Utilities: Scaling the Clean-Tech Mountain

I’m not exactly a patient guy. My singer-songwriter sister once wrote a song with the following lyrics: “I am from a wanting breed, I am full of expectation, I want everything I see.” Despite my years of meditation practice, I’d say that immediacy of “wanting and desire” often sums me up.

Fortunately, when I face a big goal – like launching a new business venture or embarking on a major family endeavor – I find that I can muster considerable persistence, determination, and yes, even patience.

This type of committed “can-do” mind-set is exactly what we’ll need, collectively, as we move out of the early stages of clean-tech development and deployment and into the build out of robust, ubiquitous clean-tech markets. Can you imagine a world in the next decade in which solar, wind, and other clean-energy sources represent 20-30 percent or more of our energy mix? One in which the grid is self healing, ultra efficient, has a two-way flow of electrons, and can serve up electricity for peak requirements on demand?

For me, the inevitability of a scaled-up clean-tech industry is resoundingly clear. The train, in my analysis, has already left the station and is moving full steam ahead. But it will take a lot of hard work and dedication to navigate a host of challenges and to dramatically shift our energy infrastructure.

The Long Now Foundation, based in San Francisco, is focused on looking at the world through the lens of the long view. In a world fixated on the latest celebrity news distraction, instant messaging and tweets, the foundation aims to “foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” One of its stated goals is to promote “slower/better” thinking.

So, instead of being primarily interested in quarterly returns, the foundation is encouraging us to be more interested in what happens over much longer time-horizons, say decades or centuries. This perspective can be very helpful when planning for our current massive technology shift, what Clean Edge cofounder Joel Makower likes to call “a mash-up of energy technology, information technology, building technology and vehicle technology.”

At Clean Edge, we’ve been tracking this transition within energy, transportation, water and materials for nearly a decade, and one of the big game changers at the moment is how clean technologies are being embraced by the Fortune 500s, utilities and other key infrastructure players.

Fortunately, I think this long-view perspective is something that utilities, like them or not for their historical lack of innovative flair, understand very well. Most utilities strive to be providers of reliability and economic growth for the communities they serve. Increasingly, they are also being called on to provide their products and services in a more environmental, low-carbon or zero-carbon framework. This type of thought process and deployment requires a long-term perspective. Equally important, utilities are used to investing in technology and infrastructure that stays in the field for decades. Some core utility assets, like high-voltage transmission lines and sub stations, have life spans of 30, 40 or 50 years. And utilities are accustomed to financing these projects with 20-, 25- and even 30-year terms.

This past month I was a speaker and guest at an American Public Power Association conference in San Francisco. Presenter Harold DePriest, president and CEO of Chattanooga Electric Power Board, summed up this long-term planning sentiment well when he noted that the goal of utilities and economic development agencies, like his, is to help guarantee that a region can retain its competitive advantage and ensure the livelihood of future generations. He explained that a thriving community needs to work to ensure that “one’s children and grandchildren” can get high-paying, meaningful work that allows them to stay in the community.

Utilities are often blamed for moving slowly and being conservative. And while this might seem like a challenge for clean-tech companies, I think it offers a great opportunity as well. Once utilities are on board, they can impart significant change.

Recent developments support this growing trend of utility involvement:

PSE&G’s 80-MW Solar 4 All Program Approved

EDF & First Solar To Build 100-MW Solar Manufacturing Plant in France  

Report: Over Eight Million Smart Meters Deployed in U.S., with Millions More to Come

Sun Day Analysis: Renewables Account for 11% of US Energy Production

The actions of solar PV manufacturing leaders Suntech Power, SunPower and First Solar provide a further glimpse into the intersection of utilities and clean energy. Just a couple of years ago these companies were focused primarily on providing products and services for commercial and industrial solar PV installations. Now, these companies have shifted focus, targeting utility-based and utility-scale installations.  First Solar got into the game in a big way when it acquired the utility solar pipeline of now-defunct OptiSolar for $400 million in March.

Indeed, for clean technologies to really scale, they need to become embedded in our infrastructure, not just leveraged along the edges. Our institutions must embrace the shift just as much, if not more than, individual consumers.

I realize that some folks, such as former Vice President Al Gore, are calling for 100 percent renewables within 10 years, and I applaud their audacious vision. But realistically, I think getting approximately 30 percent of our electricity from renewables in the next decade, and building out a reliable, 21st century intelligent grid, is a significant mountain to scale. It will require massive investment, build out, and dedication by a host of stakeholders – with utilities playing a central role. It won’t be easy – but such lofty targets are no longer pipe dreams. They are, I believe, firmly within our reach.

Ron Pernick is cofounder and managing director of Clean Edge, Inc. and coauthor of The Clean Tech Revolution.

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