Alchemist energy businesses speed up green transition

JUNE 30 2023
Published in The Australian Financial Review

Energy innovators are hastening the transition to renewable energy and squeezing more life from traditional infrastructure assets. Meanwhile, leaders in the sector are consulting to governments to rework regulations so they are fit-for-purpose for the shift to clean energy.

In the capital-intensive energy infrastructure space, getting more from static yet massive assets like wind farms extends their lives, reducing the need to build new turbines and adding more renewable energy to the market.

Collgar Renewables’ fleet of 111 wind turbines is an example. The business is among the finalists in this year’s AFR Sustainability Leaders list in the resources, energy and utilities category.

It has reconfigured its wind farm to more efficiently power itself, which will reduce scope two emissions by about 29 per cent because the turbines are less reliant on electricity bought from the grid. This is the equivalent of carbon sequestered by about 130,000 tree seedlings grown for 10 years. In simple terms, scope 2 emissions are the pollution released into the atmosphere from the energy a company uses.

“Our new configuration will trigger turbines with lower running hours to generate this power, extending the estimated asset life by up to a year. This avoids an estimated 80,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, the equivalent of charging about 9.5 billion smartphones,” says CEO Thomas Scott-Morey.

Neara’s model behaviour

Collgar is among a slew of innovators rethinking the way we look at energy. Another business challenging the status quo is utilities software company Neara, the winner of the AFR’s 2023 Sustainable Leaders list in the resources, energy and utilities category.

Neara is fast-tracking the transition to renewable energy by bringing more clean power into the market. It’s concurrently wringing more from existing energy infrastructure like power lines.

The software company has a platform that builds three-dimensional models of infrastructure assets like electricity networks transmitted across power lines. It works with asset owners and electricity network operators to create engineering digital models of their power networks.

Neara also designs infrastructure such as new transmission lines to connect renewable energy zones. “We need more power lines to transmit electricity from renewable energy. Right now, there’s not enough of them,” says chief operations and commercial officer and co-founder Jack Curtis.

Its tech is used in many projects to help Australia reach its renewable energy targets. For instance, Neara is involved in the HumeLink project, which will connect approximately 3000 megawatts of new renewable energy across the NSW towns of Wagga Wagga, Bannaby and Maragle. Neara is constructing a digital model of the initiative in its platform, to create a more efficient, cost-effective network.

It also has a partnership with government-owned infrastructure firm Essential Energy, which owns the biggest electricity distribution network in NSW. Neara’s platform includes a model of the network.

“By analysing the network we can double the available capacity in many areas across NSW. So instead of having to build more infrastructure, we can get more out of the existing network,” Curtis says.

Evergen takes control

Evergen is another energy tech leader and finalist in this category. Its software connects devices in the energy system like solar panels and batteries. It maximises returns from investing in renewable energy infrastructure for homeowners, solar farm owners and the energy system.

“Moving electrons around in very clever ways gives consumers cheap energy and reduces congestion on the networks,” says CEO and managing director Ben Hutt.

“My goal is to maximise the value of renewably generated electrons by allowing them to be used, bought or sold whenever it makes the most sense for the system,” he says.

Retirement communities are an example, where Evergen is installing energy management systems to optimise central battery energy storage and rooftop solar panels on villas and community buildings. The result is lower energy bills, with the average monthly bill at one facility dropping by $8.

The energy software leader is also helping solar farms make the most of their assets. “Right now they are curtailed because the networks can’t handle their energy. We allow them to store and use that energy and sell it at a different time,” he says.

Evergen helps to accelerate investment into renewable technologies because assets that connect to its software can either make more money, save more money or contribute more energy to the grid.

“Software is the magic enabling layer. As rules change, software is very flexible, so we can easily change the way things behave,” Hutt says.

Neste’s fuel takes flight

It’s still early days for the clean energy sector in Australia and many innovators are working towards full acceptance of their product. Neste is among this cohort.

The Finnish resources business – the name means liquid in Finnish – has set up sustainable aviation fuel operations in Australia. The fuel is made from raw materials like feedstock and cooking oil.

Neste already supplies Air New Zealand, which uses a blend of sustainable aviation fuel and traditional fuel for some commercial flights. The clean energy leader is also working with airlines in Australia and this year for the first time, its fuel was used to power a helicopter at the Avalon air show.

“The aircraft ran totally fine. There were no challenges in terms of the fuel, which is always a relief,” says Australia New Zealand general manager James Williamson.

Williamson and the team are working through barriers to more widespread adoption of sustainable aviation fuel in Australia, which is lagging northern hemisphere markets. Local fuel quality standards don’t allow for renewable fuels in the same way US and European standards do. “We’re working on that. We’d love to see Australian rules updated to match globally recognised standards,” he says.

Neste is talking to the federal government about introducing policies so that airlines can more easily use sustainable aviation fuel. In other markets mechanisms such as direct subsidies, tax waivers and mandates have been introduced to stimulate demand.

“The EU and US have policies to create demand certainty for sustainable aviation fuel. Markets in Asia-Pacific are also starting to do that. Japan is talking about a 10 per cent sustainable aviation fuel mandate by 2030. New Zealand is on its way to developing a sustainable aviation fuel mandate. But in Australia, the policy discussion is at a nascent stage. We need to engage and support the government as it tries to decarbonise aviation,” says Williamson.

Pure Battery charges ahead

Other local businesses are entering global markets and playing a leadership role outside Australia. Another finalist, Pure Battery Technologies, is among this group. Its technology produces more environmentally friendly materials for EV batteries compared to traditional inputs. It also recycles existing battery metals, known as black mass.

Chairman Stephen Wilmot says the company is poised to take a significant step in the path to full-scale commercialisation. After building a small test facility in Western Australia, Pure Battery Technologies acquired a refinery in Germany in 2020 to prove its processes at scale and develop its recycling methodologies.

The company is in the middle of a $100 million capital raise to expand its German facility and enter the US market. It is also expanding its European operations, after securing funding from the European Investment Bank.

Over time, the German plant is expected to produce 10,000 tonnes of metal per year, enough for approximately 150,000 electric vehicles. This equates to a reduction of approximately 95,000 tonnes a year of CO2 emissions compared to other processes.

The business has a big international future. Wilmot says one of the largest European chemical suppliers is interested in licensing Pure Batteries Technologies’ processes. It is also working with Mercedes-Benz in Germany and a number of other car manufacturers to recycle batteries.

It’s an impressive feat, given most of the grunt work of the last few years was done in lockdown, requiring the executive team to endure multiple quarantine periods travelling back and forth to Europe to get deals done. This hard work is paying off in spades.