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Ara Hosts Kick-Off Event For The Orion Energy Accelerator

On the night of June 16, Ara Institute of Canterbury hosted the ‘Orion Energy Accelerator kickoff’, an event which featured high-energy introductions to the key people behind the 11 startups about to begin their clean-energy mission, courtesy of the Orion Energy Accelerator programme.

Also attending were important visitors from electricity distribution company Orion and its strategic offshoot Energy Academy. The latter is drawing together ideas, people and resources with a goal of transforming New Zealand’s current approach to capability development within the energy sector, while the former - the owner and operator of the electricity distribution network that covers central Canterbury and one of the largest networks in New Zealand - is highly motivated towards improving how power is generated, transmitted, stored and used.

One facet of this vital work is the ‘Orion Energy Accelerator’ initiative, which is focussed on finding novel ways to tackle the electricity sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, while also ensuring sufficient electric power for an ever-growing global economy; one that may require 2.5 times the electricity it does today.

The consequences of the energy sector failing to rapidly find new ways to innovate in the face of carbon-caused climate change has recently been borne home, as New Zealand’s hydrolakes are at a dangerously low level, even while incentives are growing for drivers to purchase power-hungry electric vehicles. This has led to a paradoxical situation where New Zealand’s proportion of renewably-derived power has decreased each year for the last three years, prompting the country to import coal from South East Asia in a bid to keep coal-fired stations online. In 2020, coal imports to New Zealand reached a 15-year high - close to 1.1 million tonnes, according to new data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Not-for-profit group EndCoal states on its website that coal is the single biggest contributor to human-caused climate change, as it is responsible for 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector.

11 startups have been identified as most likely to develop workable innovations in areas such as smart power grids, novel power storage methods or devices, EV charging and smart energy-saving construction. They are now embarking upon a 7-week mentorship-focussed programme with Ministry of Awesome, working on validating their ideas and progressing them towards commercial readiness. Ara’s ‘Research Hub’ will be providing services and support to the cohort of start-ups, and Dr. Michael Shone, Ara’s Head of Research, will be acting as an official Partner programme mentor within the Accelerator.

A ‘Demo Evening’ will be held later in the year at which where the two teams judged most promising by industry experts will receive ‘Orion Startup Grants’ worth a combined $25,000. Suitable startups will have the chance to work with Orion as a customer or partner, and perhaps receive an equity investment from a pool worth up to$100k from Orion.

In addition to participating in the Accelerator program, Orion’s Energy Academy has also initiated a new symposium ‘LUMO’, designed to bring together diverse actors with a commitment to "tackling the big ideas shaping the future of the energy sector in New Zealand (which) requires the minds of energy sector employees of all ages and disciplines to converge with other sector leaders, politicians and influencers," according to the organization’s main website.

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