SPI Insider: Issue 3, October 2013
Coming to Chicago: a Disruptive Event
Starting with its opening session, SPI underscores importance of new technology, entrepreneurship in solar energy.
At Solar Power International’s (SPI) opening session, something rather special promises to unfold. Taking the stage will be two women who will dive into a question-and-answer dialogue that will surely capture SPI’s themes of technological innovation and entrepreneurship. Appropriately, these two women both lead organizations that play in the same space—that is, serving as a catalyst for the advancement of energy technologies.
The one who will field the questions comes to Chicago from the public sector and in fact is a prominent figure within the Obama administration. She is Dr. Cheryl Martin, deputy director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy—otherwise known as ARPA-E, the highly successful federal agency that awards funding to projects that hold the potential to become high-impact and even disruptive technologies enabling new ways to generate, store, and use energy.
The funding provided by ARPA-E has proven to be money well spent. The agency has spurred the investment of over $450 million in private sector follow-on funding of 17 projects after ARPA-E’s initial investment of approximately $70 million. Twelve of those projects have leveraged their technologies to form new companies, and over 10 have partnered with other government agencies for later-stage investment.
Serving up the questions to Martin—and delving into the discussion along the way, no doubt—will be a true kindred spirit of the deputy director’s. She’s Amy Francetic, CEO of the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust (CET). That organization does work both similar and complementary to ARPA-E (Francetic agrees the organizations themselves are kindred spirits), the primary difference being that CET jumps into the funding role at a later stage in the game. In short, ARPA-E funds the research, while CET funds the commercialization of the research.
CET’s batting average is just as impressive as ARPA-E’s (albeit on a smaller scale). The organization, whose historical focus has been the Midwest region, has helped the companies it’s worked with raise over $37 million in additional public and private funding. CET itself has awarded $740,000 in grant funding, and its companies have leveraged its services to the tune of $5 million—meaning the organization’s funding has been leveraged six times over.
Six times. Sound familiar? That’s roughly the same leverage power you get when you consider ARPA-E’s $70 million in funding against the $450 million in private-sector follow-on funding.
Not bad returns for both organizations, to make an understatement. ARPA-E and CET, it turns out, are not only kindred spirits; they’re matches of success.
Solar today and tomorrow
Before Martin and Francetic sit down for their conversation, the stage will be set in a most appropriate way. The session, “Solar’s Time to Shine” (Monday, Oct. 21, 5-6:30 p.m.), will kick off with a look at solar’s present and future in a discussion led by Julia Hamm, president and CEO of SEPA, and Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA. Undoubtedly, Resch and Hamm will highlight SPI’s Solar Impulse Entrepreneurs and Start-Up Alley, the brand-new tradeshow floor offering that will serve as the entrepreneurial hub for companies getting off the ground with their new ideas and technologies that promise to move solar energy forward.
Funding new technology. Bringing new products to market. See any themes emerging? To be sure, the opening session, and SPI in general, will focus on these exciting and crucial elements of the industry, in turn putting the event itself at the center of solar energy today.
Francetic is particularly excited to interview Martin at SPI for a couple of reasons. The ARPA-E deputy director spoke at CET’s Clean Energy Challenge event in 2012. “She was terrific,” Francetic says of the Obama administration official, noting the importance of a woman technology expert—something the world needs more of—participating in the event.
Thus the prototypical role model, Martin is “both a scientist and an entrepreneur,” notes Francetic, making her an ideal person to lead ARPA-E and share her insights on the topics of solar’s present and future and entrepreneurship’s place in the equation.
Moving into specifics of the coming conversation, what might Francetic and Martin discuss? What will Francetic ask Martin? Given Martin’s position at the center of emerging technologies and within the Obama administration, there’s certainly a whole list of topics with which to pepper the conversation. To start, there’s the SunShot initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) collaborative effort to make solar energy more cost competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the decade. “I would love to hear an update on how that’s going, given the aggressive goals to bring cost down,” says Francetic.
Francetic says she’d also like to touch on the hot topic of storage. Other subjects she’d like to probe Martin on: What’s the administration paying attention to in terms of issues and trends? What at the federal level is forthcoming? And, of course, there’s the president’s climate initiative announced this past summer. What is happening on that front, particularly in the context of solar? Moreover, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz is still in his first six months in office. Perhaps Martin will articulate more of Moniz’s agenda.
The perfect kick-off to SPI
From Monday’s opening session on the conference side, to Start-Up Alley on the tradeshow floor, one of the foremost purposes of SPI is to help move the solar industry forward by enabling the development of disruptive technologies and ideas. Thus, in its own way, with companies busy drumming up deals in Start-Up Alley and two leading funding organizations headlining the opening session, SPI itself holds the potential to be something of a disruptive event for the industry.
