure for energy sustainability. 

Based on these capabilities, in 2019, HydroForecast provided a year of seasonal forecasts to utility customers with a more than 25% improvement in accuracy over existing models. 

BEV member Carmichael Roberts said: “Hydro has long been considered a perfect source for renewable energy, if not for the high cost of capital and inherent risks to wildlife based on most designs.

“Natel’s patented high-performance hydro-electric turbine cleverly addresses both issues –lowering the expense per unit and making it safe for the environment. Furthermore, the product can be deployed as a retrofit in existing installations or rolled out in brand new developments. 

“This means that Natel has the potential to fundamentally change how water is leveraged, as a renewable energy source that blends well with other important products like wind and solar.”  

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