Jake Gray, Clir Renewables co-founder, on AI, electrification and new markets
Jake Gray is the co-founder of Clir Renewables, who make energy optimisation and reporting software for wind farms. We caught up with him about the challenges of applying AI to wind farm data, new market opportunities, and more…
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In the simplest terms, what does your company do?
Clir is a software that allows renewable energy owners, operators and other stakeholders to understand the technical performance of their assets and get clear actions to increase the output and minimise operational risk. Everything from is your plant tracking the wind or sun through to degradation in the blades and panels.
Of the deals you’ve worked on, which has been your favourite?
To give you some background, my career prior to working with Clir was in project development for wind farms, and a fair bit of that was working on acquisitions of operating wind farms. I worked for a company called Capstone Infrastructure, and probably the most exciting deal was a merger with a company called Sprott Power. The exciting part was that it was a sizeable portfolio, and about half the size of the company - so the company grew by 50% overnight. This was back in 2014.
Is Clir a new company?
Yes, it started late 2016. It started because Gareth, my co-founder, had been working in operations optimisations within wind engineering, and dealing with a lot of the big operators globally, he was witnessing the same kind of problems with every wind farm. The same issues were causing performance problems around the world and the existing internal or third party platforms weren’t addressing these problems. The biggest issue is renewables is unique to other big data problems. The resource is usually poorly defined and the data provided by equipment manufacturers can be complicated making it difficult to easily identify what is going on. That’s why we developed a system that takes advantage of the latest software and data science trends, combined with leading industry knowledge on renewable energy to give our customers the information at their fingertips to increase output.
Are you primarily working in Canada?
Canada, US and Europe currently – but we’ll be adding some sites in Australia, East Asia and South America in the near future, as well as additional sites in our current markets. It’s an exciting time to see so much traction when we have only just started the project.
In which markets do you see the best opportunities right now?
Wind farms around the globe are underperforming for various reasons. For Clir we see great opportunities in the US, Canada and Europe, while the APAC region is also a potential growth area for us.
What’s the biggest challenge for the industry?
It’s now shifting from an industry that was reliant on government policy or subsidy, to one that isn’t. With that comes a shift towards consolidation into a small number of major manufacturers, and also within the main service providers. Whenever you have consolidation, there’s a bit of pain that tends to happen through the industry. In terms of people’s biggest challenges to date it’s probably finding staff – especially finding wind farm managers and people at the ground level. It’s hard to find qualified staff. Climbing turbines is a significantly different job than turning pipes in a coal plant, and they’re not necessarily in the same places, so it’s not as simple as retraining people.
Which trends do you think will affect the wind sector the most?
There’s a trend towards electrification that will impact things greatly if it actually leads to net load growth. But in most developed countries, there’s been decreased load growth in relation to efficiency gains. It’s really tricky to predict if there will be load growth or not – but if there is substantial electrification of the transportation sector then we will see significant load growth that will impact wind, as wind will be the cheapest source of that new energy.
Thinking of your own career, which are the most important lessons you’ve learned?
The world’s a small place and people talk, so work hard and be nice to everybody.
Did you have a mentor?
Yes, Mike Chapin. He is currently a Partner at Twenty First Century Utilities. He taught me everything about the power space. He’s been a senior executive within power development since there was an IPP sector in the US in the early 80s. Most of what we did together was either green field development of wind farms or acquisitions of portfolios.
Clir uses elements of AI – could you explain more about that?
That’s a bit of the ‘secret sauce’ stuff! AI generally is hard to use on wind data, so we have to be very careful on which applications we choose to use it. The reason is because it is not possible to build a generalised data set applicable to all wind farms. Every turbine on every site has a different profile. In order to train AI algorithms you need a set of data that is suitable for all the future data it will be dealing with – the differences between turbines make that very difficult. We have some very clever ways of getting around this for a few of our analytics tools.
Will that always be a problem then – or as the industry grows, is there the possibility of bigger data sets?
Bigger data sets don’t necessarily solve the problem of creating training data that is universal. I don’t want to say that something is impossible. I would say it poses a significant challenge to using all AI. That’s not a problem that will necessarily go away in the future, without fundamentally different forms of modelling and clearly understanding the domain space. Clir is focused on solving these problems in our domain and has found some fantastic opportunities to exploit AI and automation. I’m excited to see what we’ll be able to do going forward.
About Jake Gray: Jake is a seasoned business development professional with over eight years of end to end management of wind, solar and natural gas plant development. He drives value by using both his extensive industry experience and significant network within the utility sector to find and execute opportunities. Currently, he serves at the COO of Clir Renewables where he manages the strategic structures of the company.
About Clir Renewables: Clir is a renewable energy AI software company whose industry-leading cloud-based tools help asset managers and owners maximize production, and give owners clarity on performance. Founded in late 2016, the company now serves over 2 GW of assets, raised over $5M funding in 2018, and boasts alumni from major owners, investors, developers, consultancies and software developers among its staff (DNV GL, Wood, Vattenfall, Natural Power, Amazon, among many others).