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My Cleantech Journey: From California to Texas and Beyond

I have been told that blogs somehow have more importance and greater connection when written in first person. I often tire of writing “analysis pieces” that seem cold, dry, and impersonal even though they are incredibly important. I somehow have been bottling up the need to write my personal perspective on where cleantech is today and why my opinions and actions in it are as well. It pretty much comes down to this…

I dedicated my entire career since business school to helping bring technologies to market and towards the birth and growth of the clean technology. I have been incredibly fortunate to have learned from the best at MIT in how to bring ideas from lab to market and got to work alongside some of the best technologies and companies while there in learning this trade. I then got to practice this in Silicon Valley with some of the best venture capitalists, best research universities and national labs, and was motivated by my experience being stuck in NYC on 9/11 to make my priority clean technology. I was fortunate to band together with like minds to form durable organizations, policy, and funding mechanisms that popularized and accelerated the growth of cleantech. I have led an enchanted life in being one of the early innovators and actors in this sector. But it was not enough.

I have long stated that technology innovation alone was not going to solve our shift to a clean energy infrastructure. My Silicon Valley compatriots, especially the ones that could risk their limited partner’s money into an arena they had no experience investing into, thought that if they built a cleantech company, it would be adopted as widely, quickly, and capital efficiently as their semi, software, and semi investments. Unfortunately this was a naïve assumption and I quickly harkened back to my Texas roots upon realizing this. The fact was that Texas is the energy expert and energy capital and that if the energy capabilities in Texas weren’t leveraged – project capital, project development, infrastructure deployment, industrial scalability, energy trading, and energy risk management – then we would not have sufficient expertise or capital to make this transition. So, I went back to Texas to see if I could bridge this divide. My tagline became “If Texas becomes a renewable energy state, then there’s hope for the planet.” So if we can show traditional energy companies and investors how to make money in new energy, they would move more of their money and expertise there.

I was well on my way to doing this when I took a side trip to Colorado with the invitation of Kleiner Perkins to be their Entrepreneur in Residence at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. What I found at KPCB were the excesses of the Silicon Valley that I was trying to shift away from. It was a portfolio that had limited prospects for success and an attitude that “Texas doesn’t matter” – that (before the economic downturn) there would be so much follow-on capital that the masters of Silicon Valley alone could re-make the energy marketplace. At NREL on the other hand, there was tremendous resistance to want to commercialize technologies. I found there that indeed there were a tremendous set of incremental innovations that could lower the cost of renewables, but these should be broadly licensed to industry (an quickly and freely) in order to bring down their costs. There was a limited set of “disruptive” innovations that were potential game-changers in the energy marketplace, but needed 5-15 years each to mature to a point of being competitive. There were no venture capital firms at that time, including my employer at the time, that were organized and capitalized to invest into the long haul for these applications.

What to do? To fill the gap, I intended to set up a firm that crossed the divide between innovation and deployment, between California and Texas, leveraging maturation centers like NREL, Pecan Street Project, and others to accelerate demonstration and deployment. Unfortunately, we hit the market window at the worst time possible and I faced a divorce in the process. Therefore, this fund never came into existence. The beauty in this is self-reflection. For those of you who have been given the opportunity to completely re-evaluate everything in life through a traumatic life event, I found clarity, beauty, focus, and realization…

My realization was this: Technology investing alone was not going to turn the corner on averting climate catastrophe. What was needed were more large scale economic demonstrations that renewables are more cost effective today than coal, gas, or nuclear energy. I was fortunately invited by a friend and one of the architects of the Pickens Renewable Energy Plan to form a new renewable energy development firm called Brightman Energy. We quickly modeled and demonstrated that a fully-depreciated coal plant in Texas could be replaced at a lower cost (and with greater long term price stability) with a well-designed, geographically dispersed renewable energy portfolio. This also led me to realize that renewables should be the baseload energy of choice in almost any geography in the US with natural gas providing the balancing or storage mechanism (at least until DSM, efficiency, and other storage solutions became cost effective with natural gas). I also realized that Texas is the deregulated market of choice to demonstrate and scale these solutions – with the most advanced nodal market, transmission infrastructure, system wide preference for generation efficiency, efficient renewable energy trading market, and its own grid, Texas had already created the ideal market for renewables and had already become the largest renewable market in the US.

So where do I go from here? With Brightman, we are building the case and project portfolio for integrated renewable deployment at a scale that can replace coal or natural gas plants (or could take advantage of the latter in order to balance increasing levels of renewables). At the same time, I continue to look at other scalable business models, financial models, and deployment models that will accelerate renewable energy and clean technology deployment – things that will take huge slugs out of our carbon emissions and hopefully avert climate catastrophe. And, yes, I still love disruptive technology – I continue to watch the ones that I think will make the greatest difference on the planet, because they will and they will replace the first generation of massive renewable deployment at an even lower cost more pervasively.

MIT Energy Summit 2013

At this year’s MIT Energy Summit, the centered on how to mainstream new energy technologies. This will depend on one of two economic changes: 1. Lowering the prices of new technologies or 2. Raising the price of current technologies by adding a price on the pollution associated it them. While the first option will take years of investment for economies of scale to take place, different policy mechanisms have been discussed for the second. These include the carbon tax and the cap-and-trade program to put a price on the greenhouse gas pollution from the the use of fossil fuels. Due to the complexity of the mechanism and competition between developed and developing countries, there is broad sentiment that at the international level, a price of carbon will not be established for the foreseeable future.

Rather than relying on an international framework to drive the development and deployment of low carbon, efficient energy technologies, the key to success lies in local implementation.

The key message coming out of the MIT summit was whether if low natural gas prices will have an impact on investing in alternative energy technologies. While the wind market in the US has added significant capacity in the last few years, the availability of cheap natural gas has made them less competitive.

The impacts will not only be felt in producing power but also across all sectors. Electric vehicles, which have received tremendous resources for investment, may no longer have long term support if natural gas prices stay low. In addition, cheap natural gas will disincentive heavy and chemical industries from improving the efficiencies of their plants.

While big energy companies have traditionally based their strategy on fossil fuels and have been resistant to new energy technologies, some companies have a more progressive outlook and are actively working with both early technology companies and policymakers to help facilitate their implementation.

In his keynote, David Crane, the chair of NRG Energy came to talk about his company’s efforts to develop clean power and provide choices for consumers to switch. He emphasizes the need for public-private partnerships (PPPs), which will be crucial in integrating new technologies into the existing energy infrastructure.