Report from Energy Innovation Summit

Last week, many of the leading minds of the cleantech world congregated in suburban Washington DC for the 2012 Energy Innovation Summit.

The Summit is mainly oriented as a showcase of some of the most interesting and promising technologies that have surfaced directly or indirectly as a result of ARPA-E:  the Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy, a subgroup of the U.S. Department of Energy that was launched in 2009.

Of all the cleantech conferences I’ve attended in the past 12 years, and there have been far too many, this was one of the best, for several reasons.

First, most of the speakers were excellent (= interesting + informed).  Often at these kinds of events, the roster is populated by some combination of bureaucrats that in actuality are mid-level paper-pushers and geeks that speak in such granular detail about science or engineering topics that no-one can understand.  Either way, the comments are usually delivered in monotone, to overeager junior audience members busily taking notes they’ll never read and dozing or smartphone-checking senior audience members that have heard most of the same boring nonsense before.  (Cynical, much?  Yeah, I know.)

In contrast, we got to hear from Dr. Steven Chu, the Secretary of Energy, who is arguably the most brilliant cabinet member of all time (having won the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics for the cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light).  Dr. Chu reiterated some of his recent stump speech on the need for technological leadership to maintain/enhance U.S. competitiveness in the global economy, and the risks encountered from the need to stay on the frontier (Solyndra, anyone?)

We got to hear from Dr. Arun Majumdar, the Director of ARPA-E, who is just about as smart and knowledgeable, and perhaps more passionate and dynamic, than Dr. Chu.  Just one nugget from Dr. Majumdar:  the design life of a utility transformer is 40 years, yet the average in-service age of transformers on the U.S. utility grid is 42 years.  (Yet another factor in the drive for the “smart grid”.)

We got to hear from Bill Gates – yes, that Bill Gates – who revealed a depth of insight and concern that one would only expect of someone who had been playing in the cleantech game and fighting the good fight for decades.  Sample observation from Gates:  “Energy innovation in the U.S. is underfunded by at least a factor of 2.”  Gates talked at considerable length about the need for more research in carbon sequestration and in nuclear – noting his interest in TerraPower.

We got to hear from the Fred Smith and Ursula Burns, CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies FedEx (NYSE: FDX) and Xerox (NYSE: XRX), along with Lee Scott, the former CEO of WalMart (NYSE: WMT), talking about how energy technology innovation is critical to these goliaths of business.

I couldn’t attend all of the sessions because of various other commitments, and I purposely avoided sitting in on the remarks of the politicos – including Bill Clinton, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – because (a) I’m disgusted with the state of the political environment and discourse in the U.S. these days,  (b) I’m confident that these speakers have arbitrarily-close-to-zero to say that would be useful or relevant to someone trying to actually create value with new cleantech innovations entering the commercial marketplace, and (c) I had better things to do when they were talking.  But, what I did hear from the keynotes and panels I did attend was generally pretty interesting and informative.

The networking at the event was impressive.  Many of the leading cleantech venture capitalists were milling around, along with actually-empowered senior executives of leading industrial corporations sponsoring truly novel stuff in energy technologies.  I only wished the name tags were of a larger font, so I could better see the identities of some of the people I was passing by, knowing that I was missing connecting with someone I really wanted to get to know.

But perhaps the most important reason that the Summit was such a positive event for me was the quality of the technology innovations and innovators that exhibited at the show – spanning from university research projects to start-up ventures to large corporations such as General Electric (NYSE: GE), Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Cree (NASDAQ: CREE).

At times over the years, I feel like I’ve seen or heard pretty much everything in cleantech, which sometimes makes me wonder if everything that could be invented or needed to be invented was already being worked on.  An event like this put lie to this misbelief.  People were talking about exotic/crazy stuff like wireless electric vehicle recharging while roaming.

After just the first day, I could see that there were lots of promising technologies being worked on really big opportunities beyond the set I kept seeing over and over again.  Moreover, most of these initiatives were led by entrepreneurs that were not only committed but also much more competent and capable than the tinkerers that represented most of the cleantech innovation realm a decade or so ago.

My overall impressions of the Summit gave me good hope that we are making real progress in the cleantech world, and that there’s a lot more for me to do and be excited about in the decades to come.  I myself was recharged on the fly.

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