In a word, the draft energy bill unveiled yesterday by House Democrats, is “terrific.” That’s according to Erik Straser, who leads cleantech investment for Mohr Davidow Ventures. “Who knows if this will resemble what actually gets passed,” he said, “but we actually have a roadmap here for how to get to a 21st century energy infrastructure.”
The roadmap itself, a sign of Congressional leaders’ commitment to clean energy and energy security, Straser said, has value for entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and policymakers. Straser doesn’t think it will dramatically change the investing landscape, or become the dominant influence on strategy, but he said it will inform industry players.
One company, Coulomb Technologies, has a lot of reasons to like the proposal. After all, it includes new funding for electric car charging infrastructure and smart grid technology, and Coulomb makes electric car charging stations that allow utilities to decide when cars juice up. “It’s refreshing to see politicians acknowledge that this (smart grid and electric cars) is the right technology,” said Coulomb CEO Richard Lowenthal. So what’s not to like?
Just one thing, in Lowenthal’s view: Why are these buildouts still called demonstration projects? While he praised Waxman for showing a “certain technological understanding” on the connections between energy security, renewables, clean cars and the smart grid, he also said, “It’s time for the real show now.”
With something like carbon capture and storage, there’s no way around the fact that the technology has never been deployed at commercial scale, let alone tested over the course of decades or centuries during which the emissions will theoretically be sequestered. How about electric cars, which draft authors Edward Markey and Henry Waxman have proposed supporting with “large-scale demonstrations,” supported by investments in charging infrastructure?
According to Jeff Sharp, a spokesperson for Markey’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, the point of the electric vehicle and infrastructure spending in yesterday’s draft is to “kickstart a program that will create jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” regardless of the terminology. Technologies that are already on the commercial market, but in limited applications (such as Coulomb), as well as those in earlier stages of development could qualify. (Sharp also urged companies and individuals to weigh in on the legislation if something strikes them as problematic. You can do that by contacting your representative in Congress or via the Commerce and Energy Committee web site.)
Sharp said Markey sees the bill as a way to get more fuel-efficient vehicles to market, and fast. Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, agreed when I spoke with him yesterday. He called the draft “ambitious, comprehensive and very pragmatic,” praising it for what he sees as a recognition “that rapid market penetration is the only way to get plug-ins soon enough to have an impact on climate change and energy security. If they dribble in in hundreds of thousands or even a million, it’s insignificant.”
Coulomb rival Better Place, which aims to develop large-scale networks of electric car charge points and battery swap stations, has certainly caught a few eyes on Capitol Hill. (Note: We’ve contacted Better Place and will update with the startup’s comments we hear back.) Markey and Waxman’s draft calls out battery exchange as an example of electric car infrastructure. “Other nations, including Israel and Denmark, are investing in this technology, and America can’t afford to fall behind in clean technology jobs,” Sharp said — noting countries where Better Place plans to build networks.
Of course, Markey and Waxman’s bill now enters a phase of debate and horsetrading in Congress. And as Straser said, what goes into law could be very different from what the two chairmen have put into their draft. Still, it’s a sign of exciting times for cleantech. Two years ago, Straser said he could not imagine seeing a proposal to deploy clean technology at the scale seen in this draft. “As a cleantech investor,” he said, “I’m pleasantly surprised that we’re moving this fast.”