Green Businesses Flock to Alameda Point

A pioneering Alameda Point company helped smooth the way for clean-tech entrepreneurs to set up shop at the former naval base.


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Photo courtesy of Makani Power

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After years of dormancy since its closure as a Navy Base in 1997, Alameda Point has quietly become an incubator of new green energy and tech businesses. Its open space, old aircraft hangars, and light-industrial capabilities have attracted innovative businesses seeking to change how energy is generated and consumed.

Makani Power, Natel Energy, Saildrone, and Wrightspeed are among the green businesses that will soon occupy 175,000 square feet of space at Alameda Point. The latter company just signed a lease in January to move into an 110,000-square-foot hangar at the Point. Together with Makani and Natel Energy, Wrightspeed will generate some $1.4 million in annual lease income for Alameda, according to Eric Fonstein, development manager for the City of Alameda.

Much of the current rush to Alameda can be traced back to 2006, when Makani Power arrived in town. After spending nearly two years in a warehouse just down the street from Pixar Studios in Emeryville, Squid Labs and Makani founders Saul Griffith, Colin Hardham, and Don Montague discovered Alameda Point. They were thrilled to get the lease on the old Alameda Naval Station’s air traffic control tower. “It felt like we won the lottery,” Griffith said in a 2008.

They needed more room to expand and house the three new companies spun off from Squid and Griffith’s various ideas and inventions. In addition to Squid, the building originally housed Optiopia, Potenco, and Makani Power. Eventually, Makani became the sole company in the control tower building. Griffith moved on in 2009 and tragically, Hardham, Makani’s CEO, died at his desk in 2012. Google, which had supported the company with a $10 million grant in 2006 and an additonal $5 million of funding in 2008 through its philanthropic arm, Google.org, bought the company in 2013. Montague then moved on, too. Makani is now part of Google X, the secretive division of Google that’s produced Google Glass and is working on driverless cars.

Since its inception, Makani—which means wind in Hawaiian—has been working on high-altitude energy kites as a way to reliably generate wind power at low cost. Conventional wind turbines, such as those at Altamont Pass, are 100 meters high, cost lots of money, and require on average 100 tons of material to construct. No surprise that only 5 percent of the world’s power currently comes from the wind.

But during their years in Alameda, kiteboarders Griffith, an MIT-trained engineer, and Hardham, a Stanford-trained engineer, met Google’s founders and fellow kiteboarders Sergey Brin and Larry Page on a sailboat ride. One of the other people they told about Alameda Point was Ian Wright, a co-founder of Tesla, who is the CEO of Wrightspeed. “Ian knew Saul and Colin, and that’s how he found out about the Point,” Fonstein said.

Wrightspeed, which will be moving from San Jose to its new home at Hangar 41 at Alameda Point, manufactures electric powertrain units that can be installed in existing delivery and garbage trucks, lowering emissions and noise while allowing the aging vehicles to remain in use. In 2014, FedEx decided to retrofit 25 trucks with Wrightspeed’s energy-saving powertrains.

In addition to raising millions in venture capital funding, Wrightspeed won a $6 million grant in 2013 from the California Energy Commission for Advanced Vehicle Technical Manufacturing, which will help it move to Alameda. Wrightspeed also agreed to chip in $2 million to renovate the hangar. “This is a significant move for us, and we thank both the city of Alameda and the California Energy Commission for their support in meeting our commercial scaling needs. Alameda Point has a rich transportation history, and we’re pleased to be part of its next iteration as a hub of commercial innovation,” Wright said.

Alameda City Manager John Russo sees the move as another step in restoring the Point to its former role as the economic engine of the city. “Wrightspeed’s relocation to Alameda Point is part of the trend that is fueling Alameda’s continuing growth as a hub of innovation in the alternative energy and advanced-manufacturing sectors,” Russo said.

Founded in 2005, Natel Energy has shared space with Makani in the control tower since 2009, when it incorporated and garnered venture capital funding and a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Now, it has just signed a lease to move into a larger building at the Point. Founded by the sister-and-brother team of MIT-schooled engineers Gia and Abe Schneider, Natel, which employs 15 people, has developed a water turbine system as a new source of clean electricity that is designed to not disrupt water flow or farm irrigation. It seeks to tap the undeveloped hydropower potential in the United States.

Abe Schneider has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and is responsible for Natel’s product development. Prior to Natel, he worked for Makani and managed a group of five engineers broadly responsible for Makani’s aero-mechanical systems. “Makani and Natel have had a very symbiotic relationship,” Fonstein said.

With Wrightspeed’s lease agreement for Hangar 41, all of the hangars at Alameda Point are now leased. It’s a complete turn of events for the hangar row, which was almost a ghost town when Makani arrived a decade ago. “Wrightspeed’s hangar has been vacant for 17 years, but it won’t be fallow any longer,” Russo said.

Natel is the only one of the companies with a commercially viable product now. It is currently installing a 500-kilowatt hydropower unit in Madras, Ore., for the North Unit Irrigation District. Natel installed a 50-kilowatt unit in Arizona in 2010.

Makani, the green energy pioneer at Alameda Point, is still testing its high-altitude energy kite and is moving toward its commercialization, but it is still several years away. Its latest model, Wing 7, is a 600-kilowatt model that flies in concentric circles at altitudes of about 425 to 460 feet. The energy kite has four parts: the kite, which is equipped with eight propellers, in which air moves across rotors mounted on the kite and forces them to rotate and drives a generator to produce electricity; a tether that connects it to the ground like a kite string and transmits the power generated by the propellers to the grid; the ground station that holds the kite when it’s not in use; and the computer system that controls the kite. “We’re working on proving the technology is capable at full-utility scale, actually generating power according to what we expect our power curve to look like, how much power we think we can generate, and that we can do it fairly reliably,” Alden Woodrow, Makani’s project manager.

Makani’s long-term goal is to deploy the technology on a large scale with many kites operating around the world, Woodrow said. “We want to generate clean energy at a very low cost; and, hopefully, making that energy competitive with other sources of electricity, and contributing to making the planet a cleaner place.”

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