Open Innovation & Solar: A New Horizon Emerges in the Heart of Coal Country

Many visions have been laid out and developed over the years that point towards what economist Jeremy Rifken calls the Third Industrial Revolution: a network economy where the entire system is interactive, integrated and seamless. This integration of energy sources is presently and will continue to create whole new opportunities for cross-industry relationships in the coming years. For Rifken, the Third Industrial Revolution brings with it a new era of “distributed capitalism” in which existing and new businesses and homeowners become energy players. Unfortunately Rifken fails to unpack the mechanism of how distributed capitalism functions at the granule level, that is, the manner in which it will emerge from the bottom-up answering the question:

How do we create the necessary communication linkages (formal/informal) to ensure the emergence of the Third Industrial Revolution?  

Supplying an important piece to this puzzle, a team of global pioneers are coming together to understand the morphogenesis of human creativity at the grassroots level by experimenting with how open-innovation and solar development interact synergistically to increase technological change over time. Developing a Living Lab or iLab in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, many organizations that make up the Central Appalachian Sustainable Economies (CASE) network are identifying integrative synergies between traditional and emerging energy resources.


According to Barcelona’s LOW3 project, Living Labs can be understood as “holistic infrastructures for research and innovation and have the potential to be emerging tools for teaching, linking all three activities within a creative real life environment based on user co-creation and open innovation.” The iLab’s Open-Innovation Consortium does just that by developing a peer-to-peer network where “human creativity” is shared amongst multiple interconnected peers. Each participant of the consortium makes a portion of their resources directly available to iLab participants.

As an integral resource of this consortium, many regional universities including West Virginia University and University of Pikeville are serving as anchor institutions by opening their curriculums and actively participating in the implementation of innovative pedagogical strategies founded upon experiential or integrative approaches to interdisciplinary research and development. An active member of the Open-Innovation Consortium, Professor Peter Hackbert from Berea College stated that he is excited to launch an initial course entitled “Applied Sustainability: Developing the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem” this summer. 

Regarding solar, the development of an open-innovation ecosystem is already underway. This strategy will enable partner companies to identify proprietary thresholds in order to optimization internal returns and competitiveness as well as identify external or shared innovation opportunities. One of the iLab’s partners, the Solar Gardens Institute, believes that this innovation strategy will provide an ideal context for assessing emerging business models.

Executive Director of the Solar Gardens Institute, Joy Hughes, stated that they are “interested in seeing local community groups develop their own shared renewable projects. Moreover, these communities can learn from people who have already completed projects – the ‘solar gardeners’.” Pointedly Hughes stated that when “tools such as software, business structures, and financial models can be shared in an open-source manner between groups, this will inevitably speed up the development process.”

Professor Hans Schaffers, a member of the iLab development team and a global expert in Living Labs, highlighted the importance of linking solar development tools within a central IT platform. “The long-term sustainability of any open-innovation strategy is highly reliant upon the quality of the relationships created and effective deployment of mechanisms that ensure the relational resiliency of these linkages over time. Fortunately for us, the iLab team has one of the leaders in Solar platform development working with us.”

CEO of Geosteller, the nation’s first and largest solar energy marketplace, David Levine expressed his enthusiasm for being a part of what he called a “next generation” strategy for solar development and regional transition. “The concept of a clean-tech living lab in an environment traditionally exploited for fossil fuels is exciting. In some cases, many residents in the coalfields are unaware of their dilemma and often defend the very practices that are most destructive to their well-being. It will be interesting to see if we can break this cycle and kick-start a culture of innovation, abundance and increasing returns.”    

In a recent article in Home Power magazine, Kelly Davidson provides a clear statement that elucidates the transitional strategy of the iLab. Organizations involved in this pro-active strategy are “tasked with the challenge of preparing Williamson for life after coal. As production in the region slows, and mining operations become increasingly automated and less labor-intensive, Williamson and other coal communities need new revenue streams and new jobs to survive.”

Echoing what is common knowledge in evolutionary circles, West Virginia native and global expert in solar development, Murphy Poindexter, emphasized that “barriers breed innovation and for this reason West Virginia’s low cost of electricity is an invaluable asset.”  He continued by openly stating that “solar doesn’t make sense in our state right now due to this barrier and perhaps open-innovation is the only way to resolve this issue.”    

This innovative approach to solar development may set a new precedent for clean-tech innovation across the country. In collaboration with Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, Sustainable Williamson is presently expanding this open-innovation strategy to include a comprehensive assessment of Integrated Energy which includes: demand control and response, storage, big-data, and a number of clean-tech production facilities targeting the residential, commercial and utility-scale sectors. 

Simply, the communication evolution has begun.

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First and foremost a philosopher, J. Eric Mathis has been at the forefront of initiatives to bridge the gap between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries through the development and implementation of innovative finance and business models. These models are designed to be beneficial to both industries, creating mutually productive economic linkages between the fossil fuel and renewable industries and most importantly, the surrounding communities. As an active member of the community, he is helping to develop a comprehensive project entitled Sustainable Williamson which emphasizes health and wellness as a key component for economic revitalization. Using Sustainable Williamson as a template, his most recent endeavor is participating in the creation and implementation of the Central Appalachian Sustainable Economies (CASE) network which is a peer-to-peer regional network of innovators cultivating new ideas and resources in central Appalachia to grow healthy communities. Eric is a proud Green for All Fellow, a 2010 recipient of Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Innovation Award for community renewables and a 2012 White House Champion of Change for Greening our Cities and Towns. As self described "evolutionary" and a nationally recognized practitioner of applied sustainability, he helped spearhead one of the America's first student lead Renewable Energy Initiatives, has lectured at MIT as part of the 2013-2014 Sloan Sustainability Speaker Series, has been both a speaker and a moderator of panels at many economic/sustainability conferences and is a frequent contributor/blogger for the world's #1 renewable energy network. His collaborative work has been covered by or featured in Biodiesel Magazine, BBC World News, Eye Opener TV, Bloomberg, Photon Magazine, Daily Yonder, West Virginia Executive Magazine, Fast Company, Home Power Magazine, PBS News Hour and Fortune Magazine. He is presently developing an "augmented" practitioners guide to sustainability that is set to be released 2015.

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