Why cleantech needs artists

A decade ago, much of the cleantech sector was still at an early stage. Experts often asked, “Will these technologies ever be ‘real’?”  

Fast-forward to today—what was then nascent is now commercial. The cost of solar installations has dropped by more than 70 percent since 2010. Electric vehicle sales reached 200,000 in 2017. More than half of all households now have smart meters

But there’s still more work to do. Solar energy provides only 1 percent of U.S. electricity. Electric vehicles represent only 1.2 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. And, too few utilities actually use smart meter data for managing electricity demand and integrating distributed energy resources like rooftop solar and batteries into the grid. 

Science can create the technologies of tomorrow and continue to facilitate the transition to clean energy. But today the fundamental obstacle to greater adoption of cleantech isn’t science—it’s scale. 

Good economics are essential for achieving scale. Emerging digital technologies like blockchain will likely play a role, as will innovation around business models and finance. Good design, better systems integration, and smart algorithms can be critical factors as well. 

Outside of these technical elements, there’s something else that can be a powerful accelerator of scale: people. But how do we reach them? 

A scientist eager to present a new discovery or prototype can easily forget that others (i.e. non-scientists) may not have the technical expertise or the context to see its potential. The same is true in many fields. Policy wonks, environmental advocates, and financiers each work in their silo of expertise and speak the native language of that discipline. 

Statistics, spreadsheets, and graphs may motivate experts. But what about people who don’t spend their days thinking about climate change, sustainability, or environmental justice—let alone voltage and current, sensors, or irrigation systems. What about everyone else? 

That’s why cleantech needs artists.

Artists and scientists have much in common. Both work at the edge of the unknown, exploring new concepts and new solutions that do not yet exist. Both experiment with new techniques. Both understand that failure is an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to integrate those learnings into another new approach.

But where artists differ from scientists—and where their power lies—is in their ability to translate abstract ideas into something that communicates with people not just intellectually, but emotionally too. Not everyone will like every painting, sculpture, dance, or story. But when art connects, it inspires. It helps people to see the world in a new light, and it can motivate them to act on those feelings. 

Los Angeles is a city of artists, makers, performers, and storytellers. Los Angeles is also a city of innovators, and a place—because of its size, population, and diversity—with inherent scale. That’s why it’s an ideal place to tap into the power of art to help people from different industries and different cultures imagine a future where innovation enables sustainability and communities are transformed. 

The Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI)—through its expanding ecosystem of partners, innovative approach to collaboration, and recent launch of an Artist-in-Residence program—is challenging all of us to imagine a clean and sustainable future for Los Angeles and cities around the globe. We know now that cleantech is real. What we need are more leaders like LACI to help bring cleantech into our lives and communities at a massive scale.

Read more aboutthe Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program here.

The year our energy future gets real?

Happy 2018? Pardon me if I feel tentative about that sentiment after the rollercoaster that was last year. “Range anxiety” may be out on this year’s list (see below) but what about a generalized sense of doom?

We may be living in a dystopian novel (or perhaps my Twitter feed just makes it seem so). However, in energy, this also feels like the year when futuristic things we can’t quite explain (see “blockchain” and also, “cheap batteries”) finally get real.

No doubt there will be new firedrills (“price formation,” anyone?). But increasingly, clean energy companies are acting like the winners they are in the marketplace, and nearly everyone — from policymakers to “Big Energy” (née, “Big Oil”) to…conservative voters in Ohio — is starting to pay attention.

So, yes, happy 2018; embrace “resilience” and let the “new ideas” flow.


This post originally appeared on Medium.

Do we need more moonshots?


Next week marks the 60th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. The specter of Russia taking the lead in space exploration shocked Americans and forced the science and policy communities to confront a new threat to U.S. leadership and prestige. It also set in motion what became the original “moonshot” — President Kennedy’s challenge to the country to put a man on the moon within the decade.

Today, people talk about how we need a moonshot for…just about everything. We have moonshots for climate change. Moonshots for cancer. Even moonshots for specific scientific disciplines. The term “moonshot” has been applied so widely, we seem to have lost sight of just what a moonshot is and why we might need one.

So let’s try to define it. Reflecting again on the original moonshot, I see three significant characteristics.

A moonshot is unambiguous. It requires clarity of purpose, a defined timeframe, and measurable criteria. It’s not squishy. It’s not vague. Its success or failure can be readily understood by anyone.

However, with a moonshot, success is not guaranteed. A moonshot is ambitious. And risky. A moonshot is something that hasn’t been done before, and it may not be immediately apparent how it can be done at all. A moonshot is not simply the next obvious step from where we are today. It requires patience and resources and acceptance that there will be failures along the way.

And yet, despite the risk, a moonshot also has an ineffable quality that shifts our perspective and moves us to act. A moonshot requires leadership and vision, but achieves success not merely in the articulation of a goal, but through its execution. A moonshot inspires excellence and draws upon the best within us and within humanity.

I tend to think today’s overuse of the term “moonshot” is treacherous. If everything is a moonshot, then nothing is. “Moonshots” that aren’t really moonshots inevitably become disappointments. These, in turn, diminish the ability of leaders to articulate real moonshots that inspire the public, enable action, and build institutions that can accomplish great things.

In a world that faces diverse and complex problems, I don’t think we can say “no, we don’t need more moonshots.” To do so would suggest we should turn inward, in defiance of our nature as explorers, rather than look outward.

But do we need a moonshot for everything? Probably not. A decade ago, I might have said we needed a moonshot for energy. But improvements in so many clean energy technologies — including exponential progress on technical performance and economics that continues today — is a strong argument against the need for moonshot-style transformation in the sector.

Still, I like to think about how the future might be different if we did have an energy moonshot. An idea that, when you heard about it, you were spellbound — and then driven to act. Something that, like the original moonshot, would inspire generations to imagine not just the next best thing, but something entirely new.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

How to pick winners and losers


Last week I was deep in fossil fuel country, sitting in the back of the room at an energy conference at 8:00 a.m. As I desperately wished my third cup of coffee would clear the fogginess of jet lag and the mental exhaustion of leading a workshop the day before, I heard the first presenter say something better than the strongest espresso.

It was this: “Our investments in R&D have not reached their full potential because of the Valley of Death, and we need to have the political will to try to pick some winners.”

A tired refrain in the world of energy innovation is that “we shouldn’t pick winners and losers.” It began as an argument for why government should keep its focus on basic research and let the market determine the rest. Over the years, I always grimaced when I heard the phrase touted even by some of the strongest supporters of government-funded R&D.

The problem? The phrase itself inherently contradicts how innovation happens. I sometimes joke that if we already knew what solutions would work, we could “pick winners, not losers.” But the truth is, we don’t already know. We can’t.

We can hypothesize, make educated guesses, analyze data, and extrapolate about the future. These are valuable, and they can guide what technologies the government or the private sector chooses to support. But they won’t give us the answers we need without something else: experimentation.

A popular phrase used by Silicon Valley types is “fail fast, fail often.” Sometimes this idea is taken to the extreme and can lead to rash or impatient investments. But it’s also the most effective pathway to innovation.

When you’re trying something new, there will always be more losers than winners — ideas that don’t work, missteps, diversions, distractions, and choices that in retrospect were just plain wrong. But most of the time, we can’t know the difference between a loser and a winner until we test it out. Until we try. Until we pick.

To solve technical problems, to prove a new business model, to drive change through policy, you have to do something that might feel uncomfortable or risky. Say your idea out loud. Act, even if you’re not sure how. Start.

When you try and fail, you learn things, often critical things that inform the next step. And the step after that. And the step after that.

I have also seen there can be extra magic in experimentation if it’s done a certain way. If you experiment publicly, you can inspire and empower others to try new things too. If you do it collaboratively, you create a community around a common goal that can have exponentially more impact than you might alone.

The nature of innovating — whether in technology, business, policy, or life — requires accepting the risk of failure and the opportunity to learn. The alternative — staying paralyzed by the false dilemma of picking winners and losers — means being stuck in the Valley of Death forever.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

The end of a commodity?


Do you remember the first time you heard about the sharing economy and how it would disrupt everything? For me it was at an energy workshop in the Bay Area several years ago.

At the time, the idea seemed very abstract. I had worked closely with cleantech companies like SolarCity who were implementing innovative financing models, and I knew traditional utilities were becoming uneasy about the popularity of distributed energy resources.

Still, energy felt like a difficult thing to “disrupt.” The energy sector has long been dominated by big, conservative industries with billions of dollars in physical assets. These industries reliably deliver a commodity that (at least in the industrialized world) is not a “nice to have” but an absolute essential to everyday life and business. Was the energy system something we even wanted to disrupt?

Fast forward to today. A hot phrase right now is “energy services.” This term used to refer to a narrow set of energy companies (ESCOs) that helped clients design and retrofit facilities to be more energy efficient and save money. But increasingly, new energy services companies are thinking much broader: microgrids to boost resiliency; lighting-as-a-service (LaaS); crowdfunded community solar; the energy cloud; even blockchain technology.

Individually, these services may be unremarkable. But collectively, they have the power to change the way we think about energy.

Recently I was at the VerdeXchange conference in Los Angeles, at a panel put on by the LA chapter of Young Professionals in Energy (YPE) entitled “Renewable Procurement: Disruptive Financial Models.” An alphabet soup of approaches were discussed: ESPCs, QECBs, REITs, and OBF.

Here’s the exchange that stood out to me. An investor on the panel described a financing product he had helped develop — one that takes a new approach to underwriting and a more holistic view of projects. In describing it he asked, “what if your equipment always stays new?” Meaning, what if you paid for a level of service rather than a piece of equipment that requires ongoing maintenance and eventually must be replaced. There were a lot of skeptical responses to this proposition — a lot of (perhaps legitimate) reasons why the approach wouldn’t work.

A strong or negative first reaction to new ideas is normal. No! That won’t work because that’s not the way we do things! New ideas, new models, and new technologies have something in common — they all require experimentation. Experimentation can be uncomfortable because it challenges our established beliefs and the outcome is unknown.

It’s worth paying attention to first reactions because they often highlight where there are real risks associated with change. But what if acknowledging those risks was the beginning of the conversation rather than the end?

Back to the question I was asked to consider years ago. What if the sharing economy could disrupt energy? The answer is, it already has. How successfully will depend on our ability to have an open mind about the future of energy itself — not as a commodity, but instead as something completely new.

This post originally appeared on Medium.