Fourth Quarterly Cleantech Editors Roundtable
On April 21, we had the honor of welcoming the editors who have formed our Cleantech Editors Roundtable. This fourth convening continued producing useful insights from people who see trends emerge from the thousands of pitches our companies collectively send them each month.
We keep hearing from all of you in clean economy companies that you like the unique, 360-degree view of our sectors that the editors share. Please keep giving us your suggestions on how we can improve these discussions.
We had a mixture of the familiar and new to this forum.
- Canary Media's (CM) Managing Editor Eric Wesoff
- Utility Dive's (UD) Editor Iulia Gheorghiu stood in for the vacationing Catherine Morehouse
- CleanTechnica's (CT) Senior Editor of Low Carbon Strategy, Mike Barnard, stood in for CEO and Chief Editor Zach Shanahan
The returning regulars:
- Renewable Energy World (REW Content Director Jennifer Runyon – the two-time winner of the best Zoom background
- GreenBiz (GB) Editorial Director Heather Clancy
- Recharge (RC) Editor-in-Chief Darius Snieckus
You can view the full recording of the roundtable here with the password R#6dnb0K, and read the transcript here. These conversations fly fast over lots of topical territory, so it’s often tough to boil them down to a few core points. However, our conversation centered on these four questions:
- What are the emerging trends you’re watching?
- How important are corporate sustainability pledges and direct corporate purchases of clean energy? Are they still as big of a driver in the sustainability transition as they were a few years ago?
- How’s Biden doing in his first 100 days?
- What’s surprising you?
Q: WHAT ARE THE EMERGING TRENDS YOU’RE WATCHING?
REW/Runyon – “Things are looking great for clean energy. I'm almost getting tired of the massive solar projects that are being announced all this time. I've also been pleasantly surprised to see some micro grids going in, in California, for resiliency and for fighting wildfires.”
GB/Clancy – “One is, I'm super excited about the potential for a green bank. At a national level, I think that will unlock a lot of finance for projects where we haven't typically seen them before. Smaller projects for community solar, potentially for communities that have not had access to the clean economy or clean energy developments. I'm also really excited about some of the carbon tech-related announcement, including for sequestering carbon in concrete. But also, tons of potential technologies for industrial de-carbonization. Things that make industrial processes much more energy efficient and much less carbon intensive.”
CM/Wesoff – “The trends that I’m seeing are financial. Though we’ve seen it every day for the last 10 years, there’s even more money coming into [clean economy sectors]. Whether it be in green banks, in carbon banks, in new venture capital funds. We’re seeing that type of financial innovation. You could also talk about SPACs as a financial innovation in clean tech. And we’re hearing more about Blackstone. I think it’s more about money flows as far as trends are concerned.”
RC/Snieckus – “Offshore wind is the only sector name-checked in president Biden's executive actions. You see the secretaries of energy and commerce, lining up to make the target announcement. That makes pretty clear the big Venn diagram in Biden's mind that says, industrial transformation, economic development, and clean power. There's a big sweet spot. From our standpoint at Recharge, that's huge, exciting, just to see birth of an industry really, that's been billions of dollars, harbor side right now, waiting to be turned into steel in the water. There's just this kind of really quite electric atmosphere. Just a hugely exciting time and great to be an energy journalist of this point in history, I think.”
CT/Barnard – “What I am seeing in carbon capture policy is environmental focus: Trees, wetlands and low-tillage agriculture are much more supported by policy globally. Second, I'm strongly seeing a rear-guard action by the legacy power organizations to make it seem as if carbon capture and sequestration, industrial-mechanical approaches, are fit for purpose. They're going to be necessary for a small percentage of the industrial processes, that we can't decarbonize. But job one is to stop emitting the CO2 at all. Third, [China] turned their economy into a high-carbon economy faster than any other economy in the world, and they're now turning the curve on that faster than any other economy in the world. The expectation is they're going to be hitting their admittedly weak Paris Agreement targets nine years ahead of schedule.”
UD/Gheorghiu – “We're seeing a lot of utilities and corporations make big announcements on their renewable goals, on their renewable buying targets and new projects they're doing, which is really great to see. But, the thing that strikes me now, as we have a lot of activity from the administration as well, we're seeing that shareholders and investors, green funds and consumers, are asking for more. Shareholders, consumers and green funds, they're asking for more than 100% renewable energy or than a big, mega, block target.”
Q: HOW IMPORTANT ARE CORPORATE SUSTAINABILITY PLEDGES AND DIRECT CORPORATE PURCHASES OF CLEAN ENERGY? ARE THEY STILL AS BIG OF A DRIVER IN THE SUSTAINABILITY TRANSITION AS THEY WERE A FEW YEARS AGO?
GB/Clancy – “Are they serious? They're serious. Are they detailed enough to be meaningful? My main answer is, “no.” We don't have a good enough short-term view on what people are going to start doing now. I think they're serious because when you have the CEO or the chairman or that level of person making the commitment. They're serious, and they need to be serious. But I don't necessarily think that we have enough detail for us to know if they're going to be meaningful.”
