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While the rest of the tech world focuses on things like Apple’s upcoming gadgets, which retailer is the latest to get hacked, or the ongoing drama around Uber, I’ve spent much of the past year (the past seven years, actually) looking at what’s going on at the forefront of energy innovation. Progress with energy — making it cleaner, more efficient and more accessible — can come in a variety of places, from university labs, within Silicon Valley startups, at big corporations, and even via government programs.
In 2014, there seemed to be resurgence of startups and entrepreneurs taking risks and daring to tackle the difficult world of energy. Perhaps they were inspired by the successes of Tesla CEO and SolarCity Chairman Elon Musk, or the Opower founders, who saw their energy data startup go public this year. Or maybe there was just a little bit more funding available to these types of strategic thinkers, after a couple years of political backlash in the U.S. and a backpedaling from energy investing by venture capitalists.
Looking back at the year, I think it’s one of the brightest ones we’ve had in awhile when it comes to the changing face of energy, using new technologies and new business models. Here were my favorite 14 stories, in chronological order, that I covered this year:
1. What 60 Minutes got right and wrong in its story on cleantech: The year kicked off with one of the most high profile — and most negative stories — to appear about the whole cleantech phenomenon in the long form television show 60 Minutes. While a lot of my peers rejected the coverage out right, I thought the producers got some things right (the VC cleantech crash angle), and some things pretty wrong (the politics and missing the solar panel boom).
2. The Hoover Dam of solar is now live in the desert of California, and why it’s important: The huge solar thermal plant Ivanpah was finally finished and started distributing electricity in early 2014. The project was one that highlighted the difficulties it takes to get a project like this built — it faced many delays,
criticism from environmental groups (over desert tortoises), and also changing economics, as the cost of solar panels dropped dramatically as it was getting built (it doesn’t use panels, but mirrors to concentrate the sun). But the project also showed how the Department of Energy’s support of Ivanpah was crucial for it to get built, how a startup like BrightSource can innovate, and how companies like NRG and Google are eager to invest in clean energy.
3. The sheer size of Tesla’s massive battery factory could be a game-changer in many ways: One of the most interesting things to happen in energy in 2014 was the unfolding of Tesla’s plans for its battery factory, which is now planned for a spot just outside of Reno, Nevada. This is the article where I first started to realize how disruptive and unusual the idea was.
4. It’s easy to miss the meaningful parts of the Valley, if you ignore them: I went on a bit of a kick in the spring of this year, fighting back on the notion that the Valley doesn’t create anything meaningful anymore. Anyone who has followed the rise and fall of cleantech or is interested in energy innovation knows this isn’t true. A lot of times these Valley innovators are working on less sexy problems (so the media ignores them), and their innovations are taking longer to come to fruition.
5. As KiOR Crashes, it’s another cautionary tale for energy innovation: KiOR has always been a symbolic company for me when I think about some of the more unusual strategies that cleantech venture capitalists have taken around energy over the years. The company, which was largely owned by Khosla Ventures as well as Vinod Khosla personally, went public in the summer of 2011 at $15 per share, making Khosla Ventures’ share worth about $830 million at the time. But at the beginning of 2014 it was starting to falter, and by the end of the year it had filed for bankruptcy. I covered these guys from launch (first I heard of them was 2007) to the end.
6. With Opower’s IPO, founders show meaningful tech can pay off: I was pretty excited to see Opower IPO in the Summer of 2014, and see that the company’s founders still held considerable equity at the time. Now Opower’s founders and longtime friends Alex Laskey and Dan Yates are the poster children for the growing meaningful tech movement.
7. As solar panels boom, it was the simple business model that the big energy players missed: While this wasn’t a huge story, I liked it because it shows that even in the difficult energy space there are things that entrepreneurs and innovators can do that big companies miss. Both NRG and GE lamented that they didn’t get in earlier into the solar-as-a-service financing business for rooftops that SunEdison started and companies like SolarCity are now dominating.
8. An almond farm and a “big ass battery” show the future of energy in California: I visited the site of this flow battery in the little city of Turlock in the Spring of 2014. It stuck out in my mind because it shows how a really small company like EnerVault can use a tiny grant, and a lot of strategic thinking, to get entirely new energy technology built in very specific places for specific use cases. In this case, the battery is installed on an almond farm, and it bottles up energy from solar panels that help power an irrigation pump that waters about 300 acres of the farm.
9. We don’t need solar roadways, we need to help unleash current solar panels: This story makes me laugh because there was SO much attention on it: 204 comments, some pretty interesting, some total garbage. Most of my peers in the energy tech sector (or covering it) I think agreed with my assessment, but didn’t want to come out and say it directly. After this was published, there were a variety of take-down articles written. Most people interested in sustainability are pretty nice and don’t want to come down on someone else’s project.
But a lot of readers out there across America did NOT like or agree with my opinion of solar roadways. Only time will really tell with these things, so I guess I’ll just have to review where the solar roadways project is in the spring.
10. Behind the scenes with Tom Siebel, C3 and its data engine for the power grid: C3 has gotten a lot of flack over the years because it pivoted substantially early on away from carbon software and to energy data analytics for utilities. But I don’t think anyone should count C3 or Tom Siebel out just because their product has been a long time coming. Siebel is one of the world’s best salesmen, he’s all in on energy data, and the company has secured a large amount of customers in a short time frame. While this wasn’t one of the most popular articles, I thought it was a fun one.
11. The Elon Musk playbook for disrupting energy: vertical integration and huge factories: I think it’s fascinating that SolarCity and Tesla are looking to disrupt energy and cars using similar businesses models. In this article, I tried to compare and contrast these methods and help entrepreneurs realize how Elon Musk is trying to scale these disruptions.
12. Behind the scenes of Aquion Energy’s battery factory & the future of solar storage: It’s exciting when startups that have been talking about a technology for years finally get to the point of commercially making and shipping it. I got a chance to check out Aquion Energy’s battery factory outside of Pittsburgh over the summer. It was still small, but represents a big leap for startups building the next-generation of grid batteries.
13. The changing face of Reno: Why the ‘world’s biggest little city’ is attracting Apple & Tesla: Before Tesla announced that it planned to build its battery factory just outside of Reno, I took a trip up there and checked out the rumored Tesla factory site, as well as Apple’s yet-to-be-built-out solar farm up there. I also met with a variety of Reno officials as well as geothermal industry execs, who were in town for a conference. Reno, which has long been a gambling backwater, is slowly transforming into a high tech manufacturing hub, and Tesla’s factory will only accelerate that.
14. Lithium, the Salton Sea and a startup that’s trying to change the game: The Salton Sea is such a bizarre and fascinating place that any company trying to build something new out there would be interesting. But Simbol Materials turns heads because the startup is looking to recover lithium from geothermal plants, and it’s backed by Silicon Valley investors. I drove down to the Salton Sea in September and took a tour of Simbol’s demonstration plant in Calipatria, California.