Boston Home to Most Innovative Cleantech Businesses

The Boston metropolitan area boasts some of the top universities in the world, such as Harvard and MIT, as well as many leading software, biotech and electronics businesses. I moved to Boston nearly a decade ago primarily because of its technology companies.

Boston’s cleantech sector is something you don’t hear too much about, however. Yet Massachusetts attracted 12 percent of North American cleantech venture capital dollars for 2011.

That’s a pretty impressive share, so I decided to take a closer look at some leading Boston-based clean technology companies.

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of clean technology is a gleaming array of solar panels. But entrepreneur Jim Poss sees cleantech opportunity in the less glamorous – the humble trashcan. His company, BigBelly Solar based in Newton, MA, makes trashcans equipped with solar-powered compactors and sensors that send out signals that tell how full they are.

Why bother? Because Poss’ product can save billions of dollars that cities and private waste disposal firms spend picking up trash every year. For example, Time Magazine reports that 700 BigBelly trash compactors are saving the city of Philadelphia $900,000 per year by reducing the frequency of trash pickups.

From a clean energy standpoint, saving a kilowatt is just as valuable as producing a kilowatt. EnerNOC, based in Boston, specializes in demand response systems that temporarily reduce energy use in a facility in order to balance the electric grid when it is under stress or prices are spiking.

Companies that install EnerNOC’s automated controls receive incentive funding from utilities of up to $300 per kilowatt per year. The savings can mount up fast. For example, EnerNOC installed a demand response system in Kimberley Clark’s Huntsville (Ontario) mill that takes 5.3 Megawatts off the grid for short periods of time when needed. The company performs routine maintenance on equipment during these periods.

“Being able to take advantage of downtime has really helped us internally to get our maintenance act together,” says Anthony Magistrale, electrical engineer at the Huntsville mill. The plant receives payments of over $325,000 per year to participate in the program.

Boston-Power Inc. of Westborough, MA offers an innovative approach to automotive battery design. Most electric vehicles to date have required expensive and energy-wasting air or water cooling systems to avoid battery overheating. Boston-Power is pitching the idea of using large numbers of small cells that are easier to keep cool because their higher surface-to-volume ratio increases heat transfer and their smaller size reduces thermal gradients.

The idea seems to be catching on. The company recently announced that Beijing Electric Vehicle Company will use Boston-Power’s lithium ion batteries in its C70 sedan which will go into production in late in 2012. “Seven years ago I had a really big idea,” says Christina Lampe-Onnerud, founder and international chairman of Boston-Power Inc. “Now we have multiple automotive customers as well as storage customers.”

My research turned up dozens of other companies with innovative clean technology in various stages of development in the Boston area. Do you have a favorite cleantech company?

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Photo: Big Belly by Daniel Lobo on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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