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Posts Tagged ‘Natural gas processing’

Last week I noted that much of the oil & gas industry is waiting to see what President Trump will do. While consensus was that he would likely scale back regulations, the question was how fast and how consistent he’ll be. Today—essentially the second work day of the Trump administration—gave the initial answer, as President Trump signed executive actions to advance Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. While this does not provide the permits required to build these pipelines, it essentially paves their way for approval.

Keystone Pipeline Route

Keystone Pipeline Route

If you aren’t familiar with the Keystone pipeline system, it allows for the transportation of oil & gas production between Alberta, Canada to several refineries and distribution centers in the U.S. (including Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas). Despite protests over the XL phase of the Keystone system, many people don’t know is that the first three phases of this pipeline are already in place (phase one since 2010). The proposed XL phase of the system—which essentially duplicates the first three phases with shorter routes, while adding in oil & gas production from Montana/North Dakota—became a battleground over climate change and the value of fossil fuels in today’s world. Given the way politics works, it also became a dividing issue between democrats and republicans. Former President Obama rejected the Keystone XL phase in 2015 while President Trump, when campaigning in 2016, insisted he would approve it.

While many in the oil & gas industry view Keystone XL as key to growing U.S. prominence in the market while reducing dependency on foreign oil, the big complaint over the Keystone XL pipeline was in the environmental danger of routing over the Sandhills in Nebraska:

Boiling sands are areas where sandy soil is so thin that groundwater can bubble up through it to the surface. In Nebraska, they are found in the Sand Hills, an ecologically sensitive region of grass-covered dunes underlain by a giant freshwater aquifer, called the Ogallala, that sustains agricultural production down the centre of America.

In addition to the unforeseen environmental consequences, others argue that the route threatens the water supply of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

The Dakota Access pipeline—an 1,172-mile-long, underground pipeline beginning in the rich Bakken oilfields of North Dakota and ending near Patoka, Illinois—has also seen protests and push-back. Although mostly completed, the current route does not have approval. Given today’s executive orders, both the Dakota Access pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline are closer to approval than they’ve been in years.

President Trump insisted on that both projects are “subject to terms and conditions to be negotiated by us.” While it is uncertain what this means regarding environmental impact, President Trump has already given some insight about what this means for U.S. jobs, believing that U.S. pipeline should be constructed in the U.S., thereby “putting a lot of steel workers back to work.” He also believes Keystone XL will add 28,000 construction jobs. There is expected push-back from democrats and environmentalists, but without current political maneuverability, those roadblocks may be a thing of the past.

EDIT: Revised White House stance on U.S. steel: http://www.ogj.com/articles/2017/03/white-house-keystone-xl-will-not-use-us-produced-steel.html

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Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home), industrial water purification (biofilm removal), and reduced water pumping costs.

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for coal, biosolids, sugar beets, dairy waste, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools covers Colorado becoming the first state to control methane emissions at oil and gas sites, as well as noting its solution to help keep oil and gas companies in compliance with more stringent air quality standards. 

The Colorado Air Quality Commission just passed the strictest oil and gas air regulation issues in the nation, as they are the first to directly address and regulate emissions of methane gas (which is linked to climate change). For some, this is an overdue environmental necessity. For others, it’s one more attempt to shut down oil and gas production under the guise of purely health and environmental motivations.

Gov Hickenlooper (colorado.gov)

Gov Hickenlooper (colorado.gov)

After four days of hearings, on February 23rd, the state Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) passed the motion by a vote of 8-1. They did so with support from Governor John Hickenlooper, environmental groups, and three large oil and gas operators — Anadarko, EnCana, and Noble Energy — along with Colorado’s largest natural gas gathering/processing company, DCP Midstream.

However, several smaller oil and gas companies, along with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and the Colorado Petroleum Association (CPA), opposed the far-reaching aspects of the regulations. COGA spokesman Doug Flanders noted, “Unfortunately, we were not successful in ensuring that the rule accommodates the differences in basins and operators. Nevertheless, we are committed to working with our operators, our communities and the state to successfully and effectively implement these rules.”

