Clir Renewables has around 2,500 wind turbines on its technology platform
Software platform Clir Renewables wants to help asset managers in the wind and solar industries maximise production and provide insights on performance at sites around the globe.
After launching its services in Europe in 2018, the Vancouver-based company went on to win Start-up of the Year at the European Wind Investment Awards in London earlier this month.
Along with the award, the software firm also enjoyed operational success in 2018 by doubling the assets on its system from 1.5 gigawatts (GW) to 3GW, and co-founder and CEO Gareth Brown believes it can continue to build upon this early growth.
He said: “It was brilliant to receive recognition from our industry peers for the impact we are having on the market.
“There is a huge opportunity for us as we go into 2020 to roll-out onto 100GW of assets and drive up the financial returns of wind farms on every continent.”
What does Clir Renewables do?
Clir Renewables provides an AI software platform that optimises renewable energy assets in the wind and solar industries.
But its primary focus over the past couple of years has been in working with onshore and offshore wind power.
Operating through a cloud-based system, its platform connects directly to renewable energy assets and collects operational data in near real-time conditions.
It then enriches the data and runs algorithms with machine learning, to give the asset operator a better understanding of what is going on and actions that can be taken to optimise output.
Where the idea for Clir Renewables came from
Gareth Brown previously worked as a consultant for a major organisation within the industry, which focused on large offshore and onshore wind projects.
In his role, he worked with several influential operators across the world, providing insights into how to deal with underperforming and distressed assets.
It was from this grounding that Brown nurtured the idea behind Clir Renewables.
He said: “What I realised as a consultant is the owners, the operators, the asset managers, those who put financial risk on the asset, don’t actually understand the assets all that well.
“So they end up paying quite large in consultancy fees, by just not having those deeper
understandings of their asset.
“They end up leaving lots of money on the table and not managing risks well, so I wanted to build an asset monitoring platform to solve this issue.”
Aims of Clir Renewables
On founding the company, Brown and his partners set four targets for the services they wanted Clir Renewables to provide.
The first was to manage the asset health, so it was possible to understand when failures were going to happen — and the individual assets were able to live as long as possible.
The next was to increase the output, enabling the firm to use its software to run a smarter control on the devices.
The third target was to provide knowledge sharing, so organisations could use the platform and gain a deeper understanding of their assets and the wider industry.
The final aim was especially important to the firm — with the desire to deliver better financial returns on renewable energy assets it managed.
Brown adds: “We don’t have to just increase the output. Our platform does that, but what we can also do is manage risks in a better way.
“Because if you manage risks well, you’re able to do better financial engineering on the asset, so you’re able to borrow more money, you’re able to get lower insurance premiums and you’re able to get much stronger financial returns if you understand the technical risks better.
“Our software platform gives clients the tools and the ability to do that.”
What makes Clir Renewables different from other platforms?
Brown believes the main USP that makes Clir Renewables different is that it combines domain expertise in the renewable market with the latest technology.
“When we started out it was very much about the domain expertise,” said Brown.
“But how do you scale this up from being able to do one-off assessments on one farm to be able to do it on ten farms, or a hundred farms, or a thousand farms – and be able to do it at scale in an automated way that owners and operators can understand the assets.
“I would say that we’re the only platform in the market which is doing that effectively.”
In order to be different, Clir Renewables’ software tackles three challenges in its desire to deliver a unique service.
The CEO believes that the biggest challenge in the wind industry is separating resources and finding out what’s going on with individual assets.
He adds: “So unlike in every other power industry, we don’t know exactly what’s going into the turbine.
“For example, gas-powered plants have a pipe that goes to a fixed turbine, so it’s very easy to understand if that turbine underperforms by 1% or 2% because they have a controlled intake.
“In the wind industry, we have a resource which can go up or down 100% in a 10 minute period, so if you have a 1% or 2% underperformance issue and you have no measurement of your inflow conditions, then it’s very easy to not see that underperformance issue.
“It’s also easy to blame underperformance on the wind when it’s actually a problem with the wind turbine.”
