Helping Renewable Energy Entrepreneurs Grow

Cornell Energy Connection 2016 keynote speaker and renewable energy champion Jigar Shah outlined challenges and opportunities in the sector.

by Giorgi Tsintsadze '17

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The threat of climate change has created a demand for renewable energy sources on a scale never seen before. International agreements among world leaders, including the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, indicate a consensus that greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere has reached an alarming level and that economic output must be decoupled from carbon dioxide emissions. The pressing need to transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a cleaner grid powered by eco-friendly energy alternatives like wind and solar is not only a challenge, but also a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs. The potential market for the renewable energy industry has been estimated not in billions, but in trillions of dollars.

Jigar Shah, author of Creating Climate Wealth: Unlocking the Impact Economy, addressed renewable energy’s challenges and opportunities when he delivered a keynote address at this year’s Cornell Energy Connection via a video conference in Sage Hall., Sept. 30. The president and co-founder of Generate Capital and a board member as well as former CEO of the Carbon War Room, Shah has extensive experience working in the renewables sector, first for BP Solar and later as a co-founder of SunEdison. In his book, which received positive reviews from the likes of Richard Branson and Carl Pope, Shah outlined major challenges facing companies and entrepreneurs specializing in renewable energy and proposed structural as well as financial solutions to overcome them. Today, as part of his work at Generate Capital and the Carbon War Room, Shah works to put those solutions into practice, helping the industry grow and harness its enormous potential.

The format for Shah’s keynote was a Q&A led by the moderator, Geoffrey Johnson, MBA ’17, who introduced the speaker and asked him a series of questions before opening the floor to the audience. Shah began by reflecting on the financial landscape, which he sees as the major problem for entrepreneurs in the renewable energy industry: Because the financial industry is unprepared to satisfy the kind of needs that renewable energy companies seek, it is very hard for mid-size energy startups with unsecured capital, companies looking for mid-level investment, to procure the resources they need.

Arguing that “leaving climate change solutions to public authorities does not work,” Shah said that what the industry needs is a new “ecosystem all the way from innovation to revenues.” As he explained, inclusive financial systems open and adapted to energy startups could inspire an army of entrepreneurs who would be able to sell their innovative products directly to customers. Such improvements could make it possible for the industry to accelerate and provide sustainable electricity for a growing portion of consumers.

While the obstacles are substantial, Shah also emphasized positive dynamics that justify an optimistic outlook. The renewable energy industry is becoming more multidisciplinary, he argued, hiring professionals from a variety of fields. This was not always the case, he said; in the past, the industry was dominated by people with engineering degrees. Even if blue-collar jobs still make up the majority of employees (around 70 percent), today one can find employees from all kinds of STEM backgrounds, as well as those specializing in marketing, finance, communications, and other disciplines working for solar and wind energy producers.

Shah also underscored the importance of cultural and policy changes. While arguing that it is wrong to expect large, public utility companies to singlehandedly transform the grid, Shah advocates for a coalition of governmental agencies, environmentalists, and entrepreneurs. Renewable energy markets “are not natural markets,” he argued; they depend heavily on government regulations. The spread of a culture of sustainability and a constructive role of governmental institutions could prove crucial, he said.

Other topics Shah covered in conversation with the moderator and the audience concerned the role of traditional energy companies in the transition and beyond, differences among state energy models, and investment opportunities and market acceptance for renewable energy.

About Cornell Energy Connection

Cornell Energy Connection, Cornell University’s premier energy conference, provides a unique opportunity for students from across campus to engage with industry leaders, learn about career opportunities, and expand their professional network. Hosted by the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise and the Cornell Energy Club, the 2016 conference theme was Transformation and Turbulence in the Energy Industry. Participating energy alumni, professionals, and students attended and engaged in keynote speeches by Katherine Hamilton and Jigar Shah from the Energy Gang Podcast, as well as interactive panels on the first day. On day two, select attendees participated in Newtonian Shift, a business strategy simulation that illustrates how changes will impact the energy industry moving forward.

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