The Key to A Clean Energy Economy? Incubators, Deals, & Attention

San Antonio—[Updated 6/29/18, 1:52 p.m. See below.] Businesses and individual consumers are increasingly tapping into solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources, in part thanks to the scientists and engineers who are developing new and more efficient ways of utilizing these energy sources.

Renewables accounted for about 11 percent of overall energy consumption in the U.S. in 2017, up from 9.9 percent two years earlier, according to the Energy Information Administration. Cities across the country, including San Antonio, are trying to benefit from the burgeoning “new energy” economy, hoping to draw benefits like investment capital and jobs that come from more businesses opting to use renewable energy. How does a city succeed at doing so, though?

You should establish programs like incubators, develop partnerships with business leaders and researchers, and attract the attention of global leaders in the field, according to Lynn Abramson, the president of the Washington, DC-based Clean Energy Business Network. The network advocates for energy efficiency, energy efficiency, and the use of natural gas, and its members are executives from small- and medium-sized businesses around the country. Abramson is speaking today in San Antonio about economic opportunities that may be available to San Antonio in clean energy. [Paragraph updated to include more of the network’s focus.]

San Antonio leaders have started some of that work. EPIcenter was created in 2015 as a think tank and incubator focused on clean and renewable energy, and it has hosted events and speakers, including Abramson. It also is partnering with Velocity TX, a business development program, on a “pre-incubator” to provide startups with feedback and mentorship.

Ongoing research at local universities, such as the University of Texas at San Antonio, is leading to the formation of new businesses, too. Leaptran is developing machine learning software that it hopes can help commercial building owners, such as at a university or warehouse, use solar panels to soak up and store energy in batteries for potential future use.

Fostering more technology transfer and startup activity is the goal of the city’s economic development agencies, and new energy is one of seven industries those groups are targeting locally. Plus, San Antonio is actually already doing well in using renewable energy, Abramson says—it is ranked sixth in the nation for deploying solar panels, and first in Texas. City-owned utility CPS Energy has committed to using more renewable energy resources in the coming years. Stating goals, and following through with them, helps attract innovation, Abramson says.

“Clean energy is a mainstream part of the U.S. energy economy, and increasingly that’s the economy of the future, so any city, state, or nation that wants to be competitive globally is going to have to increasingly demonstrate competitiveness in clean energy,” Abramson said in a phone interview before speaking in San Antonio.

While people are becoming more aware of innovations in solar and wind technologies, Abramson says there are a few other areas of new energy that may be ripe for innovation. That includes microgrids that use advanced systems controls to allow a building to continue operating on an independent source of energy when there is a broad power outage. Geothermal energy from the earth is a resource that has barely been tapped into, she adds.

Improvements in storage for things like lithium ion batteries for electric cars allowed the cost to drop by more than a quarter in 2017, Abramson says.

“When you look at the global economy and the direction it is heading, it is a clean energy economy,” she says.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow @xconholley

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