Saying No to Big Oil: Four Bright Ideas Compete for $125,000

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 22, 2015

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, NEW JERSEY—I was a judge at CNBC this week for the Safe Energy Security Prize, which awards $125,000 to the start-up company that will do the most to offset our crippling American oil dependence. I won’t say which applicant got my vote, but it’s a great opportunity to describe the cool technology these folks are trying to put on the market. Read them over and then tell us what you would have picked.

Peloton's convoying technology has Volvo as an investor. (Peloton photo)1. Call it a Convoy. Big tractor-trailers aren’t the most efficient way to move our goods across the country—trains, with one engine pulling sometimes dozens of cars, are much kinder to the environment. But American trucking is a $650 billion industry, and it’s not going anywhere. So what if trucks were able to adapt some of the efficiencies of trains? That’s the  concept of Peloton Technology, whose CEO, Joshua Switkes, explained that using the cloud and wireless technology we can make trucks safer, increase fuel efficiency up to 10 percent and double trucking company profits.
 
The basic idea, he explained, is to have two trucks traveling closely together, taking advantage of the aerodynamic advantages that gives to both trucks. A truck-to-truck wireless link connects them, and the following truck reacts instantly (within a hundredth of a second) to the accelerator and brake inputs of the first one. Network operation centers collect information for the truckers, including weather and traffic. Safety is also enhanced by the forward radar on the first truck.
 
Volvo is an investor, and Switkes said Peloton has also lined up support from Intel, Denso, Magna, UPS, Lockheed Martin and Birchmere. Trials are underway, with UPS and others. Platooning does run afoul of some state laws that regulate following too closely, but Peloton is working on that. Don’t be surprised if you see tailgating trucks soon on a highway near you, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of downsides to this—and the savings are estimated at four cents a mile, or $3,000 to $11,000 per truck per year.
 
Of course, the technology has to be failsafe: The trucks travel together with a closing time measured in a few seconds. In the future, we’re likely to see even greater efficiency with convoys of three or more trucks, but two is a good place to start.

It's not just wireless charging, it's really fast wireless charging. (Momentum Dynamics photo)2. Charging Ahead (Double Time). Momentum Dynamics CEO Andrew Daga used to work on NASA projects for the international space station. His engineers, he said, “know how to do difficult projects under tight timelines.” Momentum is hardly the first company to charge electric vehicles wirelessly, but it plans to make it happen at lightning speed. In 20 minutes, the average EV is likely to be back on the road.
 
The key is 480-volt DC charging, which is just starting to become available. Household wiring won’t support that kind of system, but it’s perfect for workplaces and public locations like movie theaters and restaurants. A bunch of companies make fast DC chargers, but it’s not widespread in wireless applications. Momentum’s charger is a 25-kilowatt unit at a time when most EVs take on electrons at 3.3 or 6.6 kilowatts. The company says losses with wireless transmission are around 10 percent, which is standard in the industry.
 
“Gas cars get enough fuel for 400 miles of range in five minutes,” Daga said. “That’s very attractive.” And it’s a reason that less than one percent of the 16 million cars sold last year were electric. “People like EVs but they don’t like charging and they worry about range,” he said.
 
To get over the obstacles, Daga said, EVs need to charge faster, charge automatically, and charge more frequently. For instance, an electric bus could get enough juice for a whole route just sitting over a charging pad (with 12 inches of clearance) at a downtown station for 10 minutes. An EV owner could gain 10 miles or more just stopping in at the local convenience store for milk.
 
Like Peloton, Momentum has, well, momentum. It’s working on a demonstration project with electric bus maker Proterra at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It has paratransit buses charging wirelessly in Redding, Pennsylvania. The company claims to have several top-tier automotive suppliers on board, and Lockheed Martin lined up for military applications.

In this case, Freewire's recycled battery charger comes to you. (Freewire photo)3. Make Charging Portable—and with Recycled Batteries. Freewire Technology’s solution is Mobi, a mobile EV charger that gets its power not from the grid but from second-life electric car batteries that it sources from Spiers New Technology.
 
