3Tier: Remapping the World for Renewable Energy, From a Supercomputer Hothouse in Seattle
There’s a small company in downtown Seattle called 3Tier Group that has a goal of no less than “Remapping the World” for alternative energy. T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire Texas oilman, is such a big fan, he used 3Tier’s maps to draw a bold conclusion-that the United States has the potential to be “the Saudi Arabia of Wind.”
3Tier might sound a little New-Agey in its goals, maybe a little pie-in-the-sky in a world where Exxon Mobil has enough money in the bank ($36.7 billion on Sept. 30) to bury all U.S. cleantech startups. So I decided to check it out personally, meeting with Kenneth Westrick, the founder and CEO, at his 21st floor offices in the Westin Building in downtown Seattle. Westrick, an atmospheric scientist with a master’s from the University of Washington, greeted me with a boisterous handshake. He was wearing a long brown leather jacket like the one worn by Jimmy McNulty, the protagonist of HBO’s “The Wire.” (One of my all-time favorite shows.)
When we sat down in a conference room looking out over South Lake Union, I asked what he really meant with his “Remapping the World” initiative. It’s about using high-powered computers to crunch data that helps developers, financiers, and governments decide where the best places are to put a wind farm, solar panels, or hydropower turbines. This isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, because wind ebbs and flows at different times of day, different seasons of the year. Some years are El Nino, some La Nina. Measurement instruments at Sea-Tac airport don’t always capture wind speed at the corner of 1st Avenue and Pike Street. Same goes for solar, and hydro.
That’s a lot of variables to account for, especially if you’re General Electric and looking to invest $300 million in a wind farm that’s supposed to pay off over two or three decades. So 3Tier inhales huge amounts of climate data into its computers, and analyzes it in models to come up with an accurate forecast of what kind of power a particular wind farm is going to produce over time. It can also take measurements at a site over a year’s time, and crunch numbers that may spot a better site a few miles away from one the developer originally scoped out, Westrick says.
“The greatest risk is in the availability of fuel,” Westrick says. “We can create a map of where the wind blows. We can ask where is it abundant? Will it be abundant when we need it?” He added later, “Only a couple of companies can do this.”
Westrick started this company in 1999 in his bedroom. It has grown to about 70 employees. About one-third were trained in earth sciences, one-third are software programmers, and the rest in are in administration, support and business development, he says. 3Tier doesn’t disclose its financials as a private company, but he says the company has boosted sales growth by more than 50 percent for four years in a row. 3Tier’s marketing guy, Todd Stone, says the company’s computers store more data than existed worldwide in 1990. It currently has more computing power than most research universities in the United States.
When Westrick got this company going, the main competitors were Garrad Hassan, a UK-based consulting firm on wind energy, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy. The problem with the U.S. government data is that it was “clunky” and not very accessible, Westrick says, which his company could improve upon.
3Tier’s biggest customers include GE, the Spanish utility Iberdola, Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, and Seattle City Light. Since 3Tier is in the business of creating predictive models, this is naturally of interest to folks who trade stocks and commodities that are influenced by swings in weather patterns. (I half-jokingly mentioned they should sell this to my former employer, Bloomberg LP, the $20 billion financial information powerhouse. Westrick replied that it was no joke. He is, in fact, in talks with someone from Bloomberg about ways its trading customers might get access to this data.)
This information obviously doesn’t come cheap, but 3Tier does offer some basic services to the general public for free, powered by Google Earth. If you want to look at how much solar energy falls on your rooftop, or how much wind power potential is in your backyard, you can go to FirstLook, punch in your address, and get a readout. It doesn’t include the fancy forecasting models for folks like GE, but it’s a snapshot that can get people thinking about possibilities, Stone says.
The twin trends of high-priced oil, and global climate change certainly aren’t hurting demand for 3Tier services. On Election Day, while most people were glued to the TV or the Internet, Westrick was giving a talk at the United Nations. I wasn’t able to listen, but he cited statistics that show there about 1.3 billion people in the world who lack electricity, and how people in those countries need access to information like this to make smart decisions about investing in alternative fuels.
“If we want developing nations to ‘leapfrog’ over fossil fuels, they need information about what renewable energy resources or combination of resources exist. Remapping the World is a sophisticated mapping technology initiative to show where renewable resources are, and change the way we look at the world’s energy production options,” Westrick said, according to this report in Vector1Media.
If Westrick can find a way to get his company’s information in the hands of decision-makers in the developing world, this could be pretty big news in years to come. If he’s successful, maybe Seattle will be known as a hotbed for global energy development, as well as an emerging force for global health.