Cleantech is a big field. Mention it to someone and it’s likely to elicit images of fields of solar panels or forests of wind turbines. 

But it’s a lot more than that. It encompasses technologies that reduce our negative impact on the environment by improving energy efficiency and using resources in a more sustainable way.

We’ve found a lot of activity in this area. Lots of startups are doing their part to mitigate the effects of pollution on the environment—and cashing in on the broad drive to reduce emissions. 

We wanted to give you a sense of the range of the field, so for the past few weeks, we’ve been tracking down Chinese companies that we think are interesting and that have been able to make a business out of providing technologies that cut pollution.  

Cleantech

Cleantech is TechNode’s monthly in-focus newsletter looking China’s push to clean up its environment using technology. Available to TechNode Squared members.

What we’ve come up with is an interesting mix of firms, from those that provide software to others that produce the backbone of clean energy production.


Sunman Energy

Area: Solar panels
Funding: Early stage
Location: Shanghai

Founded by solar energy pioneer Shi Zhengrong, Sunman produces lightweight, flexible solar panels that the company says are “70% lighter and up to 95% thinner” than traditional solar panels. 

  • Sunman’s key innovation is removing glass from its solar cells. Typical solar panels use glass to transmit sunlight into each module. Instead, Sunman’s panels are made of a lightweight polymer material. 
  • The new panels could cut emissions resulting from glass production, which requires large amounts of non-renewable energy.
  • A glass shortage in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic also dampened the prospects of the solar industry. The price of the glass that covers photovoltaic panels rose more than 70% last year, according to Daiwa Capital Markets. 
  • No glass means that Sunman’s panels are lightweight. They can be used where traditional panels cannot, including on top of vehicles and on roofs that don’t support heavier panels. The panels can also be incorporated into building materials.
  • Among the initial overseas installations, the company panels now supply electricity to an apartment building in Melbourne, Australia, and power a train in southeastern Australia’s Byron Bay.

Shi, Sunman’s founder, also started Suntech Power, one of the world’s largest producers of solar panels. He left the solar giant after the company faced financial trouble and he was bought out in 2013. Shi then went on to found Sunman in 2015. 

In November last year, the company received $7 million in funding from the Australian government-owned Clean Energy Finance Corporation as part of its $12 million Series B. SoftBank China, Southern Cross Venture Partners, and Shi also participated in the round.

READ MORE: China’s big tech vows big carbon cuts with little detail


Carbonstop

Area: Carbon accounting software
Funding: Early stage
Location: Beijing

Carbonstop provides software that helps enterprises cut emissions. The cleantech company’s main product functions as an accounting platform for carbon emissions, allowing customers to analyze and evaluate their emissions data. 

  • China’s national carbon trading system could drive demand for Carbonstop’s software, which in the future could allow companies to buy and sell emissions credits. 
  • The national carbon trading system is still in its infancy. Currently only energy companies are required to enroll.
  • Carbonstop is already providing its services to some of China’s biggest tech companies, including JD.com, Baidu, and Ant Financial. It also provides services to government agencies like state planner National Development and Reform Commission. 

Yan Luhui, also a member of the UK-based non-profit Carbon Disclosure Project, founded Carbonstop in 2011. He previously worked at environmental consultancy Best Foot Forward. 


BYD

Area: EV batteries
Funding: Publicly traded
Location: Shenzhen

Founded in 1995 and listed in Shenzhen, BYD is one of China’s biggest electric vehicle (EV) makers. As a result of the COVID-19-induced downturn, the Warren Buffet-backed company saw its deliveries drop to 179,000 vehicles in 2020, down 18% compared to 2019. 

  • BYD is one of the world’s biggest battery makers, but its batteries have primarily been used in its own cars. The company plans to start selling these batteries to other EV makers later this year, Nikkei Asia reported
  • BYD is also the world’s biggest manufacturer of electric buses, which are being rolled out in bus fleets around the world. 
  • Battery technology is crucial to getting EVs on China’s roads. The country’s EV ambitions have built some of the world’s biggest battery manufacturers, including BYD and CATL. 