One wish of Francetic’s as she looks ahead to SPI: “I hope there are some people in the audience [at the opening session] that are candidates for ARPA-E funding,” she says. That would allow such SPI attendees to glean insights literally straight from funding sources. In fact, all attendees are sure to gain industry insight and inspiration.
Martin, says Francetic, is the ideal person for the job of helping to kick off SPI’s program and talk technology, science, entrepreneurship, and policy. “She’s really articulate and I know she’ll do a great job of explaining things” in terms of industry challenges and issues, new technologies, and so forth, says Francetic. “I’m very honored to be able to have this conversation with Dr. Martin.”
In Their Shoes
Wednesday session has prominent leaders thinking from other stakeholders’ perspectives.
It’s one of the most common passing thoughts whenever a group of people representing multiple interests get together to work on an issue:
If only these different stakeholders could be in my shoes. If only they could see things from my perspective.
At SPI, that will actually happen. Watch it unfold in Wednesday’s general session, “Solar Opportunities: Exploring the Political Landscape” (Oct. 23, 9-10:30 a.m.).
What, precisely, will take place? For starters, a lot of fun, inevitably, for the session will involve an impressive lineup of high-profile figures taking on roles that stretch far beyond their day jobs. (Props to these prominent leaders for indulging the organizers of SPI and playing along.)
Ever wonder what a developer representative would say if he were actually from a utility? Or how a regulator would respond if she were really a developer? Moderated by Julia Hamm and Rhone Resch, the unique format of the session will allow panelists to wear different hats (quite literally—rumor has it they will wear hats) and consider industry issues from the perspective of their fellow panelists and peers.
Top leaders placed in new situations
The concept is not entirely new. Among those participating in the session will be Nat Kreamer, president and CEO, of Clean Power Finance, who recently took part in a working-group session at Stanford University in which participants presented and supported views that they didn’t necessarily agree with. “Debating your opponent’s position is a strong Socratic exercise to learn more about a particular topic,” says Kreamer. “I am excited about this session because: a) it has great participants, and b) presenting the political and economic position of a market participant different than your own is a great way to really understand our industry.”
Sure enough, the list of panelists includes some impressive names from both the private and public sectors. The line-up (as of this writing):
- Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy
- Dr. David Cash, Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities
- Joe Forline, Vice President, Renewables, PSE&G
- David Hochschild, Commissioner at the California Energy Commission
- Nat Kreamer, President and CEO of Clean Power Finance
- Steven Malnight, Vice President for Customer Energy Solutions at PG&E
- Jon Wellinghoff, Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
Not exactly a list of titles you’d expect to wear strange hats onstage. The session’s format certainly promises a little bit of fun (and in fact, the morning will kick off with an appearance from Chicago’s famous Second City comedy group—see sidebar). But aside from the inevitable good humor coming from the stage, the session promises to provide invaluable substance. “I am really excited to explore how solar can partner with traditional power companies to dramatically expand our industry and how regulation will shape this opportunity,” says Kreamer.
The presence of Massachusetts Commissioner Cash, meanwhile, is notable for a reason that stretches beyond Chicago and SPI. PV America is set for Boston next year, and so Cash’s insights promise to provide a bit of a teaser for that event, which takes place June 23-25, 2014.
Topics advance industry
As for hot-button issues that will pepper the conversation at the Wednesday session in Chicago, Kreamer is looking forward to delving into what matters most to the industry, particularly those issues that lend themselves to the session’s unique “different hat” format. “Competitive power markets are exciting and threatening, depending on who you are and what your business model is,” he notes. “I suspect that competition is going to be a unifying theme that runs through the conversation.”
No matter what comes up, expect the exchange to be full of surprises and a wealth of insight and information to flow. After all, SPI is all about helping companies build and grow. The unique session, concludes Kreamer, “should help the audience better understand how more solar is likely to fit into the traditional power market and identify ways to make money from the opportunity.”
Second City comedy group set for general session, second appearance
If watching a developer think like a utility isn’t enough entertainment for a general session audience (see story, “In Their Shoes”), then watching one of the nation’s most famous comedy groups certainly will be.
Before the main event gets underway at Wednesday’s general session, the audience will get a unique and certainly humorous look at their own industry, when Chicago’s famous Second City takes the stage to provide some morning laughs and perhaps poke a little fun at solar industry issues in the process.
If you’re not too familiar with The Second City, you surely know its alumni. Among them: John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert (to name a few).
The Second City has been performing sketch comedy in front of audiences for over 50 years, making it the standard by which comedy and improv in America is judged.
The comedy troupe will start rolling during the first part of the Wednesday (Oct. 23) general session, which starts at 9 a.m. Better still, the engagement will only serve as an appetizer for a special Second City show being held later in the day specifically for SPI attendees. A wristband attained at the general session will get you into the afternoon show, which takes place back in the general session room from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.