Technology  March 10, 2021

CEO Roundtable: Clean-tech leaders expect demand rebound with federal backing

Local clean-energy business owners and advocates believe that consumer and operator interest in renewable energy will help the industry bounce back from a 2020 that was muted by the economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the broad takeaway from a conversation among industry leaders who met virtually during BizWest’s CEO Roundtable Tuesday afternoon.

COVID delayed spending, but didn’t destroy it

Like most industries, the onset of the pandemic forced customers to take a conservative approach with capital spending and slowed down sales and new orders for renewable-focused companies.

Pivot Energy CEO Tom Hunt said demand for his company’s residential and community solar projects dropped during the pandemic, and permitting for projects in particular slowed down as more governments sent employees to work from home. However, the slowdown was short-lived for the company.

“That was pretty well overwhelmed by just kind of the larger movement toward renewable energy and the procurements we’re seeing across the country,” he said. “Things are continuing to operate pretty strongly for us.” 

Namit Singh, whose company Microgrid Labs Inc. acts as a consultant for fleet electrification, said multiple cities and school districts that were interested in electrifying their transit operations held off on spending due to worries that tax revenues would plummet.

However, he’s expecting those governmental bodies to return toward long-term electrification planning.

“I think COVID helped everyone understand that transportation is putting in a lot of impact on the emissions, and there is a way out of it,” he said.

Simuwatt Inc. CEO Oliver Davis said New York City, which uses the company’s software to analyze energy use in buildings, is looking to kick-start its Climate Mobilization Act as part of its goal to cut the city’s emissions footprint by 50% within the decade.

“They need our software, and tied to that the other big pluses … what we’re seeing is more acceptance and adoption of technology,” he said.

The capital-spending crunch even hit the clean-tech companies that cater to the carbon-energy sector. Andy Paliszewski, vice president of sales at Flex Energy Solutions, said the company saw a drop-off in leasing for its turbines that turn flares from oil wells into energy due to the double-whammy of pandemic-tamped demand and high foreign supply on oil prices through much of 2020.

As debt-loaded drillers scrambled to cut costs, Flex Energy’s leasing revenue fell.

“Everything’s been kind of pushed down for about 12 months, and our lease business took a little bit of a hit, but we’re coming back pretty strong,” he said.

Jacques Nader, director of Siemens Gamesa’s wind turbine research and development center in Boulder, said his department struggled last year from supply-chain crunches. However, he expects the return to non-pandemic economic conditions, an existing backlog and the expectation of more-friendly policies toward wind development will make this year better.

“We expect 2021 to be a much better year as a lot of those delayed projects are now back on track,” he said.

EnergySense LLC CEO Carl Lawrence also noted a deluge of bookings for cruise lines in the latter half of 2021 and beyond, suggesting that people are itching to travel as the pandemic approaches an end. He sees that as an opportunity for electrified transportation.

“(COVID) appears to have built up a demand for people to get back together,” he said.

However, the ongoing risk of illness could hamstring hopes of activity resurging. Paul Roamer, president of Ethos Distributed Solutions, said some of his field employees were diagnosed with COVID after working on projects. The quarantine requirement and recovery times left at least one project idle for almost two weeks.

“It was very strange to watch young men who, in some cases, didn’t even know they had the disease, and they get caught in a test and they all of a sudden be pulled off … And we had other young men who had some more serious consequences,” he said.

Politics produces possibilities

The local renewable-energy heads also expect the Biden Administration’s focus on reducing emissions and curbing climate change to prove a boon for the industry.

Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor said General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) committing to all-electric vehicle sales by 2035 and similar EV commitments by Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) and AB Volvo would not have happened if former president Donald Trump won re-election. That enthusiasm for climate solutions is likely to permeate across the rest of the federal policy landscape, inevitably influencing state and local approaches to decarbonization.

“When we look at the level of investment that I think is going to be coming down the pike through infrastructure and energy at the federal level, I think it is going to be game changing in terms of its on-the-ground impact,” he said.

At the same time, a push against renewables mainly driven by conservatives and those who live in carbon-energy-reliant states could trip up the White House’s agenda. Leaders in Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott and former U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, largely blamed renewable-energy failures for the rolling blackouts last month that left more than 4 million people without power in sub-freezing temperatures, and led to at least 86 deaths in the Houston area alone.

