Hawaii, Vermont, RI see clean energy surge

  • LISTEN > Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell chats with Greentech Media’s Steve Lacey.

It’s been an unusually energetic month for the clean energy market, ranging from the opening of the first U.S. wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island to Tesla’s first mass deployment of its Powerwall storage to a state utility, and even to a full-throated commencement speech endorsement by Bill Gates.

But the enthusiasm also has been tempered by reports of an ongoing pullback in venture financing for the market, exacerbated by newly mixed signals of support from the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE).

“Venture capital has stepped away,” lamented Erik Birkerts, CEO of Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust, speaking last week at the group’s 7th annual Clean Energy Trust Challenge. “But we must embrace the power of technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship. If we do, there is a huge double-bottom line opportunity,” he told more than 250 Midwest entrepreneurs, investors, executives, and students gathered in Chicago for the nonprofit cleantech accelerator’s day-long event.

Funding challenges: In its May 16 report, the nonprofit Brookings Institution says the US is now facing “a significant crisis in cleantech innovation. Not only has cleantech patenting slowed down, but there are indications that the early-stage financing system critical to helping innovative new energy companies grow is not working.” For more, click here.

Curiously absent for the first time in the Challenge’s history were any representatives from DOE, which nevertheless still served as a title sponsor for the event. Earlier this month, Birkerts joined a letter with 10 other national clean energy incubators and accelerators, urging new Energy Secretary Rick Perry to be more forthcoming and transparent about his agency’s commitment to the cause. Even so, last week, Birkerts stressed that the private sector must lead.

“Today, these energy and resource technology companies are nearly starved for capital and support,” he said. “(Our) Challenge is designed to provide high-potential startups invaluable seed capital and unparalleled coaching and mentorship to help them commercialize their innovations to the benefit of their bottom lines and the planet.”

Public-private support: This year’s sponsors included “Game Changers”, “Visionaries”, “Disruptors” and “Innovators.”

This year, the Challenge yielded a new round of early-stage investments totaling $950,000. (Winners are listed below.) Contestants included just one clearly in the AEC space, SurClean Inc., a Wixom MI-based laser technology company that offers “enviro-friendly, energy-efficient, and cost-effective surface coating removal,” ideal for maintaining bridges and other infrastructure projects.

Still, some architects and contractors were on hand, looking for clean energy ideas that could help them separate from their competition. “We see cleantech as a win for business, for our clients, and for building a sustainable future,” said Jamie Redmond, director of marketing for Chicago-based general contractor Redmond Construction Corp. “As a young, lean GC firm, we function very much like a startup. So we want to position ourselves as early adopters and proponents of that technology.”


Attendees also heard inspiring keynotes from two self-proclaimed “market disruptors” in Hawaii and Vermont who both are committed to taking their states off-the-grid, pushing alternative, renewable energy generation that is already paying dividends. Computer game legend-turned-environmental-philanthropist Henk Rogers told the #CETChallenge audience that Hawaii’s remote location in the Pacific Ocean had forced the state long ago to confront its limited resource reality. In 2008, it partnered with DOE to launch the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which aims to eliminate fossil fuel use in the state by 2040, he noted. Already, Hawaii has boosted its share of renewable energy in utility electricity sales from 9.4% in 2008 to 23.4% in 2015. Last week, Rogers, founder and chairman of the Blue Planet Foundation, Honolulu, also handed out copies of the 2016 Energy Report Card, to augment his presentation.

“We have all the technologies we need to end global warming now. We’re just not implementing them.

— Henk Rogers, Chair, Blue Planet Foundation

“We have all the technologies we need to end global warming now, but we’re just not implementing them,” said Rogers. “Innovation is really important, but so is implementation. And we are actually out of time. So many of us are proceeding as if it’s business-as-usual. But this is the beginning of World War III.”

For her part, Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell may not have been as dire in her rhetoric, but she was equally radical in her view of the utility’s role in today’s market. “We think of ourselves now as an energy transformation company,” said Powell in an onstage discussion with Greentech Media editor-in-chief Steve Lacey. (See above for the full interview.) “We are absolutely customer-obsessed, and for that reason, I believe we are the first utility in the country now to offer an off-grid product.”

At the May 9 event in Chicago, Powell could not yet speak openly about a big off-grid announcement that was scheduled for later in the week with energy storage pioneer Tesla. But here it is…

Energy first: Tesla and Green Mountain Power announced May 12 that they are now partnering to bundle Powerwall and Powerpack batteries into a single resource of shared energy. GMP will install Powerpacks on utility land and deploy up to 2,000 Powerwall batteries to Vermont homeowners, which will enable more renewable energy and increase grid efficiency. Priced at either $15 per month or a $1,300 one-time fee, the service will allow customers to receive backup power to their homes for the next 10 years, GMP says. For more details, click here.

Elsewhere in New England, May also saw the official launch of the Block Island Wind Farm, a 30-Mw, five-turbine demonstration project some 3.5 miles off the coast of Block Island, RI. Nine years after it was first conceived, the $290-million wind farm developed by Providence RI-based Deepwater Wind and Boston-based GE Renewable Energy, is now finally online. Below, watch DOE’s triumphant new video…


Returning to the Midwest, which CEO Birkerts insists has the “opportunity to own” the national cleantech revolution, below are the winners announced last week. Since 2011, CET has invested $3.7 million in 34 startups across the Midwest states. Those firms have gone on to raise an additional $112 million in follow-on funding, creating more than 300 new jobs. Here are the latest firms and their awards:

  • Aker (Chicago, IL) – $400,000

Aker is a crop monitoring and analytics platform for large farms. Aker enables more efficient use of crop and land resources while reducing negative environmental impact. Aker was awarded the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) award.

IdleSmart provides fleet-efficiency and real-time remote management solutions to trucking fleets. They reduce vehicle idle time by half, reducing fuel costs and saving emissions. IdleSmart was awarded the Wells Fargo award ($130,000 ) and the United Airlines award ($20,000).

Lotic Labs develops financial products and risk management solutions for natural resource – intensive businesses. The first product set is focused on helping water and wastewater utilities manage financial stresses due to volatile conditions. Lotic Labs was awarded $100,000 from the Illinois DCEO.

PowerTech Water has developed disruptive water filtration technology aimed at reducing treatment costs for water-intensive industries. PowerTech Water was awarded $200,000 from Clean Energy Trust’s discretionary fund.

Sun Buckets are portable, stored solar energy cookstoves that allow users to cook without fire, fuel, or emissions. Sun Buckets was awarded the ComEd Female Founder award ($20,000), the Hanley Family Family Foundation award ($20,000), the Power Clean Cities award ($20,000), and $40,000 from Clean Energy Trust’s discretionary fund.


Finally, if Bill Gates had it to do over again…