CATL

Area: EV batteries
Funding: Publicly traded
Location: Ningde, Fujian 

CATL controls more than a third of the global EV battery market. The company produced 4.3 gigawatt hours of batteries last year, up 166% year on year, according to SNE Research. 

  • The Shenzhen-listed company’s batteries are used by a growing number of auto manufacturers including Volkswagen, Tesla, Volvo, BMW, and Daimler. 

Over the past 10 years, China has built the world’s largest EV market. And the market is projected to rapidly expand. Chinese consumers are expected to buy 1.9 million of these vehicles this year, up nearly 50% from the 1.3 million sold last year, according to figures from market research firm Canalys. 


Clobotics

Area: Wind turbine inspections
Funding: Early stage
Location: Shanghai

Clobotics is looking to take advantage of China’s massive renewable energy boom by automating wind turbine inspections, which take up to six hours when inspected manually. The sector is an area of growing interest for startups around the country. 

  • Clobotics claims to be able to complete inspections of wind turbines in 25 minutes, with the help of autonomous drones and its computer vision platform.
  • Clobotics has partnered with such companies as Shanghai Electric, LM Wind Power, Concord New Energy, and GEV Wind Power.
  • After an inspection is completed, images are uploaded to the cloud where the company’s analytics platform examines the imagery and identifies issues with the blades.
  • Clobotics’ investors include GGV Capital, CMC Capital, and the overseas-focused investment arm of Taiwan-based China Development Financial,  CDIB Capital. 

China’s wind power industry has expanded dramatically. The country installed more than 70 gigawatts of capacity in 2020 alone, nearly double its previous record. Just 1 gigawatt is the equivalent of more than 400 wind turbines, according to estimates from the US’ Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 


EQuota Energy

Area: Smart grid management software
Funding: Early stage
Location: Shanghai

EQuota Energy’s platform collects data and uses it for preventive maintenance and to optimize building energy usage.

  • Microsoft Accelerator Beijing accepted EQuota as part of its 12th class in 2018.
  • The company is a small fish in a very big pond. It is a rare grid technology startup in a field dominated by state-owned companies.
  • Its product is installed in Shanghai’s K11 mall, the city’s ninth-tallest building. 

As cleantech becomes the norm and machines in the energy generation process are increasingly connected to the cloud, companies like EQuota Energy will benefit. EQuota’s smart energy management platform creates efficiency gains along the energy distribution process using artificial intelligence.


Alpheus

Area: Waste management robots
Funding: Early stage
Location: Kunshan, Jiangsu

Alpheus is an AIoT (artificial intelligence + Internet of Things) startup with a range of waste collection appliances that have been deployed in multiple Chinese cities. The cleantech company provides AI-powered trash cans that can automatically sort waste for recycling. 

  • Waste-sorting programs in China’s major cities have been a topic of contention. Companies like Alpheus claim that they can reduce waste by up to 40%, but adoption has been spotty. In some cases people have resorted to sorting manually, even though waste sorting bins are available.
  • Alpheus envisions an entire waste management supply chain, including trash cans, trash-sorting robots, and waste collection trucks. 
  • The company’s trash cans were adopted in Shanghai shortly after the city’s compulsory trash sorting regulations came into force in July 2019. 

Recycling trash has been well-handled by informal collectors, who pick up and sort waste manually. But other forms of waste have been a pain for municipal authorities. That said, machines haven’t been able to match humans in terms of waste-sorting efficiency.

As the government prioritizes cutting solid waste, solutions set to replace analog counterparts include smart public toilets, smart trash cans, and trash-sorting robots. 

Tune in next month

 Funding will be key to the success of these startups. They stand to benefit immensely from the cleantech boom—a market that is expected to reach $16 trillion in the next 40 years. So where is this funding coming from? That’s what we’ll explore next time. 

Chris Udemans

Christopher Udemans is TechNode's former Shanghai-based data and graphics reporter. He covered Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, cleantech, and cybersecurity.

Louis Hinnant

Louis Hinnant is an intern at TechNode. He's currently covering cleantech and mobility.