There are few Calgary companies that trace their roots to NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon. The fabled missions, which took place from 1968 to 1972 and succeeded in landing the first humans on the moon, have borne much in the decades since their completion: scientific and technological discoveries and advancements, the rise of NASA, American national pride, cultural lore.
For Calgary’s Global Power Technologies (GPT), the Apollo missions mark the start of a long and successful venture, one that combines a novel and very useful technology with a love of Alberta’s natural splendor.
“Typically, a company’s history is quite boring,” says Laura Kennedy, president and co-owner of GPT, “but ours is pretty fun. It starts with U.S.-based 3M, who was hired by NASA for the Apollo mission, to develop a power source to bring and leave on the moon for any future mission.”
3M’s invention was based on thermoelectric technology: using radioactive materials as a heat source, power is generated from the heat transfer across dissimilar materials where heat energy is converted to electrical energy without any moving parts. “Very specific materials are compiled in a power unit that captures the change in temperature and converts it into electricity,” Kennedy explains. “It could provide continuous and reliable power on the moon.”
While revolutionary for NASA’s Apollo missions, some of the engineers who developed the technology saw the potential for its use in Alberta, where they had fallen in love with the outdoor lifestyle of hunting and fishing. A rural diversification tax incentive added to the enticement.
“So, they moved in 1975 from the United States to the Bassano region, about an hour and a half outside Calgary,” Kennedy says. “They partnered with Albertans to apply the technology using natural gas as the heat source (as opposed to a radioactive material heat source on the moon) for use in the oil and gas industry. Typical applications at that time were cathodic protection, controls, data acquisition, repeaters and other communications devices.”
The company grew over time, and the headquarters was relocated to Calgary to be closer to the oil and gas industry. Kennedy, who joined GPT’s parent publicly-traded parent company Gentherm in 2014, was part of a management buyout of GPT in 2019. Today, she is co-owner with CFO Collin Newman.
“We provide a range of small power off-grid solutions for critical industrial devices,” Kennedy explains of her company’s core business. “Our clients need power for devices that are protecting people and the environment. Typically for maintaining reliable operations on wellheads, pipelines or remote telecommunication towers. These devices are either too far from grid power or the grid is not reliable enough for their needs.”
GPT’s core products – thermoelectric generators (TEGs) and new hybrid-compatible TEGs – are used for smaller applications, whereas the newer M-Series prime power generators are high efficiency combined heat and power systems for higher power and heat applications. The company also provides environmental system solutions such as instrument air packages.
TEGs are highly reliable. “You can put it in the field, turn it on and it will run for decades,” Kennedy offers. “You just require some very basic maintenance once a year. We know of sites where they have been running for 40 years in the field and continue to serve the needs of a single gas well. People love them for their reliability and extended product life.”
TEGs work for up to about 500 watts, and in some situations multiple TEGs can be combined to create higher power systems. To offer higher efficiency and lower emissions solution for higher-power requirements, for example a multi-well pad versus a single well pad, GPT developed the M-Series generators, including its latest MX PrimeGen. It was designed from the ground up to be certified to meet EPA emissions requirements and requires only annual maintenance.
Kennedy notes that there are very few EPA rated generators you can buy off the shelf that power under 10 kilowatts: “The MX PrimeGen is among the most efficient generator in that power range on the market today. And because it’s such high efficiency, it translates into the lowest emissions possible for a continuous run generator.”
Indeed, she notes one of GPT’s core focus areas is exploring how to retain the highest reliability with either lower or no emissions, regardless of which fossil fuel is being used. GPT’s hybrid solar solutions are a development in this regard.
“If you combine a TEG with a solar and battery solution, it can make your solar and battery solution more reliable,” she explains. “Especially if you’re on a site with access to natural gas. You can have a more conservatively sized solar and battery system without giving up power reliability to the site. The TEG would only turn on when it needs to turn on (when the battery gets too low), stays on until it identifies that the solar and battery is running on its own again, then turns itself off.”
It’s a solution for clients whose solar and battery are not working optimally for them, as well as for clients who already have a TEG but want to lower their emissions. “They can add solar and battery without giving up reliability, and see a significant reduction in emissions,” she says.
Another environmental application are GPT’s instrument air systems, which eliminate methane venting at oil and gas facilities. In a combined system, the MX powers the EZ Air compression and dryer to displace natural gas in pneumatic instruments, thereby changing from venting methane and other greenhouse gases to venting plain air. This is one of the lowest hanging fruits for the energy industry to dramatically decrease their greenhouse gas emissions.
One other opportunity to support a greening energy industry is using vented gas to power a TEG. “The advantage is if you can destroy vented methane with a TEG, you’re also generating power,” Kennedy explains. “That’s important because now you can install devices to measure how much gas you’ve destroyed so that you can calculate and audit your methane mitigation.”
A mechanical engineer by trade, Kennedy was born and raised in Ottawa. “I always liked to understand how things work and I was good at math and science, so my teachers encouraged me to go into those fields,” she recalls. “I think I liked knowing that it was an unusual career path. I viewed it as something fun and exciting, different from what most women were doing at that time.”
She completed a Bachelor of Applied Science and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. “The co-op work experience was huge because I never would have guessed that I love being in a factory, but I realized I do!” she smiles. “I worked at the Canadian Space Agency and then at Honda Canada in their plant in Ontario. I fell in love with manufacturing.”
Kennedy went on to complete a double degree at MIT – a Masters of Mechanical Engineering along with a Masters of Science of Management – on a full scholarship, sponsored by manufacturing giants like Boeing, Ford, Hewlett Packard and ABB. She eventually wrote her thesis on manufacturing strategy for ABB in Finland.
She worked in California and Europe, and eventually landed in Calgary in 2008. She joined Gentherm’s manufacturing business in 2014.
Today, GPT manufactures products at its Calgary and Bassano facilities. The M-Series uses a top tier Japanese engine, whereas the TEGs are completely vertically integrated, from the base commodities all the way up to the TEG itself.
“We have a wide range of backgrounds – trades and profession, rural and urban – but overall we’ve got a lot of employees who really roll up their sleeves and get things done,” she says proudly of GPT’s team. “They’re very enthusiastic about solving problems, and unique in the world in their ability and understanding of thermoelectronics.”
“We really don’t have any competitors in the TEG industry,” she continues, “and that’s because of the tenure and experience of our people in Bassano and Calgary. The knowledge, specialty skill and unique equipment that we have there. Most people probably don’t realize how unusual these skills are for a small community like Bassano.”
While TEGs comprise the majority of GPT’s business, it sees its largest growth in greenhouse gas mitigation solutions including the M-Series and instrument air space. “About 25 per cent of what we sell is domestic to Canada, while 75 per cent is exported all over the world, to just about every continent except Europe,” Kennedy says.
In Canada and Alberta, in particular, where emissions are highly regulated and a carbon trading system is in place, the instrument air solutions are quite popular. In the U.S., while emissions statements are mostly voluntary, the move towards ESG has spurred greater interest in environmental solutions.
“In Latin America, our engines are preferred because they’re familiar,” Kennedy adds. “It’s the same highly reliably engine technology that you would find on any other existing generator or in your car. So that means the maintenance team already knows how to service and maintain our products. That’s a big benefit around the world, but especially in places where local teams can do the service without specialized training.”
With around 100 employees (roughly 60 in Calgary, 40 in Bassano and a small group in Texas), GPT’s culture emphasizes a realistic work-life balance which recognizes the importance of family and community. “We like to have people that are passionate about the work they do and enjoy the challenges we have,” Kennedy says. “They have opportunities for cross-functional development and to work on new technologies. We also like to emphasize that we’re working towards environmental solutions because that passion drives curiosity and interest for us all.”
The company supports its local communities in various ways depending on the particular need year to year. It sponsors community events, school scholarships and local sports teams, for example. An employee matching program ensures GPT’s charity dollars go to causes supported by its employees.
A single mother to a 12-year-old girl, Kennedy considers Calgary the ideal headquarters for GPT because it’s a great place for families. “We’re lucky to have a great balance of lifestyle for our people in Calgary where tradespeople and professionals work together on product development, integration, sales and admin. And in Bassano, it’s a really different feeling with the rural farming background. All our people are hands-on, problem solving, family-oriented people and that really benefits GPT.”
To the moon and back, GPT’s products reliably power the critical infrastructure so many rely on. That they originate here is something to celebrate