Get utilities to pay.

That's the informal motto of a lot of greentech startups, and Ice Energy is the latest to try it.

The Windsor, Colo.-based company has expanded how it markets its Ice Bear systems, which cool buildings with ice. In the past, it sold the systems directly to building owners. Since the beginning of the year, it has marketed them to utilities as a demand response/peak shaving tool, according to Chris Hickman, senior vice president of utility solutions at the company. The utilities own and operate the system and the building owners get to skirt what could be a regulation-mandated upgrade.

"You get more consistent dehumidification too," he said.

Why the switch? The Ice Bear, like the thermal mass cooling systems made by other companies such as the massive ice systems for skyscrapers made by Calmac, produces ice at night and then distributes the chill throughout a building with an elaborate network of snaking coils during the day.

While ice systems work, commercial deployment in many places has been tough because some ice making systems can actually consume 10 percent to 30 percent more power than regular air conditioners, according to Chris Hickman, senior vice president of utility solutions.

One of Ice Bear's competitive claims is that it is actually "kilowatt hour neutral," said Hickman.

Electricity costs less a night, so if a building had net metering, an owner would enjoy lower power bills with one of these. But, since many don't, building owners only seen a gradual economic benefit through improved overall efficiencies. Even with great rebates, a payback can take up to six years.

Enter the utility. By deploying ice systems, a utility can shed peak power demand. Fifty percent of the demand for power during peak periods in California, according to various estimates, and the figure is around 30 percent nationwide. In all, Air conditioners gobble up around 5.2 percent of the total energy in the U.S. and about 10 percent of the electricity. (Building operations account for around 39 percent of U.S. power according to the Department of Energy and 13 percent of that power in residential and commercial buildings goes to air conditioners.) Heating and air conditioning together account for 16 percent of all energy.

To top it off, air conditioners become more power hungry and less efficient as the temperature climbs. At 80 degrees Fahrenheit, a commercial air conditioner compressor might require 5 kilowatts, Hickman said. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it might require 7.5 kilowatts he added, but also lose 20 percent of its cooling capacity.

The same applies to nuclear power plants and coal burning plants. In the day, maybe 18 percent of the total power burned at the plants gets turned into useable electricity. At night, it goes up to 27 percent, he said.

If enough ice systems can be deployed in a region, a utility can postpone building peaker plants, speculated Hickman. Fifty megawatts of power can be shaved with about 5,500 Ice Bear units.

"There have been a host of problems for driving the value proposition to building owners, but the value to the utility is that it's off peak," he said. Hence, the switch in business models.

Demand will likely increase next year when new regulations come into effect that will require older buildings to modernize their air conditioning systems. Ice Energy also hopes to soon announce some deals with large utilities.

"Most people look at us as a capacity assent, not an energy asset," he said. 

Image of an Ice Bear via Ice Energy.

Learn how to differentiate your company through greener product lines at Greening the Supply Chain on September 17 in Boston.