Let’s Get Ready to Rumble: Cleantech Competition

There’s nothing like cash and travel prizes to help motivate innovation. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley is hosting the Venture Lab Clean Technology Innovation Competition, which offers up a $20,000 kitty and a trip to Copenhagen to attend Copenmind for the winning team. The contest is looking for innovations in power generation, energy efficiency and sustainable IT solutions, and the competition’s judging panel includes reps from SunPower, Solazyme, PG&E and several Sand Hill Road venture firms.

The entrants have been whittled down to 16 finalists and the winners will be announced this evening. The finalists’ projects range from an accelerated evolution track for cellulose-chomping microbes to an “instant leak feedback system for toilets.” No one said cleantech innovation was a glamorous business.

We checked out the finalist list and here are our top five picks from among the finalists:

Banyan Energy Inc.: In order to help solar power reach grid parity, the Banyan Energy group has designed a super-focusing lens that can be integrated into the existing photovoltaic cell supply chain. Their product, “SCALE” (Simple Concentration and Aggregation of Light Energy), is supposed to concentrate sunlight up to 10 times. The group estimates that while today $100 million can deliver about 100 MW of PV energy, with SCALE technology the same money could buy 1,000 MW worth of PV power. It’s not entirely clear how the group devised its superior optics.

Oceanic Geothermal Power: With most of the earth’s low-lying regions under water, the earth’s potential geothermal power sources are also mostly under water. Two MBA candidates and a PhD in mechanical engineering have proposed to retrofit decommissioned oil derricks to tap submarine geothermal vents. Assuming a vent temperature of 250 degrees C, the group estimates it can generate 30 MW per rig! The team says it’s already piqued the interest of Chevron and it certainly has us paying attention.

Online Environmental Footprint Database: This diverse group, which includes grad students in public health, political science, journalism, and civil and environmental engineering, proposes to address the problem of carbon and environmental footprinting with a three-pronged online approach. The first section would list a company’s “verifiable” and “reviewed” information regarding environmental impact. The second section would allow companies to list additional information that might not be covered in the first section. And the third section would be a wiki-style open source database where the masses could debate any greenwashing. Transparency — we like that.

Large-Scale Wind Integration: Wind power is great when the wind blows. The problem is it’s fickle. This group proposes to allow power customers to schedule flexible energy needs to be completed when that breeze is blowing. It’s like wind-specific demand management connecting customers who are willing to be flexible with cheap, clean power.

Reduced Electricity Consumption: This group of computer science grads and MBAs proposes to partner with big-box electronics retailers to sell household energy dashboards that can be controlled and monitored online. The team’s business minds outnumber its code monkeys, which you can tell by its overdeveloped business plan and less developed devices. The plan does propose an interesting way to incentivize the service for retailers: allowing them to target customers with more efficient products based on feedback from the devices (“We see your fridge is working very inefficiently, perhaps you’d like to see the new Energy Star Maytag?”). But we still want to see the hardware.