Immediately following the presidential election, politics on a national and global scale were on everybody’s mind at the Cleantech Open Global Forum in San Jose, Calif., on Nov. 8 and 9. The Cleantech Open is the world’s largest business competition and mentorship program for cleantech entrepreneurs, having helped alumni receive more than $700 million in external funding since its inception in 2006. Although the forum brought many of the most exciting entrepreneurs and brilliant minds in cleantech together, the big issues of the day filled attendees with anxiety. Edelman’s Steve Schmidt attempted to shed some light on the situation, speaking about the effects of the 2012 elections and the need for a more practical and cooperative dialogue between political parties. Concerns were also voiced about the forthcoming “fiscal cliff,” the European Union debt crisis and tariffs on Chinese manufacturers.
But, as the conversation turned to Hurricane Sandy, we focused not on our problems but on our opportunities. At the Global Forum I was reminded that, on occasion, tragedy presents a silver lining. In this particular situation, I noted three examples that are important to think about on the local level:
1) The opportunity to build resiliency – Hurricane Sandy is a reminder of how vulnerable our cities can be. Fortunately for New York, their smart grid system provides a more flexible and secure network of energy production, storage and transmission. Had New York’s grid been less diversified, the damage and cost to the city and region would have been much worse. People in other local governments should take notice, although some already have. For example, the Alameda County Supervisors have commissioned several renewable energy projects and a microgrid project to Chevron Energy Solutions (disclosure: Chevron Corp. is a client) that will allow Santa Rita Jail to disconnect from the utility grid and run autonomously should the network be disrupted by blackouts or a natural disaster.
2) The opportunity to generate ongoing savings – The financial situation of cities, particularly in areas experiencing declining property values and rising healthcare and pension costs for municipal employees, is dire. Three California cities are already bankrupt. School districts are also struggling. Municipalities and school districts are perfect potential clients for cleantech companies because of the ongoing community benefits that result from energy cost savings, such as the ability to hire more teachers or local police officers. Our budget woes have created a strong incentive to invest dollars in capital projects that generate ongoing, operating savings. When politicians talk about “creative” solutions to budget problems, the cleantech business opportunity is there.
3) The opportunity to cultivate a reputation of innovation – As cities struggle to define themselves and their business climates, they look to partner with entrepreneurs to market their region to the world. The City of San Jose, for instance, informed the entrants at the Cleantech Open Global Forum that San Jose is an ideal place for them to locate and grow. As an industry of the future, cities are actively looking to partner with cleantech companies to not only bring jobs to their cities but promote the city’s business climate and culture of innovation. When cities attract cleantech companies to their city, they are often looking to send out a press release announcing the win. Cleantech companies should consider this when negotiating with cities about where they locate and expand. Anything from expedited permits to tax credits may potentially be in the cards.
Sure, the energy landscape is fundamentally global. Worldwide energy consumption is projected to increase 36 percent by 2035, and the energy market is a global market place, impacted tremendously by the big nations and multinationals. But look at the people and organizations on the local level who are building resilience, looking for savings and defining themselves. Cities and local governments are changing with the world, and the cleantech industry is well-positioned to help them evolve.