Ecopreneurist Editor’s Note: The is a guest contribution by Ian Rogoff, Chairman of the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization, and Chairman and CEO of The Helio Group (parent company to HelioPower). This is the sixth post in a series from the CEO’s of major solar companies. You can follow the complete series here.
There is a long overdue debate underway in industry and political circles regarding the merits of federal funding for renewable energy (RE) commercialization.
Distinct from RE projects and RE deployments, commercialization involves identifying specific technologies and entrepreneurs based on their perceived commercial potential and financing the respective project teams along a vector towards commercial success.
The types of commercialization activities typically funded include scaling benchtop prototypes to meet market requirements, characterizing technologies to understand performance and limits, testing boundary conditions, designing for manufacturability, testing for real world conditions, scaling refinery processes, among others.
Commercialization is quite distinct from basic research, and expressly does not seek to fund pure science or unproven claims. Typically, commercialization funding stops at a point where the private sector steps in and either assumes the next funding milestone or market acceptance/rejection obviates the need for additional financing entirely.
Two types of barriers exist today in the commercialization of renewable energy technology: the “valley of death” and the “mountain of death.”
Renewable Energy’s Valley of Death
Basic RE research is being conducted at numerous institutions around the world and much of this technology remains trapped in labs for want of commercialization know-how and funding. Basic and applied research is likewise being conducted in commercial enterprises, but much of that research is often constrained through short-term return on investment requirements.
In addition, renewable energy technology often fails to garner the resources and funding needed in order to reach commercial viability as a result of existing regulatory and fiscal regimens that bias markets towards incumbent technologies. Absent investment and institutional know-how, the commercialization of renewable energy will continue to be hampered in its application and hindered in its ability to cross the so-called “valley of death.”
Renewable Energy’s Mountain of Death
What makes renewable energy different from many other technology-based industries, however, is not just the valley of death which is common to many technology-based industries, but more the “mountain of death,” or specifically the amount of capital and time required to take promising but nascent energy technologies to widespread deployment. The energy industry tends to be an asset-based industry, and those assets are usually expensive. Early stage private capital tends to shun capital intensive businesses, and unlike information technology, for example, the energy industry does not generally provide some highly desirable “must-have” new capability, but simply supplants an existing commodity, be it the flow of electrons, or a transportation fluid, or whatever.
Unfortunately, even in good economic conditions, there is limited funding available for pilot and demonstration phases for scaling renewable energy technology. Add to this the lack of resources required to create and implement commercialization roadmaps and it becomes clear why half-hearted attempts at developing this industry have stalled.
Given the uncertainty, costs and times frames involved in overcoming the mountain of death, there needs to be a very strong enabler in order to stimulate renewable energy commercialization on a large scale. Absent regulation, market signals (like pricing carbon), or specific incentives, there are simply no compelling economic reasons in the short term for the incumbent industry leaders to switch from existing feedstocks to renewable sources. As mentioned above, in other technology-based industries, early-stage capital funds innovative disrupters, but there is simply not enough equity financing available to stimulate the early stage energy companies in such a capital intensive industry, and start-ups simply do not have the balance sheet strength typically required for project finance and other sources of financing.
The renewable energy industry is different from other technology-based industries. Granted, it is slowed by the valley of death, but widespread deployment is truly hampered by the mountain. If we are committed to the potential of renewable energy as a solution to many of our climate, economic and national security concerns, we need to recognize the need for strong federal and state support for commercializing renewable energy technologies or we run the risk of looking back on this period and wondering why (to paraphrase Rahm Emanuel) we wasted a crisis.