Magazine

Game Changers | Energy

Cutting cords and other energizing advances

Inventive technologies and services are extending the possibilities of energy efficiency.

The following people and organizations are on our list of 2015 Game Changers. They did extraordinary things last year, reshaping the way we live and work.

Honorees:

WASTE LESS

Inventive technologies and services are extending the possibilities of energy efficiency.

By Jay Fitzgerald

Sagewell
Sagewell’s thermal imaging shows a house insulated only on the right side.

WANT TO SEE HOW energy seeps out of your house? It may not be a pretty picture. Sagewell of Woburn can produce striking thermal images that can tell customers exactly where homes and commercial buildings are losing heat. It’s part of a wave of companies and projects that is amping up the old idea of energy efficiency with new technology and services.

Today, energy-efficiency auditors drive by homes and snap thermal images of properties without even stopping. Battery-operated digital sensors can relay real-time energy use information to off-site property owners or managers, so they can remotely click gadgets on or off. Sophisticated software programs can track energy costs down to the penny and minute of each day. “It’s not your father’s energy-efficiency programs anymore,” says Pasi Miettinen, the founder of Sagewell. “Over the years, the technology improvements have been incredible.”

Sagewell was founded seven years ago as a pure technology company that developed thermal-imaging cameras to detect heating and cooling loss in buildings  and show which parts of buildings need proper insulation. The thermal images are obtained using cameras mounted on autos, similar to the way Google Street View photos are gathered. Now, the company is focused on service contracts with energy-efficiency contractors and utilities eager to identify problems in buildings quickly. Last year, Sagewell stepped up its business with municipal utilities by winning deals with public electric companies in Belmont, Concord, and Wellesley.

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EnerNOC of Boston started in the energy management business in 2001 and soon became a star of the state’s burgeoning clean-tech sector with its “demand response” system, which rewards big customers for cutting power consumption at times of peak demand. The company broadened its business in a large way last year, buying other businesses to become a big provider of energy-efficiency software tools. EnerNOC has spent more than $125 million acquiring five companies since the start of 2014 to offer commercial and utility clients a suite of new products to track and manage energy consumption.

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Eversource, the utility formerly known as NStar, achieved a remarkable conservation milestone last year at a place that knows something about electrical engineering — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Eversource and MIT first teamed up five years ago to cut energy consumption in scores of buildings across the school’s sprawling Cambridge campus, using new lighting, refrigeration, heating systems, and other items. The total energy savings over those years: at least 45 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, enough to power about 6,000 homes annually. Eversource expects to apply what it has learned from the MIT partnership to other large-scale efficiency projects.

One common problem facing companies that want to invest in energy-efficiency improvements: How do you pay for the upfront expense? Ameresco of Framingham, a pioneer of the energy-efficiency industry, audits clients, comes up with plans to cut energy use, and then arranges loans from third-party lenders to pay for the upgrades. Last year, it generated nearly $600 million in revenue doing exactly that. Clients repay loans over a number of years from guaranteed savings achieved through strategies involving everything from the installation of modern furnaces to new electric systems.

WINDMILLS UP, UP, AND AWAY

Sending a helium balloon into the atmosphere usually isn’t good for the environment, but the ones floated by Altaeros Energies of Somerville actually help the planet. The startup’s Buoyant Airborne Turbines are inflatable windmills that soar as high as 2,000 feet off the ground and send green electricity back to earth. Altitude exposes the BATs to stronger winds and helps them generate two to three times the energy of similar-size tower turbines, according to the company.

In December, Altaeros received a $7 million investment from the SoftBank of Tokyo to help commercialize airborne turbines, which are portable and could be used to produce electricity in remote locations or during disaster-relief efforts.

SOLAR FARMS MULTIPLY

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How can you power your home on solar energy without putting photovoltaic panels on the roof? The same way you can feed your family local vegetables without planting a backyard garden — buy what you need from the closest farm. Clean Energy Collective is applying the familiar co-op food model to solar power. Rather than purchasing produce, you can pay for a monthly share of the electricity generated by the neighborhood solar farm.

Last year, the Colorado-based company completed its first two Massachusetts community solar farms in Rehoboth and Hadley. With more than 50 other projects in various stages of development, CEC expects to have a solar farm within reach of virtually every Bay State energy customer in the near future.

PHONE CHARGING OF THE FUTURE

Watertown MA 072413 Scientist and co-founder of Witricity in Watertown, MA was photographed at his office on July 24, 2013. for a biz story on immigrants. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)/ BIZ
Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff/file
Andre Kurs is cofounder of the startup WiTricity.

Most wireless devices are only wireless until they need to be recharged. WiTricity, a Watertown startup, aims to cut the power cord, too, by transferring electricity through the air. Other wireless charging stations, like the Duracell Powermats embedded in the tables of some coffee shops, require contact with electronics. But WiTricity prototypes can send a charge over a distance of several meters through tables and walls — filling the battery on your smartphone while it’s still in your pocket, for instance.

Last year, WiTricity took a big step forward by licensing its technology to Intel, which plans to use it in consumer devices. Another licensee, Toyota, said it will introduce wireless charging of electric vehicles in 2016.

Capsules written by Callum Borchers. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.