While the manager of Texas’ grid said that renewable sources only amounted to 7% of its power during the winter and the majority of the blackouts were caused by non-winterized carbon-energy sources, that hasn’t stopped oil-and-gas advocates from attacking renewables.

Wayne Greenberg, CEO of utilities-focused renewables advisory firm E Source, said that the 50-50 party split in the Senate and the thin Democratic majority in the House won’t allow the Biden Administration to achieve quite the size of a renewables infrastructure package as it would like.

“Seeing the way the stimulus bill came out, with it 50-50, with not a single Republican (senator) voting on behalf of a bill that is favored by 79% of Americans… I’m a little skeptical at the moment that the infrastructure bill that we want to see is going to be what we’re going to see,” he said.

Homer Energy by UL global microgrid lead Peter Lillenthal argued that the Texas blackouts are a good reason why microgrids should be installed en masse alongside the larger grid to ensure reliable energy supply, and could potentially reduce the cost of energy in extreme peak-load situations.

“If you want the highest reliability, there’s no way you can get the highest reliability relying on the grid, and that’s because there’s all kinds of things that go wrong with the grid,” he said. “So if you want reliability, the generation has to be where you use it.”

Securing funding

Erin Geegan Sharp, the principal of horticultural energy adviser Zam Energy, said that the industry is on the verge of a virtuous cycle where a swath of talented engineers could turn existing climate technologies and adapt them for commercial use, then serving as advisers to the next generation of climate scientists and entrepreneurs to advance the industry.

“We’ve got to be careful not to defund some of this early research, as well as bringing in financing to help some of these engineers and these engineering R&D programs to really fund these big think tanks,” she said.

Helen El Mallakh, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association, said that cycle is primed to begin due to the growing unification behind the industry across the public and increasingly the private sectors.

“When you have the alignment of signals from the policy with the public sector, with the businesses, with our academic institutions and our national labs, that’s when we can really drive change,” she said.

Maury Dobbie, executive director of the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory, said research and development slowed across the industry due to social-distancing protocols keeping labs from being fully staffed.

However, she expects the group of affiliated researchers from the state’s universities to go after a set of grants from the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency this year.
“We’re seeing a pivot from everybody figuring out how to continue research,” she said. “Maybe it’s been delayed a little bit, but they will continue,” she said.

Some members of the panel said that reaching a critical mass of climate-friendly technology adoption requires buy-in from the private sector.

Reuben Munger, founder of Vision Ridge Partners, said a combination of interest in reducing emissions and low interest rates is giving multiple renewable industries a reduction in borrowing costs.

“Our customers have preferred things like cheaper, greener local power, so the ability to bring capital to those situations has only gone up,” he said.

Robert Fenwick-Smith, managing director of the Aravaipa Venture Fund, said the rise of special-purpose acquisition companies as an investment vehicle in 2020, particularly among EV companies and the Loveland-based Lightning eMotors Inc., have led to alarms over bubbles. However, he thinks SPACs in the aggregate are the best way right now for promising companies to get the private funding they need to achieve their potential.

“You can be cynical about it, you can say it’s a bubble and all the rest, but you’re not allowed to disregard it, because right now it is the single largest amount of money that a small (environmental, social and governance) company can get to actually have a chance to to reach its potential,” he said.

The CEO Roundtable is sponsored by Plante Moran, Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti and Bank of Colorado. Plante Moran was represented by Jim Cowgill, Jeremy Wilson and Sean Nohavec. BHGR was represented by Ashley Cawthorn. Bank of Colorado was represented by Alex Austin.

© 2021 BizWest Media LLC

Local clean-energy business owners and advocates believe that consumer and operator interest in renewable energy will help the industry bounce back from a 2020 that was muted by the economic uncertainty generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the broad takeaway from a conversation among industry leaders who met virtually during BizWest’s CEO Roundtable Tuesday afternoon.

COVID delayed spending, but didn’t destroy it

Like most industries, the onset of the pandemic forced customers to take a conservative approach with capital spending and slowed down sales and new orders for renewable-focused companies.

Pivot Energy CEO Tom Hunt said demand for his company’s residential and community solar…

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