From Humble Energy Efficient Electric Motor To Climate Hero

The US startup Turntide is turning heads today with big plans for launching its energy efficient electric motor into the ranks of climate-fighting action heroes. It is not the kind of electric motor that goes into an eye-popping new electric vehicle, but it is something even better: an energy saving upgrade that can shave the global warming edge off your dirty old building.

Saving The Planet, One Energy Efficient Motor At A Time

Sure, electric vehicles get all the glamour and buzz, but those in the know have been hammering away at energy efficient buildings as the key to accelerating decarbonization. The building electrification trend is beginning to catch on, and that’s where electric motors come in.

Turntide Technologies launched a few years ago with the idea of bringing electric motors up to par with the latest software-driven technology for a big energy efficient kick.

“Over 47% of the world’s electricity is consumed by analog motors. These legacy motors haven’t fundamentally evolved since the 19th century, and they waste half the energy they consume,” Turntide explains. “There is no path to addressing climate change without modernizing the world’s electric motors.”

So, How Does It Work?

Turntide is pitching its Smart Motor System as “the first real revolution in motor technology in our lifetimes,” and they are not kidding around.

The problem is that conventional analog motors are the energy efficient equivalent of the incandescent light bulb, only instead of shedding loads of energy has heat they are constantly drawing electricity whether they need it or not.

Turntide’s approach is based around the principles that govern switched reluctance motor technology, where the simplicity of the architecture translates into durability, efficiency, and power density advantages.

There being no such thing as a free lunch, the drawbacks can include noisiness and difficulty in actually engineering the on-off switch, but it appears that Turntide has resolved those issues.

“We made patented hardware and software improvements, drawing on the cutting-edge technologies used in mobile computing and electric vehicles to provide intelligent controls. The result is the first software driven motor: the most efficient, reliable, and intelligent motor ever made,” Turntide enthuses.

The Energy Efficient Electric Motor Of Tomorrow, Today

If that sounds somewhat over the top, it is. However, they are not the only ones excited about deploying SRM technology to slip new energy efficient electric motors into HVAC systems and other appliances often found in buildings.

The US Department of Energy is also a fan of SRM technology. Back in 2013 DOE enlisted the firm Navigant Consulting to turn an eyeball onto the topic, and Navigant (later acquired by Guidehouse) discerned a huge potential market for high efficiency electric motors.

“Electric motor-driven systems and motor-driven components in appliances and equipment account for more than 25% of the primary energy consumption in both the residential and commercial sectors,” the firm noted.

After much detailed analysis (go see for yourself), Navigant came up with three related recommendations for future R&D aimed at improving motor and drive efficiency while reducing costs:

  • The use of wide bandgap semiconductors in place of conventional semiconductor materials
  • Identification of alternatives to rare-earth metals
  • Commercialization of switched reluctance motor (SRM) technology.

But Wait, There’s More

Coincidentally or not, that mostly dovetails with Turntide’s business model, and the plot thickens when you jump ahead to 2019, when the Energy Department’s Better Buildings program pitched something that sounds rather like the Turntide Smart Motor System.

Observing that “the vast majority” of electric motors in HVAC systems today are actually yesterday’s technology from 100 years ago, Better Buildings considered the option of retrofitting an old AC induction motor with a new variable-frequency drive, and then they dropped the whole idea like a wet potato in favor of new SRM technology.

“A new, small (1-to-10 hp) software-driven ‘smart motor, offers inherent variable-speed capability by combining a switched reluctance motor, used for decades in zero-fault-tolerance applications like nuclear reactors, with a built-in microprocessor and sensors,” they wrote.

They cited a test involving a 10 hp smart motor, among other evidence:

“Researchers found that, compared to a premium-efficiency induction motor combined with a VFD, the smart motor was 4% more efficient on average. Lower-power induction motors are generally less efficient than higher-power induction motors, and a concurrent assessment by the National Energy Renewable Laboratory of a 1.5 hp smart motor found savings of 33%, when compared to a VFD-controlled standard induction motor.”

“Because the 10 hp smart motor is about half as expensive as a premium-efficiency motor combined with a VFD, when replaced at end-of-life, payback is immediate,” they added, elaborating that “Researchers recommend end-of-life replacement for 1-to-10 hp motors. Retrofits are also worth considering for fixed-speed motors, motors less than 5 hp, and applications with lower installation costs, such as motors that control fans.”

Follow The Money To The Energy Efficient Electric Motor Of The Future

Turntide has already accumulated some fans, claiming a 64% average savings on HVAC motor energy consumption among clients that have replaced their old motors with the Smart Motor System, including Amazon, BMW, Five Guys, Sprouts, and JLL.

The clean tech investor community is also a fan. In today’s big news, Turntide announced the completion of a new round of $80 million in funding for a total of $180 million, citing an A-list laundry list of backers led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, with Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures, the Amazon Climate Pledge Fund, Keyframe Capital, FifthWall and Captain Planet LP coat-tailing.

Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Amazon ring a bell or two on the CleanTechnica radar, but FootPrint is a newcomer, having been launched last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

FootPrint works with both emerging technologies and late-stage developments that address “huge issues with a defensible and scalable business case,” which is where Turntide seems to fit in.

Also, according to the FootPrint website, Robert Downey Jr. has promised to throw the “nuttiest retirement party you’ve ever seen” in 11 years, if the firm has had some success in helping to stave off catastrophic climate change.

For those of you keeping score at home, the previously announced investor list includes Meson Capital, BMW iVentures, JLL Spark, WINDVentures, and Tony “father of the iPod” Fadell’s Future Shape.

What’s Next For Building Energy Efficiency

As for the Better Buildings Initiative, that launched during the Obama administration and seems to have come through the Trump years unscathed.

Last summer, in the middle of a global pandemic, the Energy Department tooted its own horn over the program, lauding a total of $11 billion in energy savings by more than 950 public and private sector partners in the program, which cumulatively represent “32 of America’s Fortune 100 companies, 12 of the top 25 U.S. employers, 12% of the U.S. manufacturing energy footprint, and 13% of U.S. commercial building space.”

Wowzers. It looks like everyone who’s everyone is on the prowl for improvements in building energy efficiency.

Turntide, for one, is not letting the grass grow under its feet. In addition to today’s $80 million announcement, yesterday Turntide announced that it is acquiring the similarly named but different cloud-based building automation software firm Riptide, which specializes in HVAC and control systems.

Hold on to your hats!

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Photo (cropped): Courtesy of Turntide (via Dropbox).



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