Climate Stories Episode #7: Turning Waste Heat to Power

Episode 7 of Climate Stories focuses on Janice Tran and her first two years as CEO and co-founder of Kanin Energy. Trained as an accountant, the Canadian-born 35-year old daughter of Vietnamese refugees is driving a green infrastructure wave in the carbon mitigation industry.

“This is a great time to be a clean energy innovator.” – Janice Tran, CEO and co-founder of Kanin Energy

On July 12, 2022, Kanin Energy CEO Janice Tran announced a major collaboration in the clean energy transition process. Kanin Energy and Tallgrass Energy Partners, a midstream oil and natural gas pipeline company, have joined forces to turn waste heat to power (WHP) at four sites in the United States.

Construction on the projects—three in Ohio and one in Indiana—is expected to start early next year and reach the first electron in early 2024. Together, the projects will provide 410,000 MWh of electricity annually, enough to decarbonize power to about 38,000 U.S. households. The two companies are not discussing the dollar amounts involved.

In an interview with Climate Stories, Janice explained that she and her Kanin Energy co-founders are in the carbon mitigation industry. Their goal is to use an existing technology to turn waste energy in heavy manufacturing processes into cleaner, more cost-effective sources of electricity.

She noted that although WHP technology is not new, its use in North America is relatively new. The total installed capacity for the four newly announced projects will be about 48 MW, with each ranging between 11 and 14 MW.

An accountant by training, the 35-year old CEO explained: “We see 24/7 carbon-free energy as the next frontier of sustainability. We are focused on our proprietary waste heat to power (WHP) projects because they provide baseload power from heat in industrial processes that would otherwise not be used and to create something valuable – clean energy. This is a great opportunity to help the industrial sector quickly meet their decarbonization goals.”

Like most start-ups, theirs is a risk-filled activity.

  • Janice admits that raising VC funding has been harder than she’d thought, given how much money there is in Wall Street’s current clean energy and infrastructure boom. She did close her seed round in March, led by Earthshot Ventures. She has no immediate plans for a next round of fundraising. She explained, “We are purely focused on execution of our projects and growing our business.”
  • Closing deals with refineries and companies in the cement, natural gas, iron and steel, biomass, hydrogen, glass, fertilizer and chemicals sectors is typically a two-year process. She marked her company’s second anniversary with the Tallgrass deal.

Launching during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Janice and her team were unable to work side-by-side in their Calgary offices for their first 18 months together. Now, most of her 13 staffers have adopted a hybrid work model, spending Mondays and Tuesdays in the office and the rest of the week at home. Janice explained, “We’ve seen tremendous benefit from the in person time, where our people have built stronger relationships with each other. We’re also seeing more serendipitous creativity and cross-team learning just by being in the same space together.”

In April, Janice opened a Kanin Energy office in Houston. She noted that “Houston is the heart of the energy transition for the country and it’s important for us to be where the industrial emissions are. There are so many companies that have energy transition targets and are looking for solutions now. So we’ve been able to benefit from this and support their efforts by embedding ourselves in the community.”

Janice believes that she and Kanin Energy are on the right side of history. She is confident that there are wealth creation opportunities for women and people of color in the burgeoning clean energy infrastructure industry. She is certain that training and re-training oil and gas industry workers for the new green economy can help drive voter support for climate change initiatives in Canada as well as the United States. “This is how change works,” she said.

While working for the green infrastructure investment firm Generate Capital, Janice saw an opportunity. The San Francisco-based company has said publicly that it has raised some $10 billion in funding, much of it from pension funds in Australia, Sweden and the U.K., to back decarbonization projects in a variety of cities, companies and schools.

Said Janice, “I saw niche industry sectors that have a huge impact on CO2 emissions that don’t get a lot of attention. There are market barriers to creating economic benefits from turning waste heat into electricity. But I think my co-founders and I can invigorate this market.”

As developers, Janice and her team are packaging financing and technology know-how to execute cost and energy saving projects, using the ORC or “Organic Rankine Cycle” process. The ORC process can make major reductions in CO2 emissions by not using electricity from the grid. “We’re able to create electricity from something that’s vented by these heavy industries. Our projects are clean,” she said.

Here’s how Janice explained the process: “Heat is a by-product of the manufacturing process in heavy industries like cement. We take that excess heat and run it through an ORC turbine. It’s a well-known technology that has enjoyed a lot of innovations over the last 10-15 years to make it more cost competitive.”

She continued, “The ORC process generates electricity which can be sold back to the electricity grid or used by each company itself to reduce its electric bill. As developers, we don’t make the technology. But we help package the financing for improvements so the companies and the environment overall can enjoy the benefits. We get paid through the revenues of this process.”

There are additional benefits, Janice said. “In a steel plant, for example, the ORC process can displace as much as 50% of its carbon emissions. The process is reliable and can generate more electricity where blackouts occur. The process can also be a hedge against inflation when electricity prices are rising.”

Janice acknowledges that as a young, female, Asian-Canadian CEO, she is an atypical public face for a company in the heavy industry sector. “Times are changing. The priorities of incoming work forces and society place a high value on diversity. Yes, in heavy industries, there’s been a tendency to ‘pattern match,’ for leaders to want to work with the types of people whom they already know. But increasingly, shareholders and stakeholders are focusing not just on the E of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) interests. They’re also aware of the importance of the S – of cultural and gender diversity.”

In fact, Janice leans into being a woman and the daughter of Vietnamese refugees – both externally and internally. “My parents arrived in Calgary from Vietnam in 1981. They came with nothing and they influence my leadership style. They are capitalists in the best meaning of the word and I align with their sense of discipline.” She added, “Being female has helped me lead with compassion. Nurturing people-to-people is part of my leadership style.”

Her differences earned Janice a spot on the Future of Good’s 2022 list of 21 new social impact founders to watch. The list touts Canada’s freshest and most audacious perspectives for “investing in sustainable solutions to improve lives and creating business models rooted in impact.”

“I’m just building an energy company,” Janice said modestly. But her experience as an investor has taught her that earning returns and beating out peers can be different for every venture. “We take a holistic view about what drives returns. We can have both financial and social returns. A company that doesn’t live its ESG goals is fundamentally more risky over the long term.”

Like other young entrepreneurs whom Climate Stories is profiling, Janice’s CEO duties include helping to shape legislation as well as public perceptions of the transitioning green economy. She is now the secretary of the board of the 11-year-old trade association for the waste-heat-to-power industry, Heat is Power. The organization’s website says that it lobbies in Canada and the United States about clean energy and “advocates for policies that provide tax parity and a level playing field with other renewable energy resources for waste heat to power investment, development and deployment.”

Unwilling to call herself a lobbyist, Janice sees her role as an educator, helping lawmakers as well as the general public better understand the role of clean energy in job creation and economic development. “It’s not their (legislators’) job to be an energy sector specialist or innovator.” Instead, she sees her spotlight as an opportunity to help traditional oil and gas industry workers and leaders appreciate and embrace the on-going and necessary transition to clean energy.

“We’re trying to create more jobs and we need their expertise as well as their votes.”

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.