Clean-tech CEOs: Extension, wind-down of solar tax credit both positives

BOULDER — The solar-energy industry as a whole hailed the extension of the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit in December as a great success that will help fuel investment in solar for years to come.

Local officials dealing in the renewable energy space, speaking at BizWest’s CEO Roundtable on clean tech Tuesday, certainly didn’t disagree with the credit’s value in giving the solar industry a chance to blossom. But they also cautioned that such credits could become too much of a good thing for the industry at some point.

The roundtable — sponsored by accounting firm EKS&H and law firm Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti — featured leaders of several Boulder-area businesses focused on various clean technologies, from advanced materials to biofuels to solar to hybrid vehicles.

The Solar ITC, one of several topics to come up, is a 30 percent tax credit for residential and commercial projects that had been scheduled to expire at the end of this year. The looming expiration had solar companies planning for a major boom for 2016 and feeling plenty of trepidation about 2017 and beyond. The extension means the 30 percent credit will last through 2019, then be ratcheted down to 26 percent in 2020 and 22 percent in 2021 before settling in permanently at 10 percent for commercial projects and going away completely for residential in 2022.

Paul Spencer, CEO of Louisville-based community solar provider Clean Energy Collective, said the Solar ITC has been vital but is also “dangerous.”

“If you don’t back off the subsidy quickly enough, then people get artificially bloated,” Spencer said.

He cited California as an example. Long known for having the best solar incentives in the country, Spencer said it’s also where solar energy has traditionally cost the most.

“It encouraged (companies) to be fat as opposed to encouraging them to be lean,” Spencer said. “You can’t continue the stimulus forever. I think it’s been good to get (the industry) where it’s at, but I think it’s got to get off (the stimulus).”

Yoav Lurie, CEO of Simple Energy Inc., said there are some rooftop solar players, for example, that might not be able to survive if not for the ITC. While that helped get the industry going, it also starts to make some costs like customer acquisition higher for the better companies that could live without the credits at this point.

“So right now it’s good, but it’s also good that it diminishes in four or five years,” Lurie said.

One of the things the solar industry has going for it right now as solar energy has commoditized and the cost has been drastically reduced, Spencer said, is that utilities are now starting to install solar not just because of government mandates but because it’s becoming the cheapest power in some cases.

That type of cost parity is key, not just for solar but for any clean-tech sectors, all around the table Tuesday agreed, because the technology can then be sold on something other than environmental friendliness, which is a great ideal but doesn’t always succeed in free markets.

Chris Kaffer, CEO and cofounder of advanced materials startup Mallinda LLC, said that as his company pitched its novel polymer technology to potential customers, the inherent recyclability of it in the use of carbon-fiber composites was rarely the most attractive attribute for those users.

“Price is number one, followed by performance, followed by environmental considerations,” Kaffer said.

Robert Fenwick-Smith, founder of early stage clean-tech investment firm Aravaipa Ventures, concurred, saying markets will rarely pay a premium for green technology.

“If you don’t achieve that parity to existing technology, it just won’t fly,” Fenwick-Smith said.

Other tidbits from Tuesday’s discussion included:

TECH LEADERSHIP: Fenwick-Smith said of the nine companies his firm works with, most of their global competitors “at the front end of the technology” are also American companies, indicating that the United States is doing well as it relates to leadership in the development of clean tech. But he also noted that most of those portfolio companies are playing in very new spaces.

Joe Mitchell, CEO of Longmont-based UQM Technologies, which makes electric motors and hybrid systems largely for commercial vehicles, said he believes the United States is still the leader in the electric/hybrid vehicle segment for now. But he worries that tech leadership in that sector could shift to China because the market for such technology simply isn’t strong enough yet in the United States. His company, itself, has shifted a major focus to selling into the Chinese market.

“The China market today has made it very clear they want to lead,” Mitchell said. “They are aggressively pursuing North American companies. Their engineers are here training. It’s being driven there out of necessity. The environment is so bad there.”

WORK-LIFE BALANCE: Colorado in general, and Boulder in particular, seem to make just about every “best-of” list that comes out as of late as it relates to quality of life or best places to live. The vast access to outdoor adventures has helped the state buck the notion that hubs like Silicon Valley and Boston are the only places you can attract tech talent, because people are generally happy to move here if the opportunity arises.

Spencer said finding talent is always the easy part for his firm, but he also said he feels like the idea of work-life balance has shifted too far toward the life side for some people in Colorado as they put in more time on their bikes or social media than they do on their jobs during the workday.

“The expectation of a workday has morphed over time,” Spencer said. “There are times at which that becomes a little bit untenable.”

Lurie seconded Spencer’s notion. He said he tells potential hires in interviews that he’s looking for the type of people who, if aliens landed and were interested in his employees’ lives, the first things those employees talk about would be their families and their work, not necessarily their triathlon times.

“It’s a culture that’s reinforcing achievement,” Lurie said. “There are a lot of people whose approach to work is that work is in support of a lifestyle.”

Participants in Tuesday’s CEO Roundtable included Robert Fenwick-Smith, founder/senior managing director, Aravaipa Ventures; Daniel Higgs, CEO, Boom Algae Inc.; Alexandra Holland, founder/CEO, PIARCS; Chris Kaffer, CEO, Mallinda LLC; Yoav Lurie, CEO, Simple Energy Inc.; Joe Mitchell, UQM Technologies Inc.; Robert Schaefer, CEO, Also Energy Inc.; Paul Spencer, CEO, Clean Energy Collective; Jim Cowgill, EKS&H; Brent Hendricks, EKS&H; Rudy Verner, Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti; Josh Marks, Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti; Ellie Garrett, Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti. Moderator: Chris Wood, editor/publisher, BizWest.

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