Dawn Lippert has gained national prominence with a growing list of top hits — in her case, a roster of successful clean energy startups. And like the famous Grammy winner, Lippert’s roots are in Hawaii. As the founder and CEO of the Hawaii- and California-based Elemental Excelerator, Lippert has built an ecosystem and invested $43 million to help scale clean energy startups.
In this Solar100, Dawn Lippert weighs in on what she’s learned from over a decade of investing in and supporting entrepreneurs, and her reasons for optimism in the fight against climate change.
Starting in renewables
Richard Matsui: Kicking off with the origin story: You majored in environmental studies at Yale and have worked in this space ever since. What first drew you to working in clean energy?
Dawn Lippert: I got into energy because I was studying the environment, biology and conservation, and it just became strikingly clear how everything will become much more difficult because of climate change.
Once you realize that, addressing climate change then becomes the overarching storyline to anything else you’re interested in, from biology to planetary systems to just keeping life on the planet.
I’m an optimist, and spending too much time on climate policy could be a difficult place to live with that mindset. So I started working with some professors at Yale around energy and just found so much momentum. You can be a true optimist because the trajectory of energy technology and green technology was and is so positive, and you can have a role in making that transition faster. It can be a really exciting and inspiring place to try to make a difference. And that has now circled back to climate because we are seeing the same kind of momentum across all kinds of climate solutions.
Richard Matsui: You’re a fellow ex-management consultant, having worked with Booz Allen Hamilton’s alternative energy practice in Washington, D.C. I’m curious — how does that work and training influence what you bring to the founder and CEO role today?
Dawn Lippert: Management consulting is about facilitating change and thinking about all the levers to make that happen.
In particular, as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Energy for the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, it was special to play a true, supportive role in the holistic energy transformation we’re trying to achieve here. My job was to help make the state’s goal of 100 percent clean energy happen and to learn how to flip an economy from fossil fuel to clean energy. My day-to-day included asking questions like, “Who are the people we need in the room? Who is not in the room [that] will be impacted? What are the stories or numbers or analyses we need? What is right around the corner that will impact how this can or will unfold?”
Richard Matsui: Classic stakeholder management: a lot of people with different objectives.
Dawn Lippert: Exactly. It’s very similar to implementing technology solutions within a community. I was looking for the right platform to bring different parties together to find a win for the entrepreneur, a win for the investor, a win for the community and a win for the policymaker.
That role is probably where I came into the idea for what is now Elemental Excelerator.
Richard Matsui: Speaking of Elemental, it can be especially tough in the early days of any organization. What was the biggest problem you had to solve at the start of Elemental?
Dawn Lippert: For us, it’s been a constant learning process. We initially started funding projects very similarly to how the Department of Energy does it for early-stage companies with new technology. And it became clear early on in that process that you could fund a lot of one-off projects, but the most difficult part was figuring out how to make the projects scale. As a result, we now think about how every project we fund can scale at least 10x within two to three years. Using that framework impacts the companies we select, what we do with project design and who we invite to the conversation.
But in those early years, we just weren’t seeing that. This was around the time that Y Combinator and other software- and tech-focused accelerator programs were starting to gain traction in Silicon Valley.
So when we started funding these projects and seeing if they were working, I flew around the country for a couple of months to learn what we could do differently. I talked to literally anyone who would talk to me that had any role in the investing, commercialization, and entrepreneurial ecosystem. The vast majority of them told me that Elemental was not a good idea, because the idea behind these tech accelerators was to be three months, software-based, super quick turnaround, week over week results. And that’s just very different from the world of climate technology.
But even with these differences in timelines, I learned a lot from those conversations and how to apply what traditional tech and Silicon Valley were doing right and how we can model our work at Elemental. For example, this idea of working in a community of entrepreneurs, focusing on business models, scaling a company, and being able to focus very early on what a customer wants. There are a lot of things that Silicon Valley’s doing right that we really need in climate around the rest of the country — and the world.
Solar startups: Improving systems that impact the planet and people's lives
Richard Matsui: To date, Elemental Excelerator has awarded over $43 million to 117 portfolio companies. After over a decade working with and supporting startups, what are some of your key takeaways about challenges startups face and what makes a startup successful?
Dawn Lippert: We've found that huge problems are inherently motivating for entrepreneurs, which is why we invest in them to help solve climate change. They're wired to scale solutions. Entrepreneurs are already scaling up solutions to climate change. The most successful entrepreneurs have unbelievable amounts of ambition, and you can sense that the first time you meet them. They know they can have a huge impact, and they barely even have to convince you.
As to the challenges startups face, they navigate a lot of interconnected pieces to come to market. Technology innovation, market entry, connecting with corporates and deployment partners, policy barriers. Our entrepreneurs are creative, nimble generalists and learning machines.
Richard Matsui: When you said, “Entrepreneurs are already scaling up solutions to climate change,” it reminded me of our first Solar100 interview with inveterate solar advocate Danny Kennedy, in which he said, “Small businesses can be agents of change, and entrepreneurs are the classic ‘won’t take no for an answer’ activists, really. They just use business tools rather than community organizing.” What are ways you’ve seen entrepreneurs scaling up solutions to climate change?
Dawn Lippert: You can point to any company in our portfolio and they’ll be able to tell you how they are driving down emissions or democratizing clean energy or building the transportation systems of tomorrow. A few recent examples: Ampaire recently flew the world’s first hybrid electric plane on a commercial route with Mokulele Airlines, proving zero-emissions air travel is coming sooner than you think. In fact, it’s already here. Proterra is set to go public through a [special-purpose acquisition company] and has delivered hundreds of electric buses. Source Global, in partnership with us and Conservation International, installed 40 hydropanels in Binta’t Karis, one of the most remote villages in the Philippines, providing clean drinking water to 100+ families.
Richard Matsui: What are you thinking about moving forward?
Dawn Lippert: I’ve been thinking about the moment we’re in. We’re seeing a confluence of huge clean energy know-how, rapid velocity driven by favorable economics, unprecedented commitment from large companies that know they can’t afford to miss out on this transformation, and a surge of promising startups that see an enormous market opportunity. There’s broad consensus around the need to address the climate crisis.
This change is actually driving economic growth and progress on the ground level. For example, in Hawaii, we’re seeing massive investment in solar and energy storage. In Hawaiian Electric’s [the utility supplying power to 95% of Hawaii’s population] latest tender to date, we will bring online 460 megawatts of PV and 3 gigawatt-hours of storage capacity. These projects are pulling billions of dollars into Hawaii, which will largely go to support local landowners, suppliers and workers. This is instead of shipping out millions of dollars for oil and getting a barge of oil in return.
So what is really exciting about this moment is the potential to solve many problems at once. We can address climate change and energy independence while also being thoughtful about how we support new waves of talent coming into the clean energy workforce. That’s what I would love to see. We can all meet this moment together.
Richard Matsui: That’s a powerful visual, that we’re collectively shipping a barge full of cash out and then getting a barge full of oil back. So it sounds like Biden’s plan of a modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future is right on track with your thinking?
Dawn Lippert: In a way. There’s definitely a need for national leadership, and the Biden administration is demonstrating how the government can pull levers in international policy, environmental justice, federal procurement and everything in between. At the same time, a lot of the important progress must be