Clir Renewables’ platform solution was not to simply digitise the wind turbine, but also the environment in which it operates — which could be forestry, steep slopes or anything else that can change the inflow into the turbine.
This allows for more detailed labelling of the data — ensuring its machine learning and algorithms can operate more effectively.
Turbine industry growing faster than engineering designs
Brown claims that the wind turbine industry is growing faster than the engineering design standards.
“You look at the way we design wind turbines, a lot of them are based on assumptions that we have based on much smaller turbines,” adds Brown.
“The turbines are getting bigger all the time, so you have to build a platform which is really challenging the assumptions that you used to design your wind farm, so once you’re in the operational phase, you’re not just taking those assumptions as gospel.
“You need to check them and challenge them because it has been a big issue in the industry that we’ve grown so quickly in such a small amount of time.”
He claims a good example of this is an issue the industry has regarding leading-edge erosion.
Some of the bigger wind turbines have problems with their blades due to the impact of rain droplets.
Brown said: “The tip speed of the wind turbine has got so high because the turbines have got so big that the blades have been suffering from impact loads of rain droplets.
“This wasn’t accounted for in the smaller wind turbines because the tip speeds weren’t that high.
“We’re putting wind turbines up in parts of the atmosphere that we’ve never done before and operating in different conditions.
“Our design standards have to keep pace with the changes in the industry and it’s quite hard to do.”
Conflict of interest
Another issue centres on the conflict of interests between the person who has sold the technology not wanting customers to understand the technology.
Brown said: “So, say a big turbine manufacturer has sold you the turbine, they often want to treat you like a toddler and put you in the corner of the room and say ‘trust us, we’ll make sure your turbine output performs’ but the reality is that they don’t necessarily want to share their technical knowhow.
“They don’t really want to work in an open, transparent way with the person who’s bought the technology.
“What our platform does is it allows owners and operators to really understand the turbine well, even though the turbine that they have is collecting data in a structure that is not conducive to doing effective performance management.
“It deals with that conflict of interest so that those who have an interest in financial risk can understand their assets well.”
Partnering companies and funding for Clir Renewables
In terms of megawatts (MW), Clir Renewables’ subscribing client-base on its platform is 5GW of assets, which is around 2,500 devices.
Brown believes that of the companies who are investing in offshore wind and won other category awards at the event in London, his company is working with all but one of them.
He adds: “We have just closed our series A financing in September and October and that award just gives us more exposure.
“The nice thing about winning the start-up award was because it’s nice to have people coming up afterwards and saying that they’ve voted for us.
“But the market has spoken and said that there is a real need for an AI platform like ours on these operational sites.
Just like most start-up firms, Clir Renewables relied on grants and a solid business proposal.
Brown said: “It does need funding, it is a really hard problem and we’ve been lucky.
“I am originally from Wales but now based in Vancouver, we’ve been able to get government support here through research grants.
“But also getting a lot of upfront, paying clients who have validated our software and given us feedback – we wouldn’t be where we’re without that industry support.
“Winning the award has just come down to having that funding in place and then being able to deliver on it because there has been lots of AI software that has been portrayed as the promised land in our industry and other industries as well.
“Being able to get the funding and get the domain expertise in the software side and on the tech side has allowed us to be successful to date.”
The future for Clir Renewables
At the end of December, Brown said that Clir Renewables will have 55 members of staff, up from seven in May 2018.
He predicts that the company will soon be hiring three to four members of staff a month — reaching around 100 team members by the end of next year.
The firm currently has offices in Vancouver and Glasgow, with plans to move into South America, Germany, Spain, India and China by the end of 2021.
Brown said the next step for Clir Renewables is to make sure that everyone in the industry knows the value of the tools its software offers.
He adds: “When you have a platform in place that is very different and provides more value and capabilities than they have seen before, it’s about educating people in the market and being the market leader in capabilities.
“We just have to spend our time educating our client base so that they realise how much value they can squeeze out of these assets.
“We have already got such a large client base, so it’s about doing a good job with who we are working with.
“We don’t really have to win new clients, just upscale and expand out into our current client base.”