Report from the Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech Conference

The Berkeley-Stanford Cleantech Conference, a biannual conference organized by Berkeley and Stanford students, successfully brings some of the best and brightest minds together to discuss cleantech-related topics. Past themes have included Electric Vehicles, Big Solar, Energy Storage, and Smart Grid; this year the conference was organized around Distributed Generation. This year’s event took place at the PG&E General Office Conference Center in San Francisco.

The first panel of the afternoon, “Customers Turned Producers: The State of Distributed Generation,” provided a comprehensive introduction to distributed generation (DG) and the various issues and problems that may come with increasing adoption. The panelists covered a wide variety of backgrounds: Helen Priest from PG&E, Eric Dresselhuys from Silver Spring Networks, Sky Stanfield from the law firm Keyes & Fox, Chris Marnay from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Peter Asmus, a Senior Analyst at Pike Research, and Eric Wesoff from Greentech Media.

The first topic of consideration was the definition of distributed generation, for which there was considerable ambiguity. Sky Stanfield proposed a standard definition of 20 MW for SG, but participants were quick to point out there are varied definitions, depending on location and application (as Eric Dresselhuys commented, “the one consistent rule is that there is no consistent rule for DG”). Peter Asmus reminded the audience that DG is not necessarily just renewable energy, pointing out that diesel-based power (considered one of the dirtiest energy options) is a common DG source. Regardless of the energy source, distributed generation must align peak generation as close to peak load as possible.

Guest blog by Andrew Lonecker

The potential safety and legal issues of distributed generation were also discussed. For instance, although utility-scale and grid-connected systems can easily close all downstream components in case of accidents (e.g., inclement weather situations), for DG, with multiple input and output points, this is not possible. Panel participants mentioned situations in which live and dead connections of DG systems were confused, causing significant safety issues.

Finally, the panel began a discussion of microgrids, which are autonomous “island” grids that can be connected and disconnected to the larger grid. Peter Asmus estimated that there were 140 microgrids in existence, comprising over 1.8 GW, primarily at college campuses and in military applications. Helen Priest acknowledged that the prevalence of microgrids would currently be a “nightmare” for some parts of PG&E, although she was optimistic that PG&E innovation would be able to solve these issues. Billing was viewed as a consistent problem, particularly with the growth of intermittent solar and wind and electric vehicles.

The second panel, “Scaling down to size: the technology landscape,” provided an overview of the technological opportunities and challenges in distributed generation. Panelists included Matt Lecar from GE Smart Grid, Carrie McLaughlin from Nordic WindPower (which provides 1 MW utility-scale turbines), Kevin Passalacqua from Bloom Energy, Liang Downey from Nextek Power Systems (which integrates native intermittent DC sources to provide uninterrupted DC power for load), and Ed Sappin from BP Solar.
The first topic regarded early adopters and potential customers segments for each company. Bloom Energy, whose first customers were Google, eBay, Adobe, and others, have searched for early adopters who are not risk averse and are very cost focused. Further, Bloom Energy has searched for large corporate partners that have an existing customer base, allowing for future expansion. Nordic WindPower’s end customers are usually schools or small business looking to “green” their business (in fact, ROI is often less important than the marketing opportunity). Nextek Power Systems’s first customers were building and facility owners in California, focusing on lighting (and move to LED), data centers, HVAC, and in emerging markets.

As a result, the technologies created by each of the companies are tailored to these customer segments. Bloom boxes, for instance, are modular 300 kW systems that can be combined for larger uses. Further, Bloom Energy designed their boxes to be extremely quiet, to minimize the NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) concerns. Also, Nordic WindPower must design their products and services to align with complicated safety issues (e.g., noise and safety guidelines). For each of the panelists, project financing and lack of certainty in US policy are their largest barriers to success.

The last panel of the afternoon, “Stories from off the grid: DG & Microgrids in operation,” provided an perspective on the operations side of distributed generation. Panelists included Olaf Groth from Monitor 360, Sheldon Kimber from Recurrent Energy (a solar provider), Ryan Levinson from Wells Fargo (involved in renewable energy investment), Matt Heling from PG&E, and Matt Singleton from Prologis (an industrial real estate developer involved in rooftop solar installations).

The primary topic of discussion involved the various operational challenges inherent in distributed generation. For instance, the primary challenge for PG&E is to devise system that supports DG but without raising costs for everyone else. As part of this topic, the panelists struggled with the tradeoff between being a business person, and rational developer of DG, and an advocate. Matt Singleton commented that Prologis has recently struggled with bank willingness to finance their larger, and multi-building, projects (for reference, approximately 200 square feet of rooftop space equates to 1 MW). Commenting on the involvement of Wells Fargo to finance these projects, Ryan Levinson explained the other side of the pendulum, in that small-scale projects (on the order of 100 kW) are also difficult to fund due to their lack of scale. To solve this, Wells Fargo works with developers to aggregate multiple projects together to standardize and save costs.

To end the conference, Scott Jacobs, the Head of McKinsey & Company’s cleantech practice, discussed the state of cleantech and McKinsey’s involvement in the industry. According to Jacobs, McKinsey is probably one of the top 10 largest cleantech companies in the world, by revenue. They have had over 1000 cleantech projects over the past two years and over 2000 consultants working in the industry. According to McKinsey estimates, the opportunity in cleantech is massive, comprising over $1 trillion in market potential by 2020. Renewable energy is becoming cheaper (while conventional energy is getting more expensive), governments are moving aggressively, and there is a huge need for human capital. In fact, according to Jacobs, McKinsey’s cleantech work can be seen as a signal that corporations of all sizes are prioritizing this in their strategy.

Guest blog by Andrew Longenecker.  Email him at