According to the Denver Business Journal, “State officials have pegged compliance costs at about $42.5 million a year, or less than $500 per ton of pollution eliminated. Executives at some of the Colorado’s biggest oil and gas companies have said the state’s estimate is in line with their estimates and a cost they consider acceptable.”

Funny thing about estimates that occur before regulations go into effect: they often fall woefully short once the laws of supply and demand kick in. If you must fix something to avoid fines (and yes, avoid damaging the environment), no one is surprised when the cost of fixing that requirement goes way up.

In addition:

The new operations standards are expected to remove from the air about 93,500 tons per day of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cook into ozone on hot, sunny days, state officials have said.

They’re also expected to cut methane leaks by about 65,000 tons per year, with the methane — a strong greenhouse gas — captured and redirected into pipelines bound for markets.

Methane: harmful even when not coming from the backside of a cow

Methane: harmful even when not coming from the backside of a cow

So how are these rules different?

1. The regulations affect all of Colorado

This is something oil and gas proponents don’t like because different areas can have different issues, so a blanket approach not only takes the power away from the individual counties to make their own decisions, but can potentially apply standards that don’t make sense to that area. Like an omnibus or a comprehensive reform bill, some things get over-regulated, where other things aren’t regulated enough. In addition, these sweeping decisions can also be viewed as a state power grab over what should be an ongoing area-by-area conversation. For example, attempts to ban fracking in Colorado went after a statewide approach, got shot down, and returned as county-by-county initiatives (with some successes, some failures).

However, understand this: Similar to how a ban on fracking essentially shuts down oil and gas production, over-regulating methane emissions in producing oil and gas wells can do the same thing. For activists opposed to oil and gas, this is simply a greater victory, but the Average Joe voter may not be aware of all the damaging effects of this sweeping move, especially to the local economy and jobs.

2. The regulations require routine checks for leaks

This makes sense. If equipment is malfunctioning or something needs to be repaired (because it’s not doing what it’s designed to do), it should be fixed. Regulators can check up to once a month and any issue needs to be resolved in 15 days or the company faces ongoing fines.

I’ve been to enough oil and gas conferences to where I’ve heard repeatedly that oil and gas companies state they’re not opposed to regulation, just bad regulation. A lot of the larger companies — like the four above — are stepping out ahead of regulations to embrace these changes. Many of them now realize that the concerns of the Average Joe towards oil and gas are important (even if those concerns are shaped by misinformation supplied by activists opposed to this energy industry). This should be an obvious understanding, but it’s only recently, with some fracking bans succeeding, that valuing these concerns has increased.

But why are these big four on the opposite side of a lot of the smaller companies? Part of it is innovation. I saw a presentation from XTO Energy where they were detailing changes to their standards to improve wildlife protection. They weren’t being forced; it seemed like an “everybody wins” business practice. However, these larger companies can also afford to take a slight hit in Colorado if it helps their PR elsewhere. Noble Energy I’m unsure on; they’re fairly committed to Colorado, but the last time strong oil and gas regulations showed up in Colorado, EnCana slashed their state budget to 10% of what it was the year before. If EnCana pulls back again, they still have a global business to work with, but Colorado takes a hit on the jobs they no longer provide, and the smaller oil and gas companies take a hit due to increased costs.

 3. The regulations specifically target methane

Prior legislation only regulated volatile organic compounds (VOCs). When referring to oil and gas emissions, VOCs typically mean harmful gases and vapors. Previously, no other state has regulated methane, as it’d be difficult to enforce throughout the oil and gas chain. Which brings us to the next point:

4. The regulations include the entire natural gas chain

This includes “the well site, storage tanks, gathering lines and compression stations as well as processing plants.”

I’m all for preventing methane issues — especially in leaking and abandoned wells that should have their environmentally negligent issues addressed — but there are ongoing production areas that will become an issue. I mentioned above that methane regulation would be difficult to enforce throughout the entire chain. It’s not tough to enforce because the EPA doesn’t have the means — they have infrared cameras on helicopters to fly over and fine with ease — it’s tough to enforce because so many parts of producing wells have problems that stem from moving gas, especially with the 95% compliance rate they’ve set.

Natural gas is hard to control. It’s not like you can just grab it in scoops and stick it a giant zip lock bag that’ll never leak, and once it’s loose, there is no amazing net to swat over this loose natural gas to reel it back in.

