Testing, Consulting, and More
Powertech Labs covers a lot of ground. The Surrey based subsidiary of BC Hydro specializes in clean energy consulting, independent testing, and power system solutions for electrical power utilities, electrical and automotive equipment manufacturers, and oil and gas companies.
“We don’t just have one product or one line of service,” says Managing Director Raymond Lings. “We serve a number of industries and have multiple services and products.” This breadth of ability is part of a successful, long term strategy. “We want to have a portfolio of services, some of it just routine testing that pays the bills and some of it leading edge and higher risk with big wins or big losses.” By covering both entrepreneurial and more conventional endeavours, “we hedge our risks.”
Indeed, 20 percent of Powertech’s business comes from R&D. “That creates the new services and the new technology that we provide to the marketplace,” Mr. Lings reports. Some R&D activities are funded in-house, but the majority of funding comes from utility companies, equipment suppliers, and collaborative R&D organizations. Another 20 percent of the company’s business comes from consulting work. “That could be through very specialized laboratory work, or a paper based study, or through the application of technology into the utility environment,” Mr. Lings specifies.
The remaining 60 percent of Powertech’s business comes from routine laboratory and field testing. “This is an aspect of our business that is very steady and routine,” Mr. Lings explains. “It is like getting your oil changed in your car; as long as there is oil in your car you’re going to need to get it changed.” Likewise, as long as the utilities industry utilizes wood poles, conductors, insulators, cables, and other basic equipment, this equipment will require regular assessments and maintenance, creating a steady and expected income for Powertech.
All three focal areas are critical to success, and all three areas feed on one another. “For example, what we learn in the field through testing then leads to ideas for new research projects and new opportunities,” Mr. Lings points out. “By doing the research and learning new knowledge we are able to apply it back into the industry through consulting. It becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.”
Maintaining a healthy balance within these core focal areas is key. “If it swings too wildly and we become just a test house, then that is a pretty boring lifestyle for us,” Mr. Lings points out. “And if we go too far into the R&D side of things without getting involved in the implementation and the field work we become too dependent on the R&D funders and the fickleness of that industry. We look for a diversification of customers and services so that we can keep moving ahead.”
Smart utilities is one area in particular in which Powertech has been moving ahead. The company is internationally renowned for its smart grid tools, which can independently verify the performance of energy conversion equipment, optimize power systems, and assess the reliability of renewable energy integration into electric power systems. The team is constantly working to push the envelope in this promising sector and keeps the industry progressing. “We are always looking at the next advancement.”
When looking for that next advancement, the team maintains an open minded, independent approach. “We don’t push any product in that arena, so we don’t have any vested interest in a particular technology or a specific product,” Mr. Lings explains. This neutrality increases the company’s credibility and ensures that only the best solutions will be advocated. “We have competing products in our laboratory and we look at compatibility between them. Because of our neutral position, we can do that with confidence. The manufacturers know that we are not going to push one supplier over another.”
Powertech also maintains a significant focus on clean transportation. “We have a strong, competitive position in that industry. We are highly regarded around the world for our innovative approach and our can-do attitude.” The team works outside of the box to solve prevailing industry challenges. For instance, “How do you fill the [hydrogen] vehicle very quickly? How do you get the maximum amount of hydrogen into a vehicle in the shortest amount of time? The reason that is important is because the biggest complaint about electric vehicles is that it takes a long time to recharge them,” Mr. Lings explains. “One of the competitive advantages to the hydrogen business is that you can refill a hydrogen vehicle very quickly.”
To this end, Powertech has led the way in creating a superior hydrogen fuelling solution, from managing the temperature to regulating the pressure. “You connect the nozzle to the car and three minutes later, you have a car full of hydrogen,” says Mr. Lings. “We are first to market in terms of technology that can do that. At the moment, that gives us a dominant position in the marketplace. We are considered world class [and] the industry is, by and large, playing catch up to us in that arena.”
Developing a superior hydrogen fuelling solution has not been easy, of course. “It involved a lot of R&D. It involved innovative work.” It also involved a lot of risk, and would have led to losses if the technology had failed. Fortunately, however, the team has been successful and they plan to continue their efforts to advance the technology while the industry picks up. The hope is that, soon, “low cost suppliers come in and build hydrogen fuelling stations that are lower cost and reliable.”
The outlook already looks positive, as major automotive companies like Toyota are moving forward with hydrogen powered cars. Japan is committed to working with hydrogen technology, as are a handful of European countries, Germany in particular. Hawaii is looking into the technology and the state of California has already committed to building 20 hydrogen stations each year. “We are involved in supporting California,” Mr. Lings adds. “That is a good business for us.
From routine testing to groundbreaking clean transportation technology, Powertech’s competence continues to win clients. “People come to us because there is a lot of trust and confidence in our results,” Mr. Lings shares. A willingness to go the extra mile for customers is also key. “There is a strong relationship between us and our customers which keeps them coming back. We don’t just execute a project, give them the results, and walk out; there is a lot of discussion around the project and the results. We discuss how they can improve their product, how they can improve their service. They truly appreciate that.”
Powertech’s varied portfolio has also ensured that the company has stayed active and profitable in recent years, despite challenges. “We have enjoyed very significant and healthy growth over the last couple of years, even though industry has gone through a recession. If we have diversified ourselves sufficiently as a company we should be able to maintain that growth, even though I suspect the utility business will start to slow down.” This slowdown comes as no surprise, even though it stands in contrast to many other sectors. “The business cycles of the utility industry tend to be out of sync with the economy,” Mr. Lings explains. “That is because of the long delays around projects and the planning cycles that are in place. [The reason] why we have a diversified portfolio of services is because we don’t want to get swung by those cycles in the utility business.”
Of course, the utility industry will always need condition assessments and safety improvements regardless of the economic cycle, ensuring at least a base level of ongoing business for Powertech. Add to this the company’s ongoing, leading edge work on clean transportation and the business has everything in place to continue succeeding. “We think we are well set going forward,” Mr. Lings remarks. “We have confidence this is going to be a very good year for us.”