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Part 1: Millennial Trains Project Explores Energy Innovation in Utah

Matthew Stepp's picture
Center for Clean Energy Innovation

Matthew Stepp is the Executive Director for the Center for Clean Energy Innovation specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology...

  • Member since 2018
  • 100 items added with 55,577 views
  • Aug 19, 2013

Capitol Energy Report

This guest post comes to us from, and was originally posted at, the Energy Commercialization Center. Learn more about ECC and collaborative innovation communities in Salt Lake City here.

Matthew Stepp visited Salt Lake City last Saturday, August 10th.

Who is Matthew? And why does this visit mean anything?

Matthew is a passenger –a civic-minded individual—a participant –in a 10-day 7-city whistle stop tour across the United States. This is the Millennial Trains Project; a non-profit organization that leads “crowd-funded, transcontinental train journeys” for participants with individual projects that are meant to benefit, serve, and inspire others.

Matthew works as a policy analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think-tank in Washington D.C. where he focuses on developing policies that advance next generation energy technologies.

Matthew reached out to the ECC for help with his project on “Energy Innovation Across America”. The goal of his project is to highlight energy innovation and understand policy, both good and bad, as it applies to new technologies. A meteorologist by trade, Matthew is particularly interested in energy innovation as a means to remediate and prevent future climate change. “As we look at technologies that are 5 to 10 years down the road, we need clean energy that can scale and doesn’t rely on subsidies,” said Matthew, “the issue of the federal government is that it doesn’t want to implement cohesive innovation policy. We have 17 national labs and numerous regional organizations like the ECC –none are linked.” With that in mind, the primary question that Matthew seeks to answer is: How do we connect federal energy policy with state and regional institutions?

In each city, project participants are given six hours of work time off of the train and are responsible for their own transportation. The ECC worked with Matthew to schedule out a 6-hour time block in which he would have the opportunity to meet with policy stakeholders, inventors, investors, and entrepreneurs to best understand what it means to work in the clean energy sector in Utah.

We began with an esteemed policy panel including Utah Clean Energy Executive Director Sarah WrightUSTAR Executive Director Ted McAleerHEAL Utah Executive Director Christopher ThomasRenewable Tech Ventures Analyst Rose Maizner, and former National Director of the Bureau of Land Management Patrick Shea, to address the question: Regarding energy innovation, what are the barriers to working with the federal government?

The panel discussion was dynamic and full of great thoughts and ideas so we decided to make a post unique to the panel. For a re-cap of the policy panel discussion, click here (Available 8/15)

With the pros and cons of current energy policy in mind, we set off on GREENbikes (provided by GREENbike SLC) and headed over to PK Clean to meet with cleantech innovators Priyanka Bakaya and Ben Coates.

Matthew Stepp at PK Clean

PK Clean has successfully developed technology for converting plastic waste to oil, and they are now operating their first commercial scale unit in Salt Lake. According to PK Clean, by converting all of our landfill plastics into oil, PK Clean technology could offset 25% of annual U.S. auto fuel consumption.

PK Clean

After an engaging, activity-packed morning, we biked over to the Tin Angel Café to talk Rotating Thorium Molten Salt Reactors with Dr. Sheldon Hansen and Dr. Kent Millington.

Green Bikes Salt Lake City

Over a delicious brunch of locally-sourced treats, we learned about an innovative, environmentally-sound, nuclear energy technology. “Thorium Molten Salt Reactors are not a new idea,” said Dr. Millington, “it’s an 80 year old idea, invented during the 1940s but shut down because it did not produce weapons grade plutonium which they wanted during the Cold War era.” It is only in the last 3 to 4 years that it has resurfaced as an alternative fuel source. A molten salt reactor can use “spent” fuel rods, a by-product of current nuclear power plants, as a fuel source; this way the dangerous by-product is completely used up. According to Dr. Millington, “We have enough spent fuel rods right now that we can power the entire United States for 70 years.” The environmental benefits of Dr. Sheldon’s RTMSR include: no dangerous side effects since the product is completely used up, no water is needed to cool it so there is no pressure involved which avoids the risk of explosion, and it doesn’t need oxygen to operate—so it could be used on a small scale in a spaceship or submarine.

Dr. Sheldon has revolutionized the last piece of the puzzle by designing a horizontal or “rotating” reactor rather than a vertical one. “Vertical designs need vertical fuel rods to function,” explained Dr. Sheldon, “if it’s horizontal, you can fill the bottom half with the molten salt mixture, leaving the upper half vacant, and so you can rotate rods on a spindle and put just enough thorium rods inside the mixture. To control the temperature, you simply rotate the reactor. What you end up with is constant control over the temperature and the advantage of the ability to stop the reaction immediately if needed.”