As with many issues in the oil and gas industry, solutions shift once the existing solution is regulated away.

Vortex Tools has a solution to vented methane emissions at the well site. As with VOCs, the Vortex tool spins the flow of oil, gas, water, and natural gas liquids. By doing so, much of what would be fugitive vapors are converted to liquids and not allowed to escape at the culprit atmospheric release points. This allows operators to remain in compliance with EPA air standards (customer data shows negligible vapors at the well site, even at 103-degree F ambient daytime temperatures) and recover more valuable oil, condensate, and natural gas liquids to boot.

Vortex vapor recovery tool

Vortex vapor recovery tool

For more info on this application, email me at colin (at) vortextools (dot) com.

Of course, the largest sources of methane emissions still belong to termites and volcanoes, but bugs, exploding lava, and giant smoke clouds don’t listen to regulations. Maybe we’ll work on a solution to them next.

For now, it will be interesting to see if other states follow the standards set here or if it’s simply a Colorado-only effect for all the good and bad these regulations can bring.

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Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home), industrial water purification (biofilm removal), and reduced water pumping costs.

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, dairy waste, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools explains why, with fuel costs and slim profit margins, the airline industry is one of the likeliest to not go green.

By Flickr user Axwel [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI’ve mouthed off a lot about airlines lately (see here and here). Maybe it’s just that I’m experiencing their joys and troubles more often from traveling. For instance, the fact that a plane can leave the gate, then stall on the runway while luggage gets loaded on late, while still allowing the airline to check the box for an “on time” departure is indicative of the level of meaningless standards.

But here’s my bent today: I realized a while ago that the airline industry has no motivation to go green.

Many environmentalists don’t like oil and gas, but there are motivations to keep the industry cleaner. In the event of an oil spill, there are fines, cleanup costs, public relations pains, etc. In the event of too many CO2 emissions from the wellhead, the producer gets fined until they’re in compliance with air laws. Additionally, regulations keep changing—usually in a way that’s stricter on oil and gas pollution. Flaring gas is continuing to get scaled back and I doubt fracking will make it, in its current form, through another 10 years.

Vortex vapor recovery tool

Vortex vapor recovery tool

In working in the oil and gas sector—using Vortex Tools to vastly reduce CO2 emissions and to recover 10 times more valuable natural gas liquids to make a profit while burning a cleaner flare—I can tell you that all of these aspects equate to motivation to make a dirty industry cleaner.

But airlines don’t really have this kind of motivation.

Like any other industry, they can spin their efforts as green, but it’s about intent and application. Everything the airlines do is to get planes in the air with less cost. The biggest obstacle to this is the price of fuel. While they can’t control the cost of the commodity, they can control the weight they’re putting on the plane. You may be familiar with examples of airlines using lighter seats, thinner and lighter magazines, and not serving food on shorter flights.

(The exception to all these rules is if you pay a premium—for larger seats, for extra luggage, for food on the short ride.)

Then there are some uglier examples of controlling weight. While we’re seeing people get dinged for their bag being overweight, we’re also seeing examples of people getting dinged for they themselves being overweight. I get it logistically—I’m a small man and the airline experience gets me way too familiar with the odors and feel of the people around me—but you can see how this can get cruel quick. I’ve got some larger friends who understand that they need to buy a first class ticket if they want to fly comfortably, but what happens when you put these kinds of requirements on say, an obese kid?

In addition, the cynical part of me is waiting to hear some secret audio from a worldwide airline executive complaining about how fat Americans are ruining profit margins. In the mean time, Samoa Air has already introduced a “pay what you weigh” model.

During the Cleantech Open, I met a company, Molon Labe, who made a sliding airline seat. The value of this is that you could load / unload the plane faster (slide over the middle seat on your side and go), get a faster turnaround (using energy in the air instead of wasting it on the ground), and, according to them, saving airlines $75,000 a day in fuel costs (not sure how many planes would need to install their seats to get that number, but it’s still significant).

