Billions of dollars of investment flowing into renewable energy. A President pushing for solutions to combat climate change. Innovative technologies challenging the status quo. This is all very current, but it’s also exactly what happened in the first wave of renewables during the Obama administrations. For companies seeking success today in what’s shaping up to be the even bigger second wave of renewables, it’s wise to consider the lessons of the first wave. And take into account a host of new considerations that are making today’s opportunities unique in the history of energy.
I’m basing these observations on first hand experience in both periods, having worked with companies like First Wind and Deepwater Wind in wave one, and Greentown Labs and numerous startups in wave two.
Lessons from wave one.
How did ‘alternative’ energy like wind become mainstream? In 2007, wind energy was about as welcome in America as alien spacecraft, with all kinds of objections blocking project approval.
First Wind and others managed to speed adoption not because they had superior technology, but because they found a better story that appealed to communities considering wind farm development. Market research showed that what small town community leaders really cared about were economic benefits, versus saving the environment.
First Wind changed their story to “Clean energy. Made here” with a major focus on “energizing local economies.” Thanks to increased business activity plus ongoing wind farm revenue, some communities were able to cut their citizens’ tax burden in half (or better). When people realized wind farms would pay for their new fire truck or school, approving projects became a no-brainer.
To connect with consumers and get a green light, the key to success—in any era—is simply putting yourself in customers’ shoes. What do they care about? What are their pain points? How do you take away their pain, enrich their lives, and make them happy? Within five seconds of looking at your website, a customer should know who you are and why they should care. Anything else is extraneous.
Within five seconds of looking at your website, a customer should know who you are and why they should care. Anything else is extraneous.
Deepwater Wind, an offshore wind developer, had a similar challenge but with a very different audience. Instead of small rural communities with lower incomes, their audience (the people who had to say ‘yes’ to development) was wealthy coastal residents. Research showed that what they cared about was protecting their ocean views. All the talk of combatting climate change with clean energy fell on deaf ears. After all, even liberal icons like Ted Kennedy objected to the offshore project that had gotten all the press attention — Cape Wind.
Technology mattered to Deepwater Wind, but not for the reason that ultimately mattered most.
Deepwater Wind’s offshore wind turbine foundations had been proven in deep water for oil drilling in Europe. Turbines located farther offshore could harness more powerful ocean winds, so there was more energy to sell and more money to be made. But this would be a mute point if projects were never approved. First, they had to address the visual impact issue head on.
Deepwater Wind won their bid for the test project off Block Island over numerous competitors by telling a better story: “Clean energy is just over the horizon.” Translation: Our turbines will be so far from shore you won’t see them.
Then, as now, it’s important for companies to not assume that the world will rush to their door because they have invented the better mousetrap of energy. In fact, the more amazing and novel a technology is in 2021, the more consumers may not understand it at all. People will reject what they can’t readily understand and appreciate.
For example, electric vehicles (EVs) are not taking off as quickly as hoped. Range anxiety is often mentioned as a major reason consumers are hesitant to make the EV leap,1 but I suspect there is another big factor that’s being overlooked. People are just very, very used to doing things the same old way. There’s a comfort factor in driving the same kind of gas-powered vehicle we grew up with. We certainly need more EV charging infrastructure, but we also need a new story for EVs that makes them seem less alien to consumers.
Here’s one way to do this, with a deceptively simple concept: Fill up at home. Batteries are the new gas tank and you don’t have to schlep to a gas/energy station to get your fuel. Most people won’t even need a remote EV charging station to do their daily commute.
Technology integration and the birth of the orchestral cleantech story.
Companies can accelerate their success today by demonstrating that their technology is part of a larger, more integrated and inspiring solution.
Everyone fawns over Elon Musk and Tesla. But why? Tesla makes very cool cars, but so do other manufacturers these days.
Elon Musk stands out because he never says he’s in the car business; he’s in the business of sustainable transportation. But his real vision is actually much larger than that. Musk has painted a vivid picture with multiple pieces that fit together to make something far greater than the sum of its parts. His solar panels generate clean power. His batteries store it. His vehicles run on it.
But wait, there’s more! Musk believes humanity is destined to be an interplanetary species, with SpaceX ready to take us to new worlds.
Translation: Little companies like Ford sell cars. Elon Musk has a whole system that’s interconnected in a beautiful way. We’re buying a story that’s orchestral in nature, not a lone piccolo piping about renewables, but the Beethoven’s 9th of modern industry.
Any company engaged in reducing its carbon emissions knows that no single product is going to solve the problem. A whole plethora of technologies—including many yet to be invented—will be required. And these technologies will need to work together. Fifteen years ago a company could sell clean energy in a relative silo. To gain maximum success today, clean energy needs to be tied not just to battery storage but also to other solutions that add to its value.
As just one example, topology optimization technology offered by companies like NewGrid makes it easier for grid operators to integrate renewables while avoiding grid bottlenecks and enhancing reliability. In other words, don’t just sell clean power. Sell reliable clean power.
Welcome to the “show me” era of climatetech.
The renewable energy landscape is strewn with the wreckage of false starts and bogus promises. With each promise that doesn’t pan out, consumers and policymakers get more jaded and less likely to believe in the new solutions that actually work. (I want a carbon-neutral hydrogen-powered personal jet as much as the next guy, but I’m not holding my breath). Today’s brands can benefit from being honest, transparent and grounded in reality. The mantra should be “under promise, over deliver.” If you’re launching God’s gift to clean energy, don’t talk about it. Show me.
If you’re launching God’s gift to clean energy, don’t talk about it. Show me.
The “de-risking” of energy.
In the first wave of renewables, the very terminology for them at that time—i.e. “alternative” energy—implied an element of fringe newness, and hence more risk.
Today, the tables have turned. Large institutional investors see carbon-intensive fossil fuels as a far greater long-term risk than wind, solar and other climatetech innovations. When they put billions into an offshore wind farm, they can be 100% sure there won’t be a wind spill they’ll get sued for in 2037.
Climatetech startups can ride this wave by framing their solution as less risky, more safe, and hence more future-proof. This will appeal not only to big investors, but to consumers as well.
The second wave of renewables will likely be bigger and more consequential than the first. Mankind has successfully outsourced the burning of fuel to the sun, which has made renewables the cheapest source of power on Earth. The combined investments from both the private sector and the Federal government may dwarf the cash infusion we saw in wave one. And many corporations are listening to their customers and taking action now to lower their carbon pollution, with big tech leading the way.
For things to click into place, however, we’ll need new stories that resonate with people, making novel technologies relatable. And to do that we have to focus on customers and what really matters to them. If this sounds old fashioned, that’s because it is. But it’s more important than ever.
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