From policy stakeholders to inventors, our Millennial Trains visitors learned the ins and outs of navigating the streets of Salt Lake City as we rode our bikes up to Renewable Tech Ventures (RTV) a venture capital group focused primarily on renewable energy innovation in cleantech, demand management, and green materials. RTV Managing Director Todd Stevens and Analyst Rose Maizner met with Matthew to fill him in on the workings of a Salt Lake City VC firm.

Matthew Stepp at Renewable Tech Ventures

RTV chose to focus on the Rocky Mountain Region energy sector because little private equity capital is focused on this investment opportunity, despite the abundance of technology innovation in development at universities, national labs, energy companies, and by entrepreneurs in this region. “Worldwide energy demand is projected to increase by 44% by 2030,” said Mr. Stevens, “It’s estimated that $26 trillion in new investments are needed by 2030 to meet this demand.” RTV is helping to meet this demand by investing an average of $4-$6 million in 7-10 growth stage cleantech companies throughout the region.

With the stage set, we ended our tour with the final piece of the puzzle: the entrepreneur. The one accelerated or held up by policy, the one who seeks investment in order to grow their company, the one who may or may not be the inventor but rather the business-minded partner who strives to develop a sustainable business and make an impact.

The ECC and HUB Salt Lake hosted a speed-pitch session which gave entrepreneurs the opportunity to practice their company pitch and present their innovative technologies to Matthew.

ECC and Hub Salt Lake Speed Pitch Session

Kirk Bailey and Jeff Holman pitched their company, Cool Angle, which creates energy efficient shingles with a directionally reflective coating. Their shingles, when viewed from the ground look like the original shingle purchased from the manufacturer, but from the sky they appear white and have the ability to reflect the sun’s rays, effectively reducing home energy costs. They were recently named as semi-finalists in the 2013 Cleantech Open, and were runner-up in for the ECC’s Emerging Venture Competition at Energize 2013.  

Another set of Cleantech Open alumni, BYU students Nathan Parkins and Brock Bennion, pitched their company, Inviroment. They have developed a product called Plastek, which safely degrades plastics in landfills. The breakdown of plastic produces methane which can be captured and stored and later used as energy. They were awarded $100,000 for winning the regional Cleantech competition in Colorado, and recently competed in the national finals in Washington, D.C.  

Wayne Veihweg rounded out our speed pitch event with his company,Simplure. Simplure provides a solution to the power quality issues that are faced by commercial and manufacturing sectors. Through a power analysis, Simplure’s technicians monitor and identify the amount and type of harmonic distortion, then they apply their technology to cut out these interferences and improve the quality of the facilities power. Simplure’s customers benefits include reduced energy bills, reduced energy use, longer machine life, and reduced maintenance costs.

Though not the first state that comes to mind when you think renewable energy, it is evident that Utah has talented inventors and entrepreneurs solely focused on energy efficiency and innovation, as well as dedicated policy stakeholders and venture capital firms intent on changing the status quo.

As the Millennial Trains Project seeks to use local level research to address national issues, we are happy to have participated and look forward to the final results of Matthew’s transcontinental adventure. We will keep all of you posted as we receive updates from the project.

To connect with the ECC please Like us on Facebook

About Millennial Trains Project

The Millennial Trains Project empowers enterprising Millennials to advance ideas that benefit and serve local communities through crowdfunded, transcontinental train journeys. At the core of The Millennial Trains Project is the idea that journeys build leaders. From August 8 to 17, 2013, with stops in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., 25 Millennial entrepreneurs will advance innovative projects of their own design. The inaugural journey is sponsored by Bombardier, the United Nations Foundation and the S&R Foundation. Digital audiences can follow The Millennial Trains Project across America on Facebook,TwitterTumblr with the hashtag #NewFrontiers. 

“The future is ours to shape and new frontiers await. The Millennial Trains Project is a platform for emerging pioneers of the next generation to explore these new frontiers on a national scale. Our train is powered on across the country by the diverse aspirations of the forward-looking young changemakers who are onboard the train,” said Patrick Dowd, CEO and Founder of The Millennial Trains Project, “We look forward to visiting Salt Lake City, and we invite local and digital communities to follow our journey in-person and online to explore the possibilities of the digital age.” 

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