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Energy-friendly: how one investment company is giving clean energy entrepreneurs a boost to mitigate climate change

Karen Cho |

E+Co is not what you would call a typical investment company. For starters, it’s not a large company with a huge amount of capital. Second, it’s focused exclusively on energy and third, it invests in only small and growing clean energy businesses from developing countries.

But going against the grain is just what this clean energy investment company has deliberately sought to do, and this has helped it not just achieve, but exceed targets.

“Our mission is to invest in and help develop energy companies in emerging markets. We've purposely chosen that. We don't work in Europe or the United States or Japan and such because of that; and we always work with local companies as well. We're not a large organisation but we do have a very special niche that we fit into,” says Jeffery Dickinson, E+Co’s Regional Manager for Asia.

The niche that E+Co has carved for itself is its expertise in biogas and biomass technology. Biogas is a process of taking waste typically from food processing factories or plants, generating methane and selling the methane back to the host to power their boilers and generate electricity. Biomass combustion, on the other hand, involves burning rice husks or wood to produce steam and so generate electricity, though Dickinson says biomass gasification -- which he describes as “partial combustion of biomass and pulling off of the smoke” to burn those gases in an engine or in a thermal application to generate energy -- is starting to gain traction in many developing countries, particularly in Southeast Asia.

One country where biomass gasifiers have really taken off is Cambodia. A shining example is home-grown company SME Renewable Energy, partly owned by E+Co; it has since entered the market to pioneer this technology within Cambodia.

“They've done in a couple of years, 30 installations of technology that had never been applied in Cambodia. We're getting an Indian manufactured system; gasification is a known quantity but it hasn't been applied there. And this company went in, learnt the technology, worked with their customers and really persevered to the point where now they're the market leader there,” Dickinson told INSEAD Knowledge in an interview.

E+Co has also found similar success in Thailand where the company had previously worked on a large biogas project. “It was the first of its kind in the region. It actually ended up being the largest reactor -- bio-reactor of that type -- and it worked very well. From a technical standpoint, it exceeded our expectations,” says Dickinson.

In addition to providing the technical know-how, E+Co also gets involved in what Dickinson calls “enterprise development services” to help clean energy businesses to grow through local entrepreneurs with the same green agenda.

He explains that with the company in Cambodia, E+Co helped with writing their business plan and choosing the best technology “because there were a couple of providers of gasifiers”. E+Co has since moved on to other projects now that the company has come into its own.

But companies who seek support from E+Co -- be it in terms of capital or services -- must meet E+Co’s rigorous investment requirements. Energy businesses which have submitted a business proposal and received development services will be considered for debt or equity investment if they meet the investment criteria. This is because E+Co does not provide grants, but rather makes loans and equity investments of between US$25,000 and US$1 million in promising clean energy enterprises. The loans must be repaid with interest.

Dickinson says E+Co’s investment criteria make them a “triple bottom-line organisation.” “We're looking at the social and the environmental and the financial all at the same time, and balancing those, in making our investment decisions. A lot of investors are either single or double -- environmental and financial -- but we really take the social component seriously as well,” he explains.

And that has had a multiplier effect in countries where E+Co operates. “As we've seen from the biogas project that we did in Thailand, there can be a real replication knock-on effect there that we're not involved in, but we're catalytic and we got it started.”

“We've seen that now as well with the gasifiers in Cambodia. As I say, we were the first ones in there with SME Renewable. Now there are two other companies trying to trade in the same market and there are others from outside looking at it. So again, this catalytic effect is something we feel is quite important.”

 

E+Co was set up in 1995 and now has a global presence in 30 countries. So far, it has made some 200 investments in clean energy projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

 

Jeffery Dickinson took part in Clean Energy Expo Asia during Singapore International Energy Week (November 18-20).

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