Energy-related startups benefit from renewables push
While working on a cellular tower a few years back, Kyle Mullins got what he describes as the “call of a lifetime” — an invitation to work on the first two pilot wind turbines for Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project.
A Navy veteran who received a telecommunications technical certification from Texas A&M University, Mullins was working as a cell tower technician, a job that sometimes had him climbing towers taller than the Washington Monument, when he was recruited as a contractor for Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind. He worked in maintenance and construction as Ørsted built the twin 6-megawatt, 600-foot-tall wind turbines for Dominion 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach in 2020. That in turn led him to onshore wind turbine maintenance jobs in Maryland and West Virginia for Nordex, and a stint as a line worker for Dominion.
Now, based out of Yorktown, Mullins is running his own business, Coastal Wind Services, which is focused on maintaining and inspecting massive wind turbine blades, as well as related rope-access work and certification training. He’s anticipating a hurricane of business from projects like Dominion’s $9.8 billion, 176-turbine offshore wind farm off Virginia Beach, slated to begin construction in 2024, and proposed offshore wind projects in North Carolina.
“Once the turbines start getting into place … hopefully business will be booming,” says Mullins, who is also partnering with Virginia Beach-based Hush Aerospace on developing an autonomous aerial drone for offshore wind blade inspections.
Coastal Wind Services is one of several Virginia-based energy industry startups, many of which are capitalizing on the national drive for net-zero carbon emissions and electric grid transformation toward renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
Virginia is one of 22 states to pass clean electricity laws in agreement with the Paris Climate Accords’ aim of mitigating the impacts of climate change by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Passed in 2020, the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) requires all electricity in Virginia to be produced from carbon-free power sources no later than 2050. (Aimed at increasing grid reliability and reducing consumer power costs, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced a state energy plan in 2022 that called for a rethinking of VCEA mandates to include a mix of power sources, including nuclear and natural gas.) Similarly, the Biden administration has also set a 2050 national goal for net-zero carbon emissions, including reducing U.S. government emissions 65% by 2030 and transitioning to an all-electric federal vehicle fleet by 2035. And as of last year, nearly 60% of Fortune 500 CEOs said their companies plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
This push to a greener grid has kicked off an entrepreneurial drive for innovative solutions to meeting and facilitating these ambitious energy goals.
“The opportunity is kind of endless in many regards,” says Braden Croy, program director of Ashland-based Dominion Energy Innovation Center (DEIC), an independent nonprofit accelerator and incubator for Virginia energy startups.
Gaps to fill
Founded as a partnership between Activation Capital, Hanover County, the Town of Ashland and the nonprofit’s signature sponsor, Dominion Energy, DEIC runs an accelerator for eight to 10 energy-related startups per year that are partnered with mentors from Dominion Energy. DEIC also offers startup events, networking opportunities and space for coworking and research and development.
Virginia has some unique opportunities for energy startups, given that it has the world’s largest concentration of data centers, which require vast amounts of energy.
The commonwealth “has one of the largest — if not the largest — electricity load growth projections in the United States, primarily driven by the data centers up in Northern Virginia, but also all of our heavy manufacturing and advanced manufacturing,” Croy says. And “as we have more and different types of generation brought online, that poses a planning problem and management problem,” but also a host of opportunities for entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds.
Among those is Michael Beiro, founder and CEO of Linebird, which manufactures the Osprey NPS, a nonconductive payload system that attaches to commercial drones used in aerial power-line inspections by contractors and utilities. Linebird also produces “end effectors” — swappable tools that can be used with the payload system to perform a variety of tasks on live power lines, such as conducting contact inspections of compression connectors. Likening the tools to bits for a drill, Beiro is developing end effectors that can handle jobs like removing bird nests, trimming vegetation or cutting down damaged electric lines.
A member of DEIC’s first accelerator cohort in 2020, Beiro developed the idea for Linebird out of work he was doing when he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Commonwealth University. “Being in the [DEIC] cohort helped us get momentum,” not to mention valuable face time with Dominion Energy personnel, says Beiro, whose company is based out of DEIC’s Ashland coworking space.
“Virginia has a well-developed ecosystem to support startups,” says Susan Ginsburg, CEO of Alexandria-based Criticality Sciences and a member of DEIC’s 2021 cohort. Her company, which provides metrics and analysis promoting the resilience of utility systems, received a $75,000 Commonwealth Commercialization Fund grant from Virginia Innovation Partnership Corp. and a $100,000 federal grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with another $400,000 NIST grant pending.
A lawyer and infrastructure resilience expert, Ginsburg was a senior counsel on the 9/11 Commission and was part of the team that produced the first presidential policy directive on critical infrastructure security and resilience. “When I began reading and looking into the science of critical infrastructure protection, I saw there was a major gap to fill,” says Ginsburg, noting that there are no federal standards for utility resilience.
Criticality Sciences’ NetResilience platform performs analyses of systems like electric grids or public water systems, and provides metrics on resilience. It also identifies assets that are vulnerable to critical failures that can lead to events like the massive blackouts seen during the February 2021 winter storm in Texas that led to hundreds of deaths.
A member company in this year’s DEIC cohort, Arlington County-based ElectroTempo announced in August that it had raised $4 million in seed funding. ElectroTempo’s software platform provides planning and intelligence data for building out electric vehicle charging networks. Lead investors in the current funding round included Buoyant Ventures, a Chicago-based, woman-owned venture capital firm focused on tech startups that help fight climate change, and Zebox Ventures, an Arlington-based fund associated with international shipping company CMA CGM Group. (ElectroTempo was in the first cohort at the Zebox America accelerator.)
“Our customer is anyone who’s investing in the infrastructure around [vehicle] electrification,” says ElectroTempo co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Patrick Finch. So far, that has included the Port of Virginia, which is using the system to support its growing fleet of electric industrial vehicles and to calculate anticipated demand. CEVA Logistics, a subsidiary of CMA CGM, is another customer.
Pearl of wisdom
It also helps a company get off the ground when the founders have industry experience. Cynthia Adams was already well-connected in Virginia’s energy sector before 2015, when she co-founded her current business, Charlottesville-based Pearl Certification, which provides third-party home energy efficiency certifications across multiple platforms, primarily for home sellers and builders. Pearl has certified more than 162,000 homes across the United States, including about 7,400 in Virginia. It also provides required third-party certification of contractors’ work for a federal rebate program for home energy efficiency upgrades passed in 2022 under the Inflation Reduction Act.
Pearl’s CEO, Adams previously co-founded the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, and also led the nonprofit Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), which promotes energy efficiency in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
After raising $250,000 from angel investors, Adams and Pearl President Robin LeBaron left their jobs to found Pearl, which has since raised about $29 million in venture capital funding and now has about 50 employees. “We’re really getting somewhere with the business and are super-excited about our future,” Adams says.
While Pearl has grown since its founding, starting an energy-related company in Virginia isn’t necessarily easy, Adams explains. Often, startups devoted to businesses such as installing solar panels may initially benefit from federal rebate programs or grants for which funding can later run out. “If the programs are super-complex, complicated, administrative-heavy and really need the rebate only to function, then I think we’ve missed an opportunity to grow businesses, we’ve missed an opportunity to lower carbon emissions, because the money will start and the money will stop,” she says.
In turn, she suggests embracing public-private partnerships to develop energy efficiency programs across the state.
“There’s a huge amount of federal dollars through tax credits. If there were ever a time for an enterprising entrepreneur to get into the energy space, it’s now,” she says. “It’s important to identify what your value [proposition] is and what pain point you are solving. But if it’s tied to energy efficiency or renewable energy, you’ve got some terrific tailwinds to kick a business off.”
Expanding the field of energy industry startups in Virginia will require “a little bit more education and startup coaching to get folks understanding that before you’re there selling, you have to go and understand the market,” says Jerry Cronin, executive director of the OpenSeas Technology Innovation Hub at Old Dominion University’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It’s about “getting innovators to do that upfront as opposed to immediately going into sales mode.”
OpenSeas works with startups and small businesses to help solve problems within the maritime space. Hampton Roads’ burgeoning offshore wind industry is a major focus for the hub, which also concentrates on shipbuilding and port operations. Two of the biggest challenges in the startup energy space in Virginia, Cronin says, include attracting more businesses to the space and educating individuals about the current holes in the industry.
“One of the issues with offshore wind right now — and this is something recognized by the Department of Energy — is that it’s close on the horizon, but it’s still on the horizon,” Cronin says. “Next year, we’re going to start putting more turbines out there, but it’s still a very young industry. The Department of Energy is having issues with attracting people into that space when it’s sort of ‘hurry up and wait,’ versus something like solar, where there’s a lot going on right now.”
A state grant program announced in July, the Virginia Offshore Wind Supplier Development Grant, is aimed at encouraging existing Virginia manufacturers to develop and produce goods to support the offshore wind industry in Virginia as well as nationally. But encouraging smaller suppliers to enter the space as startups will require more targeted training efforts and funding, Cronin says.
Another region ripe for energy startup growth is Southwest Virginia, where the public-private Energy DELTA (Discovery, Education, Learning & Technology Accelerator) Lab initiative is focused on reimagining previously mined land as space to develop new energy ventures such as hydrogen production, small modular nuclear reactors, solar power generation and advanced energy storage. The initiative’s partners include the Virginia Department of Energy, the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority, InvestSWVA and utilities Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
The Delta Lab is “essentially a matchmaker to all local, state and federal partners, funding partners, utilities — you name it,” says Will Payne, director of InvestSWVA and managing partner of economic development consulting firm Coalfield Strategies.
“Everything we do — every project that we take on — we view through the economic development lens,” Payne says. “It’s not just about research for the sake of research. We’re about that next phase where something that needs to be deployed, needs to be a pilot and tested in the field.”
While being a startup energy company in Virginia is an adventure, Mullins says, one of the biggest challenges is gaining entry to the supply chain. Organizations like DELTA Lab, OpenSeas and the Dominion Energy Innovation Center exist to help the industry thrive.
“Don’t be afraid to reach,” Mullins says. “Ask questions. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without the people I reached out to.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated and corrected to reflect that Coastal Wind Services owner Kyle Mullins received a technical certification from Texas A&M University.