REW/Runyon – “I think the volume of announcements that I'm seeing is greatly increased. It seems like everybody is saying, "We're going to be carbon neutral. We're going to be carbon neutral." I think it's great. But the truth of the matter is that if you take it a step further, we don't really have a clear path to be 100% carbon free. We don't. We're relying on some that we are pretty sure are going to be there and be ready in 5, 10, 15 years, but don't really have those.”
RC/Snieckus – “I think an interesting backcloth to this could be the World Economic Forum Index that was published yesterday. It’s an annual index, and the boil down was: The last 10 years have considerably accelerated the energy transition. But by their measure, they cross calculate what economic development and environmental sustainability, and energy security is their kind of trifecta. We're only seeing, I think it was 10% of countries on the planet, have actually seen steady and measurable improvement, in terms of their energy transition. All to say, we all know faster, further.”
Q: HOW’S BIDEN DOING IN HIS FIRST 100 DAYS?
REW/Runyon – “I think definitely impactful. On Twitter, people were saying that the rhetoric from the oil and gas industry has changed. And certainly, that may not be true internally, but there is more discussion of wanting to have a clean energy future now.”
CT/Barnard – “It's wonderful from the rest of the world's perspective. The United States is back in the Paris Accord, and is having conversations with China. The infrastructure plan has been described as probably the only climate bill that'll get through Congress in the next two years before the midterms.”
UD/Gheorghiu – “It is super refreshing, to see the DOE loan program get restarted, to see all the announcements. I was going to say that a lot of us reporters have been waiting with bated breath what comes next from the Biden announcement that has been expected on Thursday from the Climate Summit. Now, there's the announcement that the administration will try to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. Is that good? Yes. Is that surprising to us that have been covering this a lot? No.”
GB/Clancy – “I think the most impactful thing for my audience that's been happening has to do with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the move towards regulations that will require these companies to say exactly what they're doing, where they stand and the accountability. That, I think, could be a hugely impactful development, especially when you go back to the point I was making before about so many commitments, and are they meaningful. We don't know. Now, hopefully, there will be a framework in place for those metrics to be more comparable and to be things that people have to submit and declare and disclose, and then work towards. You hear CEOs on the quarterly calls. When this theme gets be part of those calls, then we're going to see real meaningful stuff happening.”
CT/Barnard – “The tax breaks for fossil fuels are almost entirely embedded in the permanent tax code. They're incredibly hard to get rid of. If we look at the scorecard that NRDC maintains for the G20, what we see is the United States has made zero movement on its commitment to eliminating fossil fuel taxes, because it's an incredibly hard nut to break, to gain the politically necessary votes to open up the permanent tax code. The last time we had a major expansion of the PTC in 2015, the Republicans got the right to ship crude oil, export crude oil, something had been taken away, I think in 1974 by Ford. As we look at that history, what is it that the Democratic Congress has to trade that's equivalent to unlocking crude oil exports? Even for an extension of the PTC and with Manchin and the role that he's playing now.”
Q: WHAT’S SURPRISING YOU?
RC/Snieckus – “Fundamentally, the term is resilience. It's certainly been one of the greatest encouragement to me, to see how offshore wind, for instance, has come through. When you see the onward marching progress – if not as fast as it needs to be – that's certainly an encouragement.”
GB/Clancy – “There's two things. One, the assumption was that we were going to see a slowdown in the corporate power purchase agreements for renewables. But those kept happening. We had a bang-up  fourth quarter, and the first quarter [of 2021] was really strong. I'm talking specifically about the corporate offtake agreements. Second is the extent to which companies are completely rethinking their travel footprints and their office footprints as they come out of [the pandemic]. There's still a lot of uncertainty there. But I personally didn't expect it to become the sort of profound moment of rethinking how work gets to be redone. How do companies – if they choose to keep a certain percentage of their workforce remote – account for those carbon emissions? How do they help their employees get solar power and so forth? That's a big thing and it's still completely work in progress. But that I think will be amazingly impactful for the corporate [world] moving forward.”
REW/Runyon – “A couple things. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that [rooftop] solar just coasted all the way through 2020 and continues to grow. I'm really very glad to see a lot of environmental and social justice kind of stipulations in some of the plans that I'm seeing. Some of the utilities are directing more funding, there's more job opportunities for training.”
UD/Gheorghiu – “A little bit of a downer, but the fact is that we don't really have a framework for dealing with the [utility] shut-off moratorium. This is a big us problem right now. You have utilities of many sizes, municipalities co-ops investor owned utilities too, and regulators. And everyone involved is saying, "This is really important. We cannot keep doing this." But also, how can you ask people that are impacted by the pandemic in so many ways to pay up the bills that they've been neglecting for a year.