At Elemental, we are entering 2021 with the wind in our sails. We’re seeing new allies and longtime champions gathering together to accelerate action on the intertwined challenges of climate change and social inequity. We are pleased to announce that three leaders in this work have joined Elemental’s Board of Directors in recent months.
Joining Elemental’s Board Chair Laurene Powell Jobs, CEO Dawn Lippert, and Kelvin Taketa to help guide our work to enable rapid progress toward decarbonization are: Cheryl Martin, founder of Harwich Partners and former member of the Managing Board of the World Economic Forum; David Crane, CEO of Climate Real Impact Solutions 1 & 2 and former CEO of NRG Energy; and Maxine Burkett, Professor of Law and Co-Founder of the Institute for Climate and Peace. We are honored that our mentor and one of the original architects of Elemental, Maurice Kaya, continues on as a Board Member Emeritus. We’re also indebted to the guidance from our Board Advisors Aimee Barnes, Brad Powell, Dr. Ernest Moniz, Peter Seligmann, and Vivian Yasunaga.
We are grateful for their wisdom, inspiration, and incisive strategic minds. As we all work to redesign the systems at the root of climate change and halve emissions in the coming decade, we’ll be sharing their insights over the coming months.
Up first is David Crane, who for more than a decade led NRG Energy as it transformed from a 20th century–style independent power generator to a leader in renewable and distributed energy. His deep knowledge of energy systems and markets, his experience as the CEO of a dynamic Fortune 500 company, and his current leadership of multiple SPACs driving capital to climate solutions make him a formidable asset for Elemental and our portfolio of entrepreneurs who are tackling climate change head-on. Plus, anyone who cycles across the USA with his wife, Isabella, to raise money and awareness for lung cancer during a pandemic is someone we want on our team!
Our CEO Dawn asked David about why startups matter in the clean energy transition, how big company CEOs are thinking about climate action, and where he thinks we should expect major tech breakthroughs.
Dawn: What role do startups have to play in fighting climate change?
David: Climate change is the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced. In order to solve the problem at the scale and timetable that we need, there’s going to have to be true innovation, disruptive innovation, especially in the energy space that is not particularly innovative to begin with. We all know about what is called the “valley of death” in terms of entrepreneurs, but there’s also a transformational valley of death for big corporations that can see that what they’re doing now is not what they can be doing 20 years from now. The first priority of a CEO of these companies is being able to look around corners to what’s coming. For a long time in the energy space you didn’t actually have to do that, you just had to fill the moat and protect what you had. But now they’re facing multi-dimensional challenges and know they need help, they need innovation. Entrepreneurs on the outside are essential to bring that innovation into the space.
For entrepreneurs, the greatest and most essential challenge is scaling. And the first few steps of scaling are also the hardest. I think Elemental plays a big role in helping these companies navigate those first few steps.
Dawn: Outside of the energy players, we’re seeing companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and others making big moves to invest in climate and decarbonize their own operations. What advice would you have for them, or those that follow, as they go about this journey?
David: Pretty soon no major multinational corporation on earth will be able to get by without a zero-carbon goal within the next 10 to 20 years. They’re going to make those announcements, and then they’re going to have trouble actually completing them. That’s a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs.
Beyond setting those goals and serving as role models for others in the corporate sector, I would remind companies who want to get involved in fighting climate change that their ability to actually do things is much greater than they might even know. They can have so much impact by finding ways to amplify what they’ve done, like open sourcing green data sets, or raising awareness of their customer base, or revamping their supply chains. Or, for example, instead of doing a power-purchase agreement for their own facility they could become the anchor tenant of an aggregated PPA for 20 businesses in their area. Then, instead of a 20 MW solar field getting built it’s a 200 MW. So my message to them would be to amplify, amplify, amplify.
Dawn: What are some areas that you see as being ripe for innovation?
David: Just like hydrogen was one of the unexpected darlings of 2020 — notwithstanding what’s going on with Nikola — I think carbon capture and utilization will likely be the next one. Whether it’s this year or the next, it’s an area that I would be very excited about.
Another area where materials science and manufacturing technology will come into play is around solar panels. Top of the line solar panels are operating at 20% efficiency when the maximum theoretical efficiency is more like 80%. I would be shocked if there wasn’t a breakthrough in that area in the next five years.
The third area I’m interested in is the boundary between public health and planetary health. In this country the healthcare system is 23% of the economy and it touches everybody, and everybody cares about health care. Can we translate that into, you know, everyone should also care about planetary health? There’s such an obvious connection between the health of the planet and the health of the population that lives there. I don’t know exactly how that will play out, but I think there’s going to be a convergence there.