Fast Company – The 10 most innovative energy companies in 2022
Elemental changes are underway in how we replace fossil fuels and decarbonize the economy, and companies such as Twelve, BlocPower, AES, and Heliogen are leading the way.
March 17, 2022
Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative corporate social responsibility, design, and social good companies.
A fundamental shift is fully underway in the world of energy. To meet climate goals, the International Energy Agency—an organization that was originally created to ensure a secure oil supply—has called for investors to stop funding any new oil, gas, and coal development. In the U.S., wind and solar power nearly quadrupled between 2011 and 2021. Both renewables and battery storage have dropped steeply in cost. 2021 broke records for new clean energy installations. And yet the pace and scale of change that’s needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 is daunting.
This year’s most innovative companies in energy are finding new ways to speed up the transition. Some are focused on less obvious corners of the energy challenge—the startup Twelve, for example, turns captured CO2 into chemicals for manufacturing that are currently made from fossil fuels. Others are finding ways to bring renewable energy to the hardest-to-decarbonize industries like cement or steel manufacturing, such as Heliogen, which uses an AI-powered “sunlight refinery” to generate extra-high heat, or Germany-based Enapter, which is working to make green hydrogen as affordable as fossil fuels. Some are helping transform the electric grid, like Guzman Energy, which helps rural utilities get out of lengthy, expensive coal power contracts. BlocPower, another leader on the list, is finding new ways to fund retrofits in aging urban buildings. Companies can’t solve climate change alone—better policy is also critical. But the organizations on this list are a reason for hope.
For transforming CO2 into petrochemicals, minus the fossil fuels
Fossil fuel-based chemicals are used as the building blocks of thousands of products, from toothpaste to fertilizer. Twelve makes the same chemicals from carbon dioxide in a process that uses only renewable energy and water. Last spring, the startup started working with Procter & Gamble on a pilot to produce a key ingredient for Tide laundry detergent, and in a program for the Air Force in the summer, Twelve proved that it was possible to make carbon-neutral jet fuel from CO2. The startup also partnered with the clothing brand Pangaia to make the world’s first CO2-based sunglasses, and is working with the biotech company LanzaTech to make polypropylene, another key material in manufacturing. The company secured $57 million in a Series A funding round in 2021 to help it towards its goal that at scale: Twelve estimates that its products could help eliminate 2 billion to 3 billion tons of emissions each year.
For unlocking efficiency retrofits in low-income neighborhoods
Low-income homeowners in aging urban buildings often overpay on utility bills because their homes are so inefficient. Energy efficiency retrofits are expensive, though, and in apartment buildings, where owners often pay for heat, landlords often eschew necessary upgrades. BlocPower has created (along with Goldman Sachs) a new financial model that eliminates the upfront cost of upgrades like heat pumps, offering owners a lease to pay for the equipment over time. Custom software creates a “digital twin” of the building to optimize retrofits. The company is also beginning to sell carbon offsets as the buildings reduce emissions. So far, BlocPower launched projects in more than 25 cities across the United States, including Ithaca, New York, in 2021, making it the first city with a plan to fully decarbonize buildings. It also launched a new program that brings free or low-cost internet to buildings—giving the company access to data about energy performance while also getting residents online.
3. CLIMATE TRACE
For spotlighting global emissions
When countries self-report their greenhouse gas emissions, the data is often years out of date and incomplete. Climate Trace (which stands for Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions), a coalition made up of dozens of organizations in partnership with former vice president Al Gore, uses remote sensing and artificial intelligence to independently track emissions in near real time. In 2021, ahead of the global climate conference in November, the group released its first global emissions inventory, finding that billions of tons of emissions in the oil and gas industry were undercounted. Below that kind of top-line analysis, Climate Trace has been able to discover such fine-grain variances as how one oil drilling operation in the North Sea emits far less CO2 per barrel than another. That’s just one example of how Climate Trace’s cache of data can help countries better discern how to tackle climate change—and help investors and companies track emissions through supply chains.
Climate Trace is No. 5 on Fast Company’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies of 2022.
For scaling up smarter clean energy
In 2021, AES, a global energy company with a $16 billion market cap, launched a massive new battery-storage system in Southern California, designed to provide power to tens of thousands of homes in milliseconds—replacing the need for a new natural gas plant to provide power when demand peaks. The company also partnered with Google last May on a new plan to provide carbon-free energy to its data centers in Virginia all day, every day. In addition, it worked with X, Alphabet’s innovation arm, to build virtual models of distribution grids in the Midwest, making it possible to make the system more efficient and more quickly add renewable energy. Internationally, AES built a new “virtual reservoir” in Chile that is now operational. It combines a hydropower plant with utility-scale battery storage, reserving the energy generated by the plant during times of lower demand in order to supply up to five hours of energy to the grid during peak hours. For 2021, the company reported that it signed long-term power-purchase agreements for 5 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy—exceeding its goal of 3GW to 4GW—and its total revenue topped $11.1 billion.
