One of China’s biggest wind turbine makers has been quietly and slowly building out a business in the U.S. and developing digital energy software with a group of U.S. tech firms.
Envision Energy, based in Shanghai, announced an alliance on Friday that includes Microsoft, Accenture and ARM, and is focused on uniting “a fragmented energy world,” as CEO Lei Zhang described it, around digital networking, sensors and algorithms.
“We are providing the digital foundation for the energy world. We want to create a new version of an energy company,” said Zhang in an interview in downtown San Francisco. Additional members are expected to join the "Energy IOT and Smart City Technology Alliance" at a later date.
Envision, founded in 2007, is the world’s tenth largest wind turbine maker, according to a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, and the second-largest one in China. In 2015, the company added solar to its repertoire.
Over the past few years, Envision has also been building out its suite of digital software and networking technologies that can help its energy customers lower their costs both for operating and building wind and solar farms. For example, a sensor- and software-based system connected to wind blades can determine cracks and technical malfunctions at an early stage and help wind developers replace risky parts before they become a problem.
The move into digital is similar to the plans of other energy infrastructure companies like GE, which has its Predix software and which has opened up large software- and design-focused operations in Silicon Valley. Energy infrastructure companies see software, networking and data tools as not only crucial to operate energy hardware, but also as a higher margin business.
In addition, being close to Silicon Valley -- including its legions of software engineers and its entrepreneurial and venture capital communities -- has its benefits. Companies have access to new talent, new technologies and new innovation. Envision has two offices in the Silicon Valley area.
Envision also has its own venture capital unit, which has invested in a handful of energy startups over the years. For example, Envision’s VC arm is the largest shareholder in electric-car charging company ChargePoint and smart grid company AutoGrid.
But its networking, software and data technology is what CEO Zhang is really excited about. He sees “rapid progress for digital growth,” thanks to the rise of clean energy, the intermittency of solar and wind, and the gap between supply and demand. “The time is now” for the growth of this energy internet, according to Zhang.
Envision counts big customers like Duke Energy, Pattern Energy, Shell, China General Nuclear Power Group and Trina Solar. The company sells technology to a variety of sectors like clean energy developers, utilities and even insurance companies working on clean energy projects.
Zhang said that the company has already connected 100 gigawatts of energy assets around the globe, making its “internet of things energy platform the largest in the world.” Envision has 7.5 gigawatts of wind turbines in operation, $2 billion in annual revenue and 1,000 employees.
The company launched the alliance -- working with Microsoft’s cloud, Accenture’s services and ARM’s connectivity platform -- partly to contribute thought leadership, said Zhang. The energy industry is very fragmented, which creates an opportunity for startups, developers and investors, he explained.
Zhang compared the company’s alliance and digital energy platform to a sort of Apple app store: “The future of energy is about the developers. Not many people realize that.”