When we held our first brainstorming session to plan “CLEANTECH NJ 2011: The Business of Clean Technology,” my team and I could never have imagined that on a nondescript Tuesday afternoon in October 2011 more than 200 cleantech stakeholders from across New Jersey would turn out for a first-ever conference sponsored by Antenna Group, Beckerman’s cleantech affiliate and the nation’s premier cleantech PR firm.
I would argue that the success of the conference was an outgrowth of the seismic impact of solar energy on the Garden State, and the eagerness of the manifold industries (everything from real estate and pharmaceuticals to telecommunications and high technology) that are chomping at the bit for a greater role in the cleantech revolution. Attendees arrived expecting to hear about the evolution of New Jersey’s SREC (Solar Renewable Energy Certificate) program, but what they pined for was to explore the technologies that will complement our solar energy output as we transition into a renewable-focused energy industry. The commentary below was adapted from my opening remarks at the conference, which was held Oct. 25 at the Woodbridge Hilton in Iselin, N.J.
New Jersey has become a national leader in solar, thanks largely to solar installations on the rooftops of commercial buildings. As many know, New Jersey is second only to California among the states in solar capacity, but what many may not know is that New Jersey recently surpassed California as the nation’s top commercial solar market. But New Jersey isn’t just a leader in solar: it has increasingly become a leader in innovation across the renewable energy spectrum, including biomass, wind, electric vehicles and more. As much as we have accomplished, the opportunities in the cleantech and renewable energy markets are many times greater. This is the sector to be in, as well as our nation’s future. The economic, political and technological challenge of moving renewable energy standards forward is one of the most important of our generation. We at Antenna Group see firsthand the impact of our nation’s desire to weave a green thread into, for example, the structures of our architecture and real estate client-partners. Rooftop solar arrays, net-zero energy buildings and electric vehicle charging stations are testimony to the vast changes that are underway.
While there is a lot to be excited about, we must also be aware of the vexing challenges that lie before us. The first is “sustaining sustainability.” This is not the first time the state — and the nation — have found themselves at a crossroads: deciding whether to absorb the short-term pain of jump-starting a sustainable renewable energy economy or kicking the can down the road to a future generation. In the 1970s as the Arab oil embargo caused gasoline prices to skyrocket, President Jimmy Carter used words such as sacrifice, investment, innovation and entrepreneurship to describe the clean tech industry he was committed to establishing. Unfortunately, our subsequent energy policy can most charitably be described as bipolar. Regulations are here today and gone tomorrow, and a commitment to research and development gets occasional lip service but rarely any financial support. In this type of regulatory and policy environment, investors and entrepreneurs have no choice but to proceed cautiously when they really should be acting aggressively. How can we sustain a sustainability program when our governments send out mixed signals?
Let us also not fool ourselves by thinking that the clean technologies we tout today are unprecedented or particularly bold. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, were it not for a few key factors, electric vehicles would likely have surpassed combustion engine-powered cars for ubiquity on the roads. The names of William C. Whitney, Col. Albert Pope and the Electric Storage Battery Co. may have been relegated to the ashbin of history, but their novel idea of battery-swapping stations for their fleet of electric vehicles is the antecedent of today’s Better Place. Just after we signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a Frenchman by the name of Horace-Bénédict de Saussare invented the first solar collector and in 1887 a Scot by the name of James Blythe engineered the first wind turbine used to generate electricity.
So why haven’t we already developed a renewable and sustainable energy industry if these technologies have existed for so long? That brings us to our second challenge, which is to promote mass adoption through cost and reliability. Why has New Jersey experienced a proliferation of solar? Simply put, because it makes sense to commercial property owners in terms of affordability and reliability. Alas, it’s only a small, but vocal segment of the population that’s willing to adopt clean technologies for purely ideological reasons. The rest will only incorporate them into their homes, workplaces and automobiles if they are economically compelling. Other clean technologies must still prove themselves in order to be either cost effective (LED lighting, for example) or reliable (plug-in electric cars with limited battery ranges) before they will be widely adopted. Government and the private sector both have critical roles in making this a reality — neither can do it alone.
The third challenge is that of motivation. I truly believe that we are in the midst of an inexorable transformation from a fossil fuel-based energy economy to a renewable one, but I am less sure of how long this will take. I know that we have to complete this transformation because our economy needs it, our national security demands it and our environment will be destroyed without it. Our ability as a country to conquer monumental challenges is not without precedent. We found a way to rebuild our armed forces in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor; we rose to President Kennedy’s challenge of beating the Soviets in space. But in both these instances, we met the challenge because we recognized the challenges of inaction. That’s the missing ingredient in our energy conversation today: we embrace the magical pixie dust of transformation offered by clean technology, but we ignore the ugly truths about our future if we don’t commit to a sea change in energy behavior.
That change can only be effected if we form new business collaborations and peer networks; lobby for stable, progressive policy initiatives; and pursue risk and — at times — conflict. The responsibility to take up the gauntlet lies with all of us — the private sector, government and the media. Only by launching a new, expanded network of conversations can we further the quest for a renewable, independent and affordable energy economy.