An early application will be workplaces in Southern California and Silicon Valley/San Francisco where the sheer numbers of employees with EVs is overwhelming the few stations that companies have installed. The units will lease for $1,000 a month.
 
According to Jawann Swislow, Freewire’s chief commercial officer, “Companies have paid huge amounts of money for charging infrastructure, but the assets aren’t being well used, and they’re encountering ‘charge rage’ and unplugging.” What that means is that some users are leaving their cars plugged in after they’re fully charged, and others—waiting in line—are unplugging them, creating some tension.
 
The Freewire/Spiers solution is to make the chargers grid-free and portable. An attendant can move the self-powered chargers around to different parking spaces, then disconnect when the cars are full. The Mobi unit—with 40 kilowatt-hours of capacity—could handle three or four cars in a morning, recharge, then do a few more later in the day.
 
Swislow says this is a solution businesses love, because they can add or subtract chargers as needed, and not have to invest in further infrastructure (and possibly add an expensive transformer) for a building they often don’t even own.
 
An obvious question, for Dirk Spiers, concerns the supply of second-life batteries. He says there’s an adequate amount, and the market will only expand in the years ahead. Spiers says that four gigawatts-hours of annual capacity from retired lithium-ion battery packs will be available in the U.S. by 2025. It’s estimated that batteries coming out of EVs will still have 70 percent of their useful life left.
 
Freewire is also looking to replace gas and diesel generators with its quiet and efficient alternatives, and it wants to get into large-scale battery storage (backing up renewable power plants) as well. For now, it is working with Siemens on technology and is doing a pilot in Hawaii. But the first production Mobis are coming soon.

The SeaChange Eco-Hybrid fuel is undergoing sea trials. (SeaChange photo)4. Clear Waters Ahead. SeaChange Group is out to clean up boat exhaust, and here’s the premise: Biodiesel production, on the rise worldwide, has created a glut of a byproduct called glycerol. What if the dirty diesel used to run ships could be made much cleaner—and cheaper to boot—by blending ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) with some of that waste?
 
According to Geoffrey Landin, founder and director of SeaChange, 90 percent of the world’s trade moves by ship, and it burns 154 billion gallons of fuel annually—worth $570 billion. And 70 percent of ship emissions are released within 400 miles of coasts. Some 15 percent of all global manmade nitrogen oxides and four to nine percent of sulfur dioxide is attributable to ships, and the EPA says 14,000 deaths per year are caused by ship exhaust.
 
Other approaches to greening ships include using exhaust scrubbers-- with high cost and long downtimes-- or repowering vessels with new engines, with the same negatives. SeaChange’s “Eco-Hybrid” fuel, approximately 30 percent glycerol, could be dropped into existing ships with no modifications, and it can use all the current fuel infrastructure. 
 
Landin said the company’s initial focus is on tugboats, ferries and short-haul ocean shipping. Together, it’s a $360 million market, he said. Larger ships will be targets later, and also in the company’s sights are trains, generators and other diesel users. The fuel is now undergoing sea trials and is being produced in a 1,000-gallons-a-day pilot processor; it seems to work.
 
The company's biggest hurdle is getting ship owners to change their ways and try something new. A big plus for Landin is that Eco-Hybrid fuel not only reduces pollutants by up to 50 percent, it’s also cheaper. There’s an eight percent performance loss, but in a BTU-to-BTU (how much energy you actually get out) comparison, it still has a one to two percent price advantage over regular diesel fuel.
 
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The Safe Energy Security Prize is sponsored by Washington-based Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE). Since it's a contest, we’d be curious to see how you'd vote on these contenders. The actual winner will be announced at the South Carolina campus of one of the sponsors, Clemson University. Highlights will be broadcast on CNBC, another prize sponsor. 

In the mean time, tell us who you think should win!
 

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