For rewiring the electrical panel
The typical home electrical panel uses technology that hasn’t changed since the 1950s—and isn’t designed to support the shift to clean energy in the form of solar panels, electric vehicles, or batteries that can provide backup power when a hurricane or wildfire takes out the electric grid. Span, run by a team that includes former Tesla engineers, designed a panel that integrates with those new devices and helps reduce the cost and complexity of adopting fossil fuel-free energy. A companion app pairs with the device to provide detailed control; in a blackout, for example, users can tell it which circuits in the home to keep powered at any given time. First launched in 2019, Span released an updated version in May 2021, which was both cheaper ($3,500 vs. $5,000) and smaller. In October, the company started taking orders for a new EV charger that works along with the panel, making it possible to charge at home without costly utility upgrades. Since the tech knows how much solar power a home is generating, it’s also possible to charge an EV from the sun. The company has made deals with Green Mountain Power and Sunrun to include Span’s smart panel with its clean energy offerings for their residential customers.
6. GUZMAN ENERGY
For helping rural utilities ditch coal power contracts
As large utilities move to renewable energy, many rural electric cooperatives still rely on a big proportion of coal power. Most are locked into decades-old power agreements that force them to buy coal power from specific sources, even when that electricity is more expensive than wind or solar, which raises electric bills for customers. Guzman Energy, a wholesale power provider based in Denver, uses what it calls “coal swaps” to help utilities get out of those contracts. In 2021, the company helped a community cooperative in Colorado pay $62.5 million to end a coal-heavy contract, resulting in a 2021 savings of millions of dollars. It also helped launch a new solar project in the area. In New Mexico, it designed a $37 million financial mechanism to help another community cooperative leave coal behind, and develop new solar power, battery storage, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure along with new jobs for the area. Guzman, which reported 25% revenue growth in 2021, also initiated the first electric utility for the indigenous Pueblo of Acoma.
For building virtual power plants
When a record-breaking heat wave hit California last June, Stem, a smart energy-storage company, used its network of digitally connected batteries to help avoid blackouts as demand for electricity surged. The same system also helped stabilize the grid during heat waves on the East Coast and in Canada. For the company’s business customers, which buy the batteries and subscribe to Stem’s software service, the system makes it possible to save energy by drawing on stored energy when demand spikes to avoid peak charges; some utilities also pay customers to send extra power from batteries when it’s needed. For example, the truck rental company Penske, which is using the technology at a site where it charges heavy-duty electric vehicles, has cut peak energy consumption by 40% through the system. In 2021, Stem became the first company of its kind to go public, and its 2021 revenue was $127.4 million, a more than 250% increase from 2020.
For bringing renewable energy to the hardest-to-decarbonize industries
Heliogen’s modular “Sunlight Refinery” uses artificial intelligence to precisely control mirrors that point sunlight at a tower, generating intense heat. The energy can then be used to power such industries as cement manufacturing that currently rely on fossil fuels for ultra-high-heat processes, and the system also allows for that renewable energy to be stored cheaply when the sun isn’t shining. ArcelorMittal, the world’s second-largest steel manufacturer, invested in the company and is testing the technology at some plants. Heliogen will be providing near-24/7 energy to the boron mining operation of Rio Tinto, the multinational mining company, in Boron, California. In another new collaboration, the company partnered in November with the fuel cell company Bloom Energy to show how its low-cost electricity can be used to make affordable green hydrogen for industrial uses. Just before the end of the year, Heliogen successfully demonstrated what it calls its Installation & Cleaning Autonomous Robot & Utility Solution (ICARUS), which it believes will accelerate the pace at which it can deploy its mirror fields and keep them operating at peak performance. Heliogen generated an estimated $8 million in 2021 as it scaled up its system.
For making green hydrogen more affordable
Green hydrogen, which is made by using renewable electricity to split water molecules, is believed to have the potential to help replace fossil fuels by powering planes, heavy industry, and other large emissions sources. Enapter, based in Germany, makes low-cost electrolyzers, the machines used to make hydrogen. In 2021, the company started construction on the world’s first automated mass-production facility for the equipment, and in the first half of 2021 it booked more than 10 times more orders for the electrolyzers than the January to June 2020 period. The company reports more than $7 million in revenue for the first half of 2021 as well. The new factory should begin operation in late 2022. When Enapter’s running at full scale, the company expects that the technology can reduce the cost of hydrogen sufficiently to reach parity with the version of the gas that’s made from fossil fuels, helping accelerate the adoption of clean energy.
10. SOLID POWER
For building a better battery for electric cars
Standard lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles today have challenges—the range is still limited, the batteries degrade faster than the car itself, and the flammable, volatile components inside require extra protection that makes the batteries bulkier. Solid Power, a startup backed by BMW and Ford, unveiled its solid-state platform technology in May 2021, which can be used to make batteries that should be safer, lighter, and shrink the cost of the product while making it possible for drivers to go farther on a charge. The company demonstrated its silicon EV cell technology at 20 ampere hours (Ah) in December; ultimately it needs to scale up to 100 Ah, which it expects to do in 2022. In October, Solid Power struck a partnership with the Seoul-based energy giant SK Innovation, in which SK is doing automotive testing. (Solid Power’s batteries are designed to be made on the same manufacturing lines as the current lithium-ion standard. Note as well that SK is the battery supplier for the forthcoming electric F-150 trucks.) Solid Power, which went public in December 2021, continues its pilot production while working toward production on its new “EV Cell Line” capable of producing cells up to 100Ah.A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Written by Adele Peters
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