By Chris Hayes
From crunching big data to providing clean drinking water to third-world countries, a number of Pittsburgh companies are building innovative solutions that positively impact both the energy and environmental sectors.
These sectors are key components of the Pittsburgh region’s technology/advanced manufacturing portfolio, adding to its world-renowned diversity.
According to the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s annual State of the Industry Report, 39 environmental equipment manufacturers employ more than 2,200 people in the 13-county Pittsburgh region, with a total annual payroll of more than $156 million. Additionally, the energy industry in the region boasts 1,055 establishments, employing more than 35,000 people and a total annual payroll of nearly $3.1 billion, an increase of $47 million over the last three years, the report said.
This issue of Made in PA explores four regional companies addressing vastly different challenges and opportunities found in both the environment and energy sectors.
Whether it’s through predictive analytics in the energy market, documenting and reporting incidents and data in the oil and gas industries, producing renewable energy, or distilling water using concentrated solar energy, these four companies are all contributing to Pittsburgh’s next chapter of energy and environmental innovation.
Wellsite Report: Technology Makes Capturing Data Simple
Wellsite Report, based in Canonsburg and founded in 2014, integrates smartphone and cloud-based technology that allows its customers to report incidents within the oil and gas industries. The company’s software also lets customers view detailed reports on safety incidents, service quality failures and behavioral-based safety observations.
“There are a lot of people who are very good at what they do at the oil and gas site,” said Josh Dennis, Wellsite Report’s Vice President of Business Development. “But what they’re not really good at is filling out information on an Excel spreadsheet or older software that’s out there. The learning curve can be kind of high.”
Dennis said Wellsite Report’s goal is to make it as easy as possible for any field employee to capture information at a site. The simplification of that process can yield greater amounts of total information.
This all leads to a more efficient system for oil and gas industry employees, according to Mike Fisher, Wellsite Report’s Vice President of Sales.
“The idea of Wellsite Report is to start to bring the breath of an entire organization under one platform,” Fisher said. “There’s a huge gap in what happens on location and what gets captured on location in the system. Who knows what the disparity is until you start getting those big collections and you start to analyze that data.
“Wellsite Report is a very large net that captures a lot of data that allows our customers to start to do things like predictive analytics, tracking and trending and understanding where exposure exists and how to become more efficient.”
Before any of this can happen, the company begins by communicating with its customers about how the software works. If clients agree to move forward, Wellsite Report then trains the clients’ personnel.
“It’s about getting people onboard that the system and the information is something they need,” Dennis said. “If they see the value of it, then we spread it throughout the company.
“All of these companies have a process. All we’re trying to do is improve it.”
Wellsite Report isn’t just stopping here. According to Dennis and Fisher, the company plans to take a step further and help customers facilitate the creation of forums to ensure they aren’t wasting valuable time that could be spent in the field.
“We’re going to put the power in our customers’ hands,” Fisher said. “It’s more about fulfilling needs. We’ve had conversations with everyone from car dealerships to bus companies, you name it.”
“Capture, manage, big data, analyze,” Dennis said, describing the company. “That’s the future.”
Epiphany Water Solutions: Cleaning Water for Industry and People
The idea of Epiphany Water Solutions began well before the company’s founding in 2009. A few years prior, Co-Founder Tom Joseph discovered a way, using technology, to remotely distill water using concentrated solar energy. Joseph’s original goal, a goal that Epiphany is still working toward today, was to provide clean drinking water to the developing world.
“I looked around at what were the biggest problems facing humanity,” Joseph said, “and the single largest problem that I could identify was clean drinking water.”
About half of the world’s current population is in “survival mode,” according to Joseph. In other words, they aren’t in “development mode” and lack the necessary resources to contribute to society. The biggest problem is the scarcity of clean drinking water.
“If we’re going to solve all these other problems, we need those people,” Joseph said. “For all we know, for every one Einstein that we recognize, there are really two of them. Just one of them we never heard from because that person’s too busy figuring out how not to die today.”
“[Joseph] is a brilliant mechanical engineer who has not only the visionary smarts to imagine what could be, but he’s also got the book smarts to prove it from a mathematical perspective,” said Mike Broeker, Epiphany’s President. “We are always working on new technologies, refining what we have and developing new products. Technology is core to our business.”
From 2012 until earlier this year, Epiphany shifted its focus toward the oil and gas industry. While still keeping the original goal in mind, Joseph realized there were additional opportunities in oil and gas that could help prop up the company moving forward.
Now, Epiphany has pivoted fully back toward the clean drinking water initiative. The company has its own machine shop, located on 41st Street in Pittsburgh, that consists of 3D modeling computers for its team of engineers to work with, space for metalworking and material machining, plasma covers, welders, grinders and more.
“All the early research through to product development and early commercialization happens here,” Joseph said.
The water-distillation technology Epiphany uses is truly cutting-edge.
“Right now, all of the units we have out in the field we can control from a cell phone,” Joseph said. “We don’t even have a control panel on the unit itself. There’s no touch screen, there’s no interface. Everybody has a cell phone, so why waste time with all these intermediate steps?
“We’re using the virtual world to make the real world happen.”
Epiphany’s first project since focusing back to water involves a village in Kenya. The company is working with SOS Children’s Villages, an independent, non-governmental organization aimed at helping at-risk children.
“We’re going to be providing a couple thousand gallons a day of clean water as a starting point,” Joseph said, “and that clean water will be used for drinking and sanitizing. It’s a huge step in fulfilling our mission as a company. It’s what we’re all about.”
Montauk Energy: Turning Landfill Methane into Renewable Natural Gas
Montauk Energy is a fully integrated renewable energy company specializing in the management, recovery and conversion of landfill methane into renewable natural gas (RNG) headquartered in Pittsburgh. Montauk and its subsidiaries have more than 25 years of experience in the development, operation and management of landfill methane-fueled renewable energy projects.
The company operates 13 facilities throughout the country, comprised of seven pipeline-quality RNG and six renewable electricity facilities. Montauk is a leading producer of landfill methane-derived renewable natural gas in the U.S., producing in excess of 3.8 million dekatherms annually, equivalent to heating 67,785 U.S. homes per year. It also operates as a subsidiary of Montauk Holdings Limited, a publicly traded holding company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in South Africa.
Montauk President and CEO, Marty Ryan, said that the company is focused on benefiting the environment by continuing to manage, recover and convert landfill methane into RNG and providing value to its shareholders in the process.
“We are a renewable energy company that produces clean, low-carbon domestic energy that is beneficial to the environment and critical to this fast-growing segment of the energy industry,” Ryan said.
RNG is a biomethane that is upgraded to natural gas-quality standards such that it may blend with, or substitute for, geologic natural gas. It’s derived from non-fossil, organic waste.
While RNG is a hydrocarbon primarily composed of methane, the main difference is RNG is made from the biogases emitted as organic waste decomposes. It requires no drilling because it’s not a fossil fuel; it’s a totally renewable fuel.
“We’re taking what is a naturally occurring resource,” Ryan said, “and we’re not only capturing it so it doesn’t vent into the atmosphere as a wasted resource, but we’re also beneficially using it to generate a fuel. Whether that’s electricity or natural gas, that’s displacing a fossil fuel, so it’s very beneficial to the environment.”
Ryan said Montauk provides RNG to transportation sectors in order to move toward a more low-carbon fuel choice.
“We’re helping to grow the renewable fuels industry by providing another supply source so that trucks and bus fleets converting from diesel have more opportunities and more sources to be able to fuel their fleets and move to a much more cleaner-burning fuel,” Ryan said.
While Montauk has historically focused on the landfill methane sector, Ryan said the company is always looking at growth opportunities in the renewable energy space.
“We think we’re good at a lot of things,” he said. “We’re very skilled at collecting and cleaning up dirty gas into a usable renewable fuel and optimizing the sale of renewable attributes generated from the energy products we produce. Our employees are proud to work for Montauk Energy here in Pittsburgh and around the U.S. and contribute to the communities we operate in.”
kwantera: Data Analytics Drives Energy Efficiency
Founded in 2006 and rebranded in 2012 to focus on data science and predictive analytics, kWantera helps companies who buy and sell electricity make better-informed energy decisions. kWantera, with offices based in the Cigar Factory Building in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, develops proprietary market forecasts of power prices, demand and other variables – and then builds optimized, customer-specific recommendations to help energy consumers save money and energy generators improve profitability.
Kyle O’Connor, Chief Executive Officer at kWantera, noted: “We’re delivering a cloud-based, online product that customers can access 24/7. They can receive our intelligence and our recommendations, and then they can take action.” The company’s flagship offering is Faraday, an energy-intelligence platform that allows customers to navigate the energy market, understand short- and long-term market dynamics and make more informed procurement and hedging decisions. kWantera uses a sophisticated approach to forecasting, which includes data mining – digging through millions and millions of data points in order to try and identify context, criteria and variables that help the company understand and try to predict what will happen in the future.
“There aren’t humans getting involved in the process,” O’Connor said. “It’s lots and lots of computing power, servers, processing the information and trying to identify the insights.
“Humans can’t do that well. We use computers to do all of this, and we do it at scale. So we can actually forecast all of the electricity markets, the entire grid, in the United States, with a very small team and not a lot of human interaction.”
O’Connor cited the weather as an important factor that drives electricity market demand. For example, if the temperature outside is very hot, people use more air conditioning. Therefore, electricity usage goes up when it’s warm and goes down when it’s more comfortable outside.
The current electricity market is volatile, according to O’Connor. Over the last few decades the market has been deregulated, and it’s still hard to tell whether that’s good or bad news for electricity customers. On top of that, the grid is changing dramatically. Coal and nuclear power used to provide electricity for the grid, but now more and more power is generated from renewables and distributed assets – think wind farms, solar rooftops, etc.
According to O’Connor, this change creates a new energy economy – creating volatility, complexity and opportunity.
“The market is changing rapidly,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by where we’re not surprised by what the market will do. It’s very hard to forecast. But we think that data and analytics are critical to manage the future of the energy markets.”
O’Connor said kWantera aims to become more granular in the future. The company wants to serve not just larger businesses, but also consumers at the individual and residential level.
“We’re all about simplicity and transparency, but using very complicated, sophisticated tools to do that,” O’Connor said.