Solar and wind get most of the headlines in the green energy generation press -- it's visible, high-tech, and it doesn't smell too bad.
But "[b]iomass is the silent hero in renewable energy," according to Paul Sellew, the CEO of Harvest Power. I spoke with Sellew at the Agriculture 2.0 event in San Francisco on Monday.
Harvest Power, based in Waltham, Mass., is a developer of renewable energy and fertilizer products from organic waste. The firm just raised a $51.7 million round B from Generation Investment Management, DAG Ventures, Keating Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Waste Management, Munich Venture Partners, and TriplePoint Capital. The CEO noted that the majority of that investment round came from Europe.
Sellew said that the 150-employee firm is already profitable and has recently broke ground on its first commercial-scale facility in North America.
Harvest is a builder/owner/operator of facilities that transform organic waste into renewable energy and high-value soil and organic fertilizer products. The firm controls waste streams via partnerships in local markets, and uses its technologies and those of others to generate natural gas and electricity. The idea is to extract maximum value from these waste streams. The firm claims to already have diverted over 425,000 tons of organic material from landfills. Revenue comes from tipping fees, power generation, soil and soil enhancement products.
In speaking with greentech investors at the event, the sentiment was that more project funding was going to flow into biomass and organic waste in 2011 and that the momentum has already started.
Sellew labeled organic waste "underutilized," calling it "stored solar energy," which, unlike solar panels, can be turned into baseload power. Harvest uses anaerobic digestion, composting and other technologies to yield soil and fuels from the waste stream.
As with most energy businesses, the policy environment is extremely important.
The U.S. has a relatively active compost industry since laws were passed prohibiting yard waste in landfills and sewer sludge in the oceans. Germany has a thriving biomass industry because just as it offers a feed-in tariff for solar power production, it also offers a feed-in tariff for biomass power production. And just as in solar, Germany created a long-term consistent policy where investors can make decent returns. According to Sellew, Germany has built a thousand biomass plants in the last few years and a significant portion of its renewable power (and heat) comes from biomass.
I also spoke with Amol Deshpande of Kleiner Perkins -- Deshpande serves on the board of Harvest. I asked him what prompted an investment from KPCB when the investment firm looks to invest in disruptive technologies.
Deshpande's response was, "Compost and anaerobic digestion applied to organic waste -- that is disruptive. Organic waste today mostly goes into landfills," adding "This is how it should be done -- Harvest fundamentally changes the way organic waste is managed in the U.S. Anaerobic composting is not new, but the way Harvest is deploying it -- that is new."
Not as glamorous as solar and wind, but a huge, growing market with VC interest, nevertheless.