Slush, the world’s leading start-up event, saw thousands of start-ups, founders, operators, investors and media personnel gather in Helsinki, Finland, on 17-18 November.
As soon as I ask Eleonor Hedström, Director of Wärtsilä Next Business Lab, what the vibe is like at Slush 2022, a thunderous bass drop comes from afar and fills the air with energetic music. She laughs at the perfect timing. “Like that!” she says. “I’m always stoked when I’m here. It’s full of excitement and hope for the future. It’s a much-needed energy boost in the dark Finnish November.”
We’re sitting comfortably on the rooftop of one of the Partner Chambers in the Mentoring Area, having kicked off Slush with Wärtsilä’s exclusive Towards A 100% Renewable Energy Future chamber session. With us are Scouting Leads for Wärtsilä’s Next Business Lab, Terry Rim and Miikka Jokinen, and the four of us chat in view of a tapestry of neon lights, exotic-looking plants, and a constant flow of people in Finland’s largest event space.
“Slush is an interesting venue,” says Terry. “It gives us a chance to check our assumptions and challenge ourselves. When we’re at Slush, we can look for players in the ecosystem who do things a little differently and we can see how to learn from them and build something together.”
Eleonor kicked off the chamber session by laying out how complex the energy transition has become. “The world is changing. Coal is falling out of favour, and there’s an increasing need for electrification. But this also makes the electrical grid more complex, so there’s a huge need for managing this complexity and bringing in balancing solutions to support the renewable generation. That’s why everything we do is towards a 100% renewable energy future.”
To face this complexity head-on, Wärtsilä has made venture building a part of its business model, to find partners who can help it create the decarbonisation solutions of the future. This year, for example, the company launched its Sustainable Technology Hub in Vaasa, which offers business partners access to office space, ‘garages’, and Wärtsilä’s experts.
“At the Next Business Lab, we search for solutions that can springboard our customers into a decarbonised future,” says Eleonor. “We’re looking for visionary partners with innovations in energy storage solutions, decarbonisation, and the digitalisation of energy assets. The role of the Next Business Lab is to translate new innovations and technologies into shared opportunities. Our message to anybody thinking of working with us is straightforward: it might sound a little cheesy, but our highest-level goal is to accelerate the energy transition. As we saw in our chamber session just now, decarbonisation is an important theme on the agenda for start-ups, scale-ups, investors, and more mature companies alike.”
When I ask what the most complex challenges of the energy transition are today, the consensus is clearly how to integrate renewables more quickly. If a few cloudy days are on their way, for example, what’s the optimal way to switch away from solar power? And which power source should take over?
Wärtsilä has been addressing these questions for many years now through its flexibility offering, which today includes solutions capable of balancing renewable production, targeting an optimal power system, and paving the way for integration of renewables on a larger scale.
“This is an area with room for exciting collaboration with new partners and ventures,” says Miikka. “We can work together to find even better ways to optimise the balancing of solar and wind assets while ensuring that there is always enough electricity and minimal wastage. For example, more sophisticated forecasting capabilities on renewable production and electricity demand would create a lot of value in a renewable-heavy power system. That’s the kind of intelligence we’re looking for. That could take our existing solutions to the next level.”
Back in the chamber session, Ella Teperi, who manages Market & Financial Analysis for Wärtsilä’s Decarbonisation Services, also talked about the company’s well-established GEMS Digital Energy Platform. Ella and her colleagues are working to build on not only the capabilities of GEMS, but also Wärtsilä's extensive microgrid and power system modelling experience to help customers optimise their energy asset mix and dispatch.
Decarbonisation Services collaborates with customers who have their own microgrids. That means they have energy assets onsite to fill their energy needs and only limited or even no connection to the main grid. “What’s important for these customers is reliability,” she said. “If there’s a blackout, there could be serious health and safety or financial consequences. Decarbonisation must happen, but not at the expense of reliability. The question is: how do you maintain reliability and maximise efficiency when adding renewables to the grid?”
Ella pointed to one of Wärtsilä’s mining customers. It has an existing microgrid that incorporates engines and solar PV, with a goal of reducing its emissions by 30% by 2030. The company has been spending too much on fuels because the variability of the existing solar PV is forcing it to run its engines at a lower load.
“We started modelling the system,” she said. “The first opportunity we saw for them was to implement GEMS and energy storage. That alone would save them USD 1.5 million in fuel each year. The next step could be converting to natural gas to help reach its decarbonisation goal. Then, by adding more solar PV and energy storage, the company could bring its emissions down by about 25%, which translates to a 15% reduction in operational costs.”
On the rooftop, I ask: if Slush is the place for start-ups, how do they come into this equation? The conversation turns to energy storage company Greensmith, a success story that Eleonor covered in the session. Greensmith got together with Wärtsilä in 2016 when both parties recognised that they could succeed better together. In 2017, Wärtsilä acquired Greensmith, and integration started a year later.
“We’re now in the process of scaling this business,” says Eleonor. “Our current project portfolio totals 2.7 GW. We have 240 employees in this unit, now called Energy Storage & Optimisation. That’s an increase of 500% since the acquisition. Our storage business accounted for 60 % of our newbuild order intake in Q3 this year. If that’s not success, I don’t know what is!”
Wärtsilä is looking to replicate the success it had with Greensmith, and this could very well come from building on top of GEMS. Currently, GEMS minimises the curtailment of renewables, efficiently optimises balancing engines for run-time, and ensures that there's always enough reserve capacity to ensure uninterrupted power supply. And yet there are opportunities to develop it even further.
“We’re very proud of GEMS at Wärtsilä,” says Miikka. “But we can’t be complacent. We must keep developing our offering, and the biggest shared opportunity would be around developing even more sophisticated ways to integrate renewables into the grid.”
“It’s a competent and flexible platform,” agrees Terry, “but given all the things we want to do and the time in which we want to take it to the market, we need to look at the ecosystem players to help us get there alongside our own development. That’s why we want to shake things up and work alongside partners to go the extra mile and solve the most complex challenges in energy today."