As the Cleantech Open had a large sustainability component, Molon Labe’s argument was that this kind of efficiency could allow a plane to have more flights in a day, allowing airlines to remove planes from their fleet entirely. In theory, less planes = less energy use = less environmental impact, but from what I’ve seen of this industry, less energy use + greater flight turnaround = more flights in a day. More flights in a day = more environmental impact, and, if it makes sense and the profit margin is good enough, more planes in the fleet.

It’s a reality that rarely gets pushed back on companies touting green, but more efficiency does not always equal greater sustainability.

In the end, regardless of what I think of certain airline practices, I know it’s a tough industry. The profit margins are surprisingly slim and most airline companies go bankrupt at some point. As comedian Louis CK noted, it is amazing that we can sit in chairs and fly through the sky to the other side of the world (see 2:00 on — yes, the clip is in English):

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Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools shares an image of the Bakken oilfield from space.

When it comes to American oil and gas fields, the Bakken in North Dakota is booming with activity. However, as regulations to ban flaring (burning) of gas won’t be made until 2015, currently 30% of all natural gas in the Bakken field is burned. This visual from NASA shows how the Bakken is lit up like a city:

Ceres_logo_green_horizontal

As the Vortex tools capture polluting vapors (allowing oil and gas producers to avoid fines) and recover a greater amount of natural gas liquids, North Dakota—with its high liquids rate in their natural gas—benefits greatly from the Vortex, getting the oil vapor values from the natural gas as opposed to burning those values to atmosphere.

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Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools shares a video of a natural gas flare in North Dakota.

One of our key U.S. oil & gas markets is the Bakken field in North Dakota where, currently, they’re burning off (or flaring) 30% of their natural gas. In the aftermath of the 2012 election, flaring will be regulated down in the upcoming years. As Vortex Tools has a solution that increases and captures the natural gas liquids energy entrained in the gas, the flare burns smaller and cleaner, allowing oil & gas producers to increase their profits while remaining in compliance with environmental regulations.

This brief video, taken by one of our partners in North Dakota, captures the jet engine sound coming from the flare (without Vortex):

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Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools qualified as a semifinalist in the Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for their application in turning harmful CO2 waste from oil and gas wells into recovered high-value energy. This series of blogs was designed to chronicle our experience going through the 2012 Cleantech Open as a reference point for future applicants. Every post — as well as the top five best and worst things the Cleantech Open has to offer — is listed below.

After five months and now 10 posts on the Cleantech Open (or clean tech open if the search engines are slacking), it’s time I get back to things that are ongoing, like my disdain for Captain Planet. Before I go, however, here’s a post of the top five best and worst parts of the Cleantech Open, as well as every post of what to expect from each section of this green business accelerator:

Top Five Best Things in the Cleantech Open

  1. You get your money’s worth: Despite the initial cost, with the extensive networking, volunteer services, and yes, free swag, you’ll get more value than what you put in. Based on time input, though, that’s a whole other angle. For more on this, see posts I and III below.
  2. Rapid education for new small business people: If you’ve just started a company or you just have an idea, the Cleantech Open is for you. Established companies should stay away. For more on this, see post III, IV and VII below.
  3. Excellent business clinics: Currently these are only in the Rocky Mountain region, but with the caliber of support and the expertise of the specialists, they should be expanded to every region. For more on this, see post IV below.
  4. Cleantech Open volunteers genuinely want to help every team succeed in business: With the networking alone, you’ll start to connect to some of the right people (though networking is always a numbers game and you never know its true value until later). More than that, however, Cleantech Open volunteers want to see innovation succeed. For more on this, see post II below.
  5. Win or lose, your company messaging will improve: Whether it’s your elevator pitch, legal needs, target market or customer connections, the Cleantech Open will point you in the right direction. For more on this, see posts III, IV and V below.

