Reactions to President Obama’s Energy Speech from Boston Technology Leaders

Xconomy didn’t score a ticket to President Obama’s speech on clean energy at MIT today, so we can’t bring you a first-hand report. But we’ve got something that’s arguably even better: perspectives from a range of local community members who were inside MIT’s Kresge Auditorium for the speech, which took place at about 12:45 p.m. today. We invited people from across the local energy ecosystem—including students, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy leaders—to contribute their reactions to the President’s remarks.

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So, dig in. If you missed the President’s speech, MIT has posted the video here on the MIT World video portal. And if you were there, or you watched the video on the Internet, by all means share your thoughts in the comment section. (You may also want to check out this priceless CNN video of Hawaiian-shirt-clad Alex Slocum, a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, explaining his idea for undersea wind energy storage to President Obama, with MIT President Susan Hockfield, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and Senator John Kerry looking on.)

Nick d’Arbeloff, president, New England Clean Energy Council

Man, that guy is a rock star. It is just incredibly refreshing to see the leader of this nation speak so eloquently and forcefully about clean energy, after the eight years prior. This morning he toured a couple of labs at MIT, including, I believe, one lab that is actually using viruses to grow batteries, as opposed to assembling them. So he was exuding enthusiasm about what he had seen and his positive impressions of the innovation culture that exists within MIT and the broader region.

Needless to say, Obama gets it, and he gets it in a big way. Also attending were, of course, Governor Patrick, and Secretary Bowles, but also John Kerry, who has emerged as a major leader on energy as the Kerry-Boxer bill has made its debut. It’s hard not to look at this event, combined with Kerry’s bill, as the beginning of a new chapter in America’s journey to real climate leadership.

There is a very tough path to tread between here and some type of cap-and-trade bill in Congress, but the President was incredibly upbeat, and he made it clear that difficult odds have been overcome on many many occasions in our nation’s history, and he was confident that we would overcome the odds this time around.

In front of him were roughly 800 clean energy leaders and students whose interests lie within the energy field, and I think they walked away believing that—well, every day is a mixture of optimism and pessimism with regard to Congress and the U.S. energy future, but we have a leader in the Oval Office who is really not going to rest until he makes this one of his legacies. And it’s really nice to know, speaking as one agent of the clean energy revolution, that we’ve got Barack Obama at our backs.

I think it was cheerleading—but it was well-directed, well-received cheerleading. I don’t think there’s a lot to announce here. There are a lot of moving parts in Washington right now, and he could have enumerated all those different parts and he could have made bets on which part is going to move first, but I don’t think that would have made sense. More important is simply to say this battle will be joined and the war will be won.

This is a president who is completely committed to the value that science brings to the table, to the proposition that science and the exploration of scientific truth and the innovations that are derived from it are fundamental ingredients in our way out of this crisis. And granted, it wasn’t a big, honkin’ announcement, but science is a really important thing to stress. Put it this way: if this President had arrived at MIT with a history over the past 10 months of less commitment to clean energy and less commitment to scientific research and less commitment to climate leadership and then made a major announcement, that would be only a fraction as important as what has transpired instead, namely that the administration has been completely committed to clean energy. The fact that no major initiatives were announced today is, in that context, not a huge disappointment at all.

Gregg Dixon, senior vice president of marketing, EnerNOC (NASDAQ: ENOC)

My general impression is that President Obama is getting behind the promises he made on the campaign trail, and cleantech is certainly one of those promises. MIT is a great place to make a speech and to get people excited and to raise awareness. Very simply, it was an executive-level commercial for clean energy, to say ‘Let’s go.’ That can never hurt.

You want to go where you’ve got a friendly crowd if you’re going to push an issue, so that makes sense to me. But the proof is in the pudding. It’s a facade of a building that still needs to be built. You’ve got to build this clean energy economy. So simply throwing money at the problem and talking a great game doesn’t make it a reality. It’s certainly important, but now we’ve got to make it happen. And we’ve got to do it through smart policies, and create market constructs.

From EnerNOC’s perspective, we want demand to play a deeper and deeper role in energy markets. We are not asking for handouts, and we don’t take taxpayer dollars. What we are asking for is a level playing field.

If you were somehow to resurrect Alexander Graham Bell, he would not understand one thing about today’s telephone system. But if you brought back Thomas Edison, he would be able to run today’s electrical grid, as if nothing had changed. We are putting software in place to give people choices and to create a more efficient energy market. This is not rocket science—the technology exists. The problem is the market constructs and policies around market structure. Throwing money at the problem does not create market change. The most important thing we can do is create markets where there is more competition and choice. That’s what we want to see.

We are always dissatisfied with the pace of change, but we also recognize that we’ve got to work hard to help. We’re not just sitting here throwing stones. We have a solution and it’s delivering phenomenal value where we have market access—but we don’t have market access everywhere yet. We want utilities to have an incentive to deploy demand response technology. But right now they have an incentive to install more power plants—they don’t have an incentive to help you reduce your power bill.

It can only do good [for the President to speak about clean energy]. There is nothing negative that can come from him elevating the awareness for clean energy. I just wish, though, that the President would take more of an executive role, and create more of a call to arms—to call upon his own Administration and the federal departments to create change faster. Let’s move more quickly, and empower those decision makers at places like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency to make decisions more quickly. Ultimately, that comes down to Congress learning how to play nice with each other. I think we could be in for a long fight on this energy bill—just as with the healthcare bill, it’s starting to founder a bit.

Forgan McIntosh, MBA student, MIT Sloan School of Management; co-president, MIT Energy Club

The President alluded to the steadfast opposition to change and the idea that clean energy and the carbon tax and a lot of the expensive technologies could potentially ruin the economy, and the outright pessimism about politics on Capitol Hill, as things that make people throw in the towel and not do the hard work. He encouraged the audience to defeat that pessimism. So he said some interesting things. I would say that overall, he was talking on an extremely high level. He was excited to be here at MIT and to see the labs. I didn’t sit there and say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s done massive amounts of homework and he has positions on all of these issues.’ But you did hear him clearly acknowledge that being a leader in this space is a necessity both from a climate change perspective and also an economic perspective.

I think that having that back in the public discourse is what we need, and hearing him say that more and more is something that is of real value. I think he hit it home pretty well. He spoke for about 20 minutes total, so there wasn’t a ton of substance, granularity-wise.

[Having President Obama speak at MIT] gives the student body a tremendous sense of pride and injects even more energy into our work on the research and technology side as well as the startup, commercialization, and development side. It meant a lot to us to have a lot of the hard work we do validated by such an appearance. We feel like there’s a lot of work left to do, and we’re going to continue to work as hard as we can. And in the meantime it’s nice to have such a tremendous acknowledgement.

Furqan Nazeeri, co-founder, Viridus (cross-posted to Viridus’s blog)

Earlier today I was in the audience of students, faculty, local entrepreneurs and politicians at MIT when President Obama delivered a speech on clean energy. His talk was brief but made some notable points. The main point, I think, was him exhorting the country to “take a risk on ideas that might fail, but that could also change the world.” Obama cited as examples some research at MIT where scientists are using viruses to grow batteries instead of building them. Pretty cool.

Obama started by touting recent achievements in advancing clean energy research and development. Apparently there is $80 billion of the stimulus money earmarked for green projects. And Obama mentioned Governor Patrick’s tripling of investment in energy efficiency (the biggest short term opportunity, in my view). He then simultaneously held out a carrot and stick saying that the Pentagon had declared America’s dependence on foreign oil a security risk and that there was a $2 trillion potential market in wind energy over the next two decades (Massachusetts just won some federal grant money to build a wind blade test facility).

I haven’t read the press coverage on his speech yet, but I bet most will pick up on what he called the biggest obstacle to advancing clean energy legislation. What he called the “myth that there is little or nothing we can do; that politics is broken.” I’m not sure that’s the biggest obstacle, but it’s real for sure.

He finished with some of the best lines of the speech saying that “Today’s frontiers can’t be found on a map” and that “pioneers are not off in the wilderness but all around us.” How true. I see that on Viridus everyday where dedicated, passionate and talented professionals are advancing corporate sustainability.

By the way, the legislation that Obama mentioned (but did not go into any detail about) was the Boxer-Kerry bill, proposed climate change legislation…The center piece of the proposed legislation is a cap-and-trade program where the initial credits are auctioned off. This would put a price on a ton of CO2 and would do so rather quickly, similar to RGGI, here in New England. Come join the discussion on on how this proposed legislation would affect business and the environment.

Lastly, I just have to say that I was able to briefly meet the President and shake his hand which was pretty cool.

The MIT address was symbolic in that it expressed President Obama’s commitment and this country’s commitment to being a world leader in clean energy.

Cleantech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the green economy are in many ways dependent on the proactive leadership of President Obama and the historic legislation that is passed under him. This legislation is critical to enable entrepreneurs and businesses, which need the incentives, grants, and tax credits in place that, as President Obama said, “make renewable energy the profitable kind [of energy] in this country.”

Joel Rodriguez, Associate, Commonwealth Capital Ventures

The MIT address was symbolic in that it expressed President Obama’s commitment and this country’s commitment to being a world leader in clean energy.

Cleantech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the green economy are in many ways dependent on the proactive leadership of President Obama and the historic legislation that is passed under him.  This legislation is critical to enable entrepreneurs and businesses, which need the incentives, grants, and tax credits in place that, as President Obama said, “make renewable energy the profitable kind [of energy] in this country.”

Before the address, Obama visited with research professors and students to engage on the specific research they have been doing, mentioning several examples in his address. It is reassuring that the President is willing to spend time understanding the researchers and innovators who are the engine that will drive the green economy going forward. President Obama also drew attention to a Recovery Act grant already given to a wind technology testing center that is going to be built in the Cambridge area, demonstrating the change that is already occurring in our backyard.

Bilal Zuberi, Principal, General Catalyst Partners

What a proud day for MIT! President Obama delivered a speech today at MIT on energy policy to an audience of almost 1,200 (from my MIT days I remember that being the official number of people Kresge can hold). This represents an important milestone in the journey of many MIT researchers, faculty, students, and alums who have worked hard to make MIT the mecca of clean energy research in the world. Obama came, joked about his motorcade being placed on top of Building 10 (referring to hacks that MIT’ers like myself hold sacred), enthused the audience about the great challenges and potential that lay ahead for all of us, and left after a few hugs. All in a matter of less than 30 minutes.

I had waited for over 2 hours for him, but it was worth the wait (and the quick clearing of my calendar). I left wanting more from him. We all do on issues we care about deeply. The President’s job today was to celebrate the successes so far, and get us jazzed about his commitment to face the challenges ahead and I believe he succeeded. I like what I heard:

(1) Nations are engaged in a peaceful competition to determine what technologies will provide the clean energy of tomorrow. And the nation that wins the competition will dominate the global economy.

(2) The biggest threat to our progress is pessimism. America can solve problems and act collectively.

(3) Innovation and discovery is in our DNA, but the challenges of this generation are also bigger than before.

(4) The Recovery Act is the largest investment ever in energy in history ($80 billion). Not only in technologies of today, but also in science for technologies of tomorrow.

(5) The Pentagon has declared dependence from fossil fuels is a threat to our security. “Operation FREE” is in effect!

(6) Young people realize clean energy is the challenge of their generation. All MIT communiy members are heirs to a legacy of innovation…one gets excited just being there.

(7) Ed Markey and John Kerry are working across the aisle to turn all the work on energy and climate into an act of legislation. The naysayers are being marginalized, but the closer we get, the opposition will fight harder.

(8) Obama believes this nation will lead the clean energy economy of tomorrow. Yes, I too believe the same!

It was a fantastic show of force by the local clean energy community. As someone remarked, it was the best cocktail hour they had ever been to. Executives, entrepreneurs, investors, lawyers lined up to get in and mingled until the announcement was made for the singing of the national anthem. It was a celebration of sorts, and a moment of reflection that despite the turbulence in the economy around us, there could be no worthier industry than clean energy to be working for.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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4 responses to “Reactions to President Obama’s Energy Speech from Boston Technology Leaders”

  1. Jens EcksteinJens Eckstein says:

    Hearing from President Obama that science around new energies shall be the new frontier is so refreshing after long years of ignorance and disrespect for science. I wish many more young people could have been in the audience with me – we need folks who develop the same momentum and dedication as their fathers when Kennedy asked them to put Apollo on the Moon’s surface. Great day for MIT!

  2. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    Readers may also be interested in this critique of President Obama’s energy speech, published at Discover Magazine’s blog by Karen Aline McKinnon, a senior at Harvard College studying climate change in the Earth and Planetary Sciences department: