Powering Cleantech to Market: Highlights from the XSITE Energy Panel

[Corrected 7/1/09]

The atmosphere at last Wednesday’s XSITE energy breakout session was electric—clean electric, that is. The topic of the hour was the future and feasibility of wind, solar, and other alternative energy industries in New England. Rob Day, president of the Renewable Energy Business Network, moderated the panel, which included Jay Fiske (a VP at solar firm Wakonda Technologies), Daniel Goldman (EVP and CFO of GreatPoint Energy, a developer of coal gasification technology), Gerry Haines (EVP and chief legal officer at biofuel firm Verenium), and Roger Freeman (president of wind power firm Solventerra Energy).

The energy industry is staring down the barrel of heavy government involvement in its affairs. The Waxman-Markey bill, which at the time of the panel was still being debated in the House of Representatives, poses both potential opportunities and potential headaches for the clean energy industry. The new emissions regulations aimed at the largest polluters, intended to force large energy companies to develop cleaner fuels, may provide a huge boost to smaller cleantech firms. “The problem with Big Oil is, even with incentives given to work on alternative fuels, they’re not really in the tech development business, so we work with them,” said Haines.

Waxman-Markey’s detractors, however, say that the stricter federal standards for controlling carbon emissions leaves less room for companies, especially smaller ones, to adjust to local conditions. The costs that are more easily absorbed by large oil or coal interests may prove more challenging to a small cleantech company.

When asked how startup energy firms could cope with more stringent government regulation, GreatPoint Energy’s Goldman noted that utilities, for the most part, have always been regulated, and that “we have to accept that we work in a regulated industry, and that government policy plays a very significant role.” On the other hand, he said, most companies “can’t afford time to sit in Washington influencing members of Congress.” He advised that smaller cleantech companies not try to lobby for policy changes on their own, but to piggyback onto the efforts of larger companies. “Figure out how your company’s interests align with, say, GE, and leverage off their focus.”

When asked to comment on the difficulties that energy startups face in acquiring venture funding, Solventerra’s Freeman, the former managing director of the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, said that the lack of potential for a big—or bigger than expected—payoff was the problem. “Energy is a tangible business. You put x amount in and get x amount of energy out. You can measure the risk pretty successfully, so it doesn’t attract as much venture investment.”

“It’s not Web 2.0,” said Day.  “You have to actually make something.”

Fiske noted that in the current economic climate, investors might be cautious, but alternative sources of funding for cleantech have never been more abundant.  Cleantech can always look to “SBIR grants, competition winnings, and of course, the three Fs—friends, family, and fools.” [Editor’s note: this quote was originally misattributed to Daniel Goldman. We regret the error.]

Day asked the panel to describe some of the barriers in New England to the success of cleantech. Freeman said that Boston’s deeply engrained parochialism means navigating a maze of regulation for even the simplest matters. Major additions and infrastructure changes can only be that much more of a headache. “It took my friend two years to get a permit to build a deck. How long do you think it takes to get one for a wind turbine?”

“The good thing is, we have a forward-thinking administration here in Massachusetts,” said Goldman. The Patrick administration, he says, is a staunch supporter of cleantech innovation.

Wakonda’s Fiske said that Massachusetts could be doing more to capitalize on its intellectual resources, and that universities in particular could better support spin–offs and the commercialization of their research. The panelists all concurred that the concentration of both high-level research institutions and scientists was New England’s greatest advantage.

“Intellectual capital,” said Haines, “is our best resource.”

Roxanne is an intern in Xconomy's Boston office. You can reach her at [email protected] Follow @

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