Top Five Worst Things in the Cleantech Open

  1. Very disorganized; needs more staff support: This was the true constant in the Cleantech Open. If they want to grow, they need to invest in the proper infrastructure, but those costs could well change its value. For more on this, see posts I, II, IV and VI below.
  2. Not all regions and personnel are created equal: Whether it’s the amount of finalists, the engagement of personnel, or what state you’re in (in proximity to where the regional events are held), your experience can vary. Call up past semifinalists in your state and check. For more on this, see post III below.
  3. The worksheets are frustrating and have little value (especially to an established company): Whether it’s meaningless deadlines, shifting requirements, or the sheer amount of busy work (especially with the webinars) for a product that doesn’t have that much value in the Cleantech Open or the business world, the worksheets — at least with their current form and emphasis — are a waste of time and effort. Additionally, much of the education materials throughout default to the lowest common denominator, meaning the more basic info you know, the less you learn. For more on this, see posts IV and V below.
  4. Some judges will continually miss the value of your product: People mess up and have biases, and since the judges in the Cleantech Open are no different, it doesn’t matter what you say, some will miss or misconstrue what you present (even if those worksheets were supposed to help ease that problem). This can happen as early as the application phase or as late as final judging, but it will happen. For more on this, see posts I, VI and VII below.
  5. Final judging bias overrules overall competition effort: Although the Cleantech Open says overall competition participation is important, it feels more like you can shrug off the first 80% of the competition and hope to hit the judges niche at the end. Rather than sending on the best teams, it feels like they send on the teams that safely fit the Cleantech Open mold. For more on this, see posts VI and VII below.

Process Posts: What to Expect from the…

I. Application

II. National Conference

III. Regional Academy

IV. Webinars (part one) and business clinics

V. Webinars (part two), worksheets and mock judging

VI. Final judging and the awards ceremony

VII. Final thoughts on the Cleantech Open

Misc. Posts on the Cleantech Open

VIII. Five insights to the current state of green energy in the U.S.

IX. Vortex Tools clip from the Cleantech Open

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If you have any questions or comments, please email me at blog (at) spiroflo (dot) com

Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

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Vortex Tools qualified as a semifinalist in the Cleantech Open—a global competition to accelerate green technologies—for their application in turning harmful CO2 waste from oil and gas wells into recovered high-value energy. This blog covers Vortex Tools’ final placement and all the things we couldn’t (or shouldn’t) have said along the way.

After nearly five months, the 2012 Cleantech Open has wrapped. In writing these final thoughts, I wanted to give it some time so that I’d be fair. Inevitably, if you win, it’s hard to not come across as wearing rose-tinted glasses, and if you lose, it’s hard to not come across as sour grapes. As this entry is long (and I’ve covered the complete process over a half-dozen other entries), I’ll post a complete summary soon.

Throughout the Cleantech Open, I’ve tried to be fair about both the good and the bad, even if it’s just my opinion. Hopefully this blog is no different:

1. Vortex Tools Placed As a Runner-Up in Both Categories 

In getting picked as runner-up in both sustainability and the overall competition, we had two avenues to mercilessly threaten the winning teams to get to the national finals, but for all the horse heads we left on pillows, no one dropped out to allow Vortex Tools to go on. As both these runner-up nods indicate that the Cleantech Open thinks somewhat highly of our product, we should be satisfied, right?

Well… we’re not. Before I get the “you’re just disgruntled because you didn’t win” line, let me explain:

Let’s get ready to rrruuuuumble! 

2. The Best Teams Did Not Win

Bear in mind, throughout this process, you will connect with many other teams. If you’re like me, it’s possible to enjoy people, but still be objective about their strengths and weaknesses. Of the three teams picked as finalists in the Rocky Mountain region, one was clearly the favored pick, as they won both the finalist slot and the sustainability slot. This threw off the other teams in the region — as we thought there were four finalists, not three — but upon questioning this, we were told that the Cleantech Open judges like it when the same team wins both categories, as it shows that a winning team can also be sustainable. It should be noted that this is a 2012 rule update (in previous years the same judges divided these categories).

As sustainability is supposed to be 20% of your final grade, I figured each of the finalists would have a strong sustainability component, but all of them seemed surprisingly lacking, especially as several other teams excelled in this area. Worse than that, the sustainability finalist was a terrible pick. I’m not saying this just from my viewpoint, but also by the stated Cleantech Open guidelines. At mock judging, the sustainability judge told us that sustainability was graded based on a triple bottom line, meaning that the technology has to provide a profit, as well as benefiting both people and the planet. We were also told that Vortex led in this category, because as of the mock judging stage (as in two weeks before the competition was over), no other team had incorporated sustainability into their presentation. That’s right: in a green competition not one team save Vortex had green benefits noted in their presentation. Seemed pretty nuts to me, too.

I won’t list the finalists’ names (as that would be unfair to them based on what I’m about to say), but of the three winning teams in the Rocky Mountain region:

  • The favored team didn’t show up to several “required” events, but was a shoo in as they’re a safe pick, had won prior green competitions, are involved in academia and nanotechnologies, but not in-revenue (all Cleantech Open soft spots). One of their team members noted that the Simon Cowell judge knew him from another competition and was excited to see him again (not surprisingly, this was one of the few teams that judge didn’t grill). Most judges would understand the need to remove bias and recuse themselves, but I’m assuming the Cleantech Open doesn’t have the support for that kind of personnel switch. In the end, it just serves to note that the green world is as much of an insider’s club as the good old boy industry agendas they despise. It’s okay; networking is that way of the world. We’ve benefited from it as much as it has hurt us.
  • The second finalist is easy to pick apart, but as they worked hard and are a different take on what clean tech means, I’ll actually give kudos to the Cleantech Open for selecting a great long shot pick.
  • The final team though — that’s the one that highlights all the issues with the Cleantech Open judging: This team struggled throughout the process, was unprepared several times (but allowed to fix things after deadlines), and didn’t even finish their final presentations. As a result, I have a hard time believing they came out ahead of most of the other semifinalists. For as harsh as that may sound, consider this: Even the leader of this team was surprised at being picked as one of the winners.

So if there were better teams in the Rocky Mountain region, how did we get these three finalists? 

3. Cleantech Open Biases Come Out Late in the Game

As far as the 2012 Rocky Mountain region is concerned, there were certain obvious biases (covered above), but there also seemed to be judge opposition towards in-revenue companies and dirty industries (oil and gas, clean coal, biofuels, landfilling, etc.) — regardless of how much innovative companies improve these areas. I say this because most of the best teams in the Rocky Mountain region fell into at least one of these categories and didn’t win. Every team that won hasn’t sold anything yet.

At the beginning of the competition, we thought we had a chance to do well in our region, but not at the finals for a couple of main reasons:

1) This is a clean tech competition: Inevitably, we figured we’d run into the kind of green crowd that hates that we work in the oil and gas industry, even if we’re trying to improve it. Do you really see a clean technology competition picking an oil and gas company as their winner? As crass as an example as it may seem, it’d be like a mainstream beauty pageant picking a plus-sized model as their winner. It should be possible — as beautiful is beautiful regardless of size and there are a variety of factors in those competitions (like the verbal horror of the question and answer sections) — but in the end, whether it’s stated or not, we all know what they’re looking for.

2) Chevron was the main sponsor: Yes, you read that correctly: one of the six supermajor oil and gas companies was the largest corporate sponsor of the Cleantech Open in 2012. While some might think this should have improved Vortex’s chances to win, large “dirty industry” companies promote green activities to A) keep a pulse on innovation; and B) improve their image. Again, with the latter, there’s no way they’d pick and oil and gas company to win a green competition. Everyone would assume it was rigged by sponsor dollars.

Even with these factors in mind, Vortex figured we’d enter to network and prove that the oil and gas industry can do better environmentally (reducing CO2 emissions) while doing so economically (increasing oil vapor and natural gas liquid recovery for greater profit). Up until the final judging, we thought we were wrong about these initial assumptions and the aforementioned biases, but it was really disappointing to be proven right in the closing days.

As a clean coal company won the Rocky Mountain region in 2011 — but got ripped apart at the national finals — we thought we had a chance, but it turns out the only reason that clean coal company went to the finals at all was because one of the safe companies took the prize money and immediately dropped out of the competition. You can bet your pocket lint that little payday flub got fixed this year. As a result, the biases we noted above have remained consistent over several years.

4. Come On, Are You Sure You’re Not Just Bitter?

With this much criticism, I imagine a number of you must be thinking: “Why don’t you just say you should have won?”

Okay, I’ll say it: Vortex Tools should’ve been one of the finalists.

Angry cat: More socially acceptable than I am in this situation

It’s one thing if we say it — we could easily be delusional about how good we are (watch the tryouts for any talent show on TV) — but the problem is others were saying “Vortex should win,” too. This includes some of the other semifinalists, the volunteers who helped teams with their messaging, and even Cleantech Open personnel. When Vortex didn’t win and the wrong company did (above a field of stronger competitors, not just us), the Cleantech Open personnel said things to us like, “I don’t know what happened”; “I don’t get it, but we have no pull on the judging team”; and bluntly: “You should have won.”

As I’m as direct in private as I am publicly, Vortex discussed this with some of the more open Cleantech Open personnel. One high up volunteer told us, “You only lost by half a point” (hence the runner-up status in both categories) and that we were leading the competition until late in the day. The problem is that two of the teams who beat us presented early and the last one was the weakest team. As genuinely supportive as the Cleantech Open is to each company throughout (and even after) the process, there are still hidden standards and expectations for their winners.

Final judging should not be able to override what was a good process, but as of this year in the Cleantech Open, it does. Pick the wrong judges and they’ll send on their bias rather than consistent teams. In the end though, it’s their competition; they can judge it however they like. However, people also have the right to judge the way they judge — especially when they don’t follow their own guidelines — and we’ve come to the conclusion that Vortex’s runner-up nods were given as platitudes for a dirty industry team that wouldn’t be allowed to win a clean tech competition.

I’m guessing that I’m not the first person to feel this way, but if the Cleantech Open doesn’t want a repeat of Vortex Tools in the future, it needs an update. The easiest ways I see to do this are A) have pre-revenue and in-revenue companies compete for different finalist slots; B) place “dirty” technologies in their own category that they can actually win; and/or C) rewrite the entry rules so that a team like Vortex can’t slip through the initial process.

Inevitably, whatever the Cleantech Open is at this stage — a small business accelerator, a positive image shift for large sponsors, or a way to feel good about supporting small green startups  — it’s not a business competition.

5. The Bottom Line: Knowing What We Know Now, Vortex Tools Wouldn’t Have Participated in the Cleantech Open

It’s safe to say that Vortex got more out of the Cleanteach Open than we put in. There are many good parts, including:

  • Lots of networking opportunities
  • Several great Cleantech Open staff volunteers, including David Talon, Rex Northen, Cindy Jennings, Jerry Healey and Jennifer Mayes
  • Excellent business clinics (every region should have these); and
  • The ability to improve your marketing message, especially with volunteer companies like Posit Partners involved

So then… what’s the problem?

The problem is that you can do all the above with far less commitment. You can be intentional about networking; you can work with business clinics and marketing groups more specifically (even if you have to pay for their services, they’re worth it); and guess what? Usually it doesn’t take a four-month commitment and you don’t get all the bad we’ve covered either.

Early on, we knew the Cleantech Open would be a hefty commitment, but we chose to dedicate the resources. This meant working early/late and on our vacations. It meant that as a company already selling a patented and proven technology into growing markets, we had to spend our resources carefully, so to get a late game bait and switch from the Cleantech Open feels like a rip off.

I will say this: If you’re just starting a business (pre-revenue), the Cleantech Open is worth it. You’ll get a rapid business education, technology development, market help, a level of credibility for your company, extensive networking and many other good things. As a company actually doing business, however, we got a basic business education we already knew and are far beyond, resources we could get elsewhere more efficiently, and the final jab of watching weaker teams stumble into awards with less effort.

*                             *                             *

In the next (and final) Cleantech Open blog, I’ll provide links to every Cleantech Open blog I’ve written as well the top five pros and cons of the process. If you read all of this entry, you get an e-high five. If you have any questions or comments, please email me at blog (at) spiroflo (dot) com

Colin McKay Miller is the VP of Marketing for the SpiroFlo Holdings group of companies:

SpiroFlo for residential hot water savings (delivered 35% faster with up to a 5% volume savings on every hot water outlet in the home) and industrial water purification (biofilm removal).

Vortex Tools for extending the life of oil and gas wells (recovering up to 10 times more NGLs, reducing flowback startup times, replacing VRUs, eliminating paraffin and freezing in winter, etc.).

Ecotech for cost-effective non-thermal drying (for biosolids, sugar beets, etc.) and safe movement of materials (including potash and soda ash).

 

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