Today, the Clean Economy Network announced a merger into the Advanced Energy Economy, a network of cleantech business leaders and regional organizations. It's been a fun ride to get to this important transition point.
Four years ago, Andrew Friendly and I launched a "Renewable Energy Business Network" chapter in Boston, borrowing from a successful model we'd both seen work on the West Coast, for informal and event-based networking-with-a-purpose among cleantech entrepreneurs and innovators. It caught on very quickly, and we found strong demand for similar efforts across the U.S., so we officially co-founded REBN as a nonprofit, and built up an eventual network of 15 regional volunteer-led REBN chapters in the U.S. and Canada, with thousands of members. It grew so quickly and successfully that we and our thin staff of two part-time, underpaid heroes (thanks, Laura and Helen!) were overwhelmed, and we saw an opportunity to deploy this network for even greater purpose, so we merged REBN with the Clean Economy Network, a D.C.-based nonpartisan organization that had been launched in 2009 to represent the cleantech industry at a national and regional level.
I continued on as co-chairman of the board of the Clean Economy Network Education Fund (a c3), and have spent the past couple of years working with CEN staff and the other CEN board members to help continue to build up that organization and work (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) on clean energy policy. With the launch of the AEE, a well-funded new platform bringing together regional clean energy nonprofits like the New England Clean Energy Council and others, it made sense to combine forces, and so after several months of hard work by a lot of folks in both organizations, today we see CEN and AEE joining together to take the next step.
My congrats and huge kudos to all the volunteers and staff of REBN and CEN today. Thank you!
I learned and re-learned a lot over the past couple of years. Regarding federal energy policy, it was a fascinating time to watch the sausage being made (or more accurately, not being made, at least in recent years). I come away more convinced than ever that congressional energy policymaking is deeply and fundamentally broken. Americans overwhelmingly want cheap, clean and domestically sourced energy, but the system isn't putting forward any such long-term solutions. The most logical and straightforward ways to positively shift energy policy have been needlessly politicized and/or overlooked. Egos and a desire for individual visibility too often trump the need for collaboration.
Environmentalists, sometimes claiming to speak for the cleantech community, often pick the wrong battles and pit themselves against the natural political allies of pragmatic cleantech policy, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Individual cleantech sector trade associations undermine the overall cleantech industry by fighting over portions of a dwindling pie, rather than banding together to push for effective, broader change. Powerful incumbent energy interests successfully counter any efforts to push for fundamental change, with campaigns of misinformation and overwrought rhetoric. When the U.S. military is saying greater energy independence is a core strategic imperative, and Congress effectively ignores them, you've seen all you need to know about congressional incompetence and impotence on this issue. All of which is why the role of CEN, and now AEE, is so important for the long run. There must be a voice, even if for now it often remains drowned out amidst all the noise.
But more positively, I came away with a great appreciation for the nascent stage of development of our sector, from a basic community-building perspective. Partly because the wave of cleantech entrepreneurs is such a recent phenomenon, partly because cleantech entrepreneurs and innovators are more scattered geographically than you see in software and web entrepreneurship, and partly because "cleantech" is just an umbrella label for a lot of disparate sectors and innovation areas, our sector is only now coalescing.
Cleantech entrepreneurs, be they new to entrepreneurship or just new to the sector, still don't enjoy the same fundamental networking, hiring, visibility, and customer-connection resources that entrepreneurs in other sectors often have access to. Pattern recognition across entrepreneurs and investors, which I believe to be key to the virtuous cycles leading to the success of web entrepreneurship, is hindered by lack of connections and learning opportunities, as water-tech entrepreneurs don't know what solar entrepreneurs are doing, and neither are kept aware of what's new in energy efficiency startups, for example. This is to be expected for such a fairly new and fragmented sector, but it's a challenge that needs to be addressed.
This is what I found so gratifying about co-founding REBN, and why I'm excited to be part of efforts like the Cleantech Open, helping bring entrepreneurs together, and bringing them resources to help build their chances of success. If you are going to invest and work in the cleantech sector, you need to recognize that this sector is still at a nascent stage of development where we all need to get involved to help build core platforms and community assets that will enable future success for all of us. For one thing, getting involved is the most effective way to build out effective networks and rapidly learn lessons from others' experiences. The most effective networking is done when you're collaborating on something, not just bumping into someone at a single event. It's worth the investment, therefore, to dedicate time and attention to some such effort.
And there are lots of such non-political opportunities regardless of where you are. Across the U.S., many states are making clean energy an economic development priority. Yes, in places like California and Massachusetts, it's pretty visible. But in just about every state I'm seeing these efforts, often in a completely non-political fashion. From North Dakota, to Utah, to Alabama, to Nevada, to just about all over, efforts to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs and innovation are being put in place, and thus are creating opportunities to plug in.
Outside of economic development efforts, the communities are coming together as well -- here in the Northeast, we had a phenomenal regional Cleantech Open program this year, with several dozen startups getting to work with nearly 100 experienced mentors, with the support of forward-thinking organizations like the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and others, all geared to helping these emerging cleantech entrepreneurs maximize their chances for success. All of this was done via volunteers and sponsors that were coordinated by only one full-time staffer (thanks, Karla!). That's a heck of a community effort; I was deeply impressed to see so many get so deeply involved. No matter where you are located, something interesting is going on.
So there are lots of opportunities to plug in. From just easy networking, to active mentoring, to supporting smart regional economic development efforts, to adding your voice at the national level. The most important thing is to pick one or two such opportunities that are interesting and important to you, and then to get involved. I know it's asking an awful lot of overwhelmed entrepreneurs to ask them to devote some of their precious little time to such side efforts. But now's an important time to do so, for the cleantech sector, and also to help build out your own networks and improve pattern recognition -- and to maximize your own chances for success. One way or another, get involved. It'll pay dividends in the end.
Speaking of which, the Cleantech Open Northeast is looking for a new CEO / Regional Director. If you're looking for an opportunity to work with a lot of cleantech entrepreneurs here in the northeast, and gain visibility and experience as a springboard to being a cleantech entrepreneur yourself, check it out.