Brian Curtis’ passion for clean energy in the food industry spurs from having been raised in the Salinas Valley and being exposed at an early age to cooling and refrigeration systems on surrounding farms. “I grew up around coolers my whole life,” he says.
Curtis, the founder and CEO of Concentric Power Inc., recognized a billion dollar opportunity to connect the dots between his energy experience and the agricultural industry. After leaving Salinas to attend University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a mechanical engineering major, Curtis pursued opportunities that supported his dream of becoming a clean energy innovator and executive. Early on as a student engineer, he served as cogeneration operations engineer for UCLA’s power plant on campus and later as a hydrogen and alternative fuels design engineer for Chevron.
After earning his MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he spent five years in China building an ammonia processing plant, growing that business and helping to raise $1.35 billion in clean energy investment funds. His transition back to the United States came through an opportunity at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Group, as well as at several cleantech energy startups. In a conscious move back to his roots, he launched Concentric Power in 2011 to serve the companies he grew up around.
“The stars really aligned for me. With electric utility costs rising dramatically in recent years for the ag sector and energy efficiency technologies readily available, a window in the market opened up for the types of energy projects we develop at Concentric,” Curtis said. “We’re at the front edge of a huge wave of energy development for ag and industry, especially in California. I felt I had enough personal experience with the ag industry, cogeneration and project finance to launch the company and start investing in RD&D [research, development and deployment].”
Concentric Power has developed a pre-engineered, prefabricated, modular power plant design that can be installed at food processing facilities for fresh produce. The modules can be mixed, matched and added together to meet the needs of any given site. Their technology revolves around natural gas-powered engines and heat recovery modules that are specifically designed to be easily integrated and pair perfectly with existing refrigeration systems at any farm cooler.
“Our initial product push has already yielded one key patent with several more pending,” said Curtis. “On one hand, we are using proven, low-risk technology in our modules. On the other, we believe our approach is highly innovative and will crack open the multi-billion dollar energy segment that is the food industry.”
In addition to providing electric power, Concentric Power recycles waste heat from its engines—for example, a high efficiency 2.0 megawatt Caterpillar G3516H. Typically, more than half the energy that goes in must be discarded as waste heat during electricity production. Concentric Power puts this thermal energy to use in a heat-driven chiller that ties directly into an ammonia refrigeration system and reduces loads on the compressors and condensers. Concentric Power’s innovative solution to energy problems significantly decreases costs for agriculture facilities and helps growers take control of how they purchase energy.
The company also complements renewable energy that can be generated on site. “Wind and solar never really get you all the way there in terms of energy independence and sustainability, especially for large ag and industrial applications that are energy intensive. You still lean heavily on the grid for firm power,” said Curtis.
Because Concentric power plants run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year, they can effectively and efficiently follow customers’ loads. “The beauty is that due to our high efficiency, we will always beat the grid in both cost and greenhouse gas emissions, since the grid is using the same fuel and we’re more efficient,” Curtis said.
Offering several different ways to finance equipment is another unique aspect of the company. Similar to the wind and solar industries, Concentric Power offers its customers the choice between owning the system, buying power under an Energy Services Agreement or leasing the equipment.
“Different customers have different corporate finance objectives or constraints. Our mission in life is to make clean, cheap energy accessible to every medium to large cooler,” explained Curtis. “This entails removing all the barriers, not just technical and operational, but also financial.”
Currently, the company is heavily developing its product line to bring customers more options on energy-saving solutions. Concentric Power joined the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology as one of its inaugural residents and believes that collaboration with the other startups will be key to growing its offerings.
“The Center is a place where we can collaborate and exchange ideas with like-minded start-up companies,” said Curtis. “No other company in there is doing what we’re doing, but we’re all going after the same customers, walking the same path to market. It’s nice to talk to folks to see how they are developing their technology and building their business. It’s also a great access point to meet directly with customers and get their input in a safe environment.”
Through collaboration, Concentric Power has been able to improve their current offerings and is starting to develop new technology and explore different markets. The company hopes to have installed systems at refrigeration and cooler sites around the country within the next 10 years. In addition to agriculture, they are looking to offer clean power systems to the energy intensive manufacturing, chemical processing and data center sectors.
“Our vision is to be the leader in medium to large distributed cogeneration for ag and industry. Our long range goal is to have hundreds of our modules running across North America in the next decade and enable a truly innovative distributed utility business model for each and every one of our individual customers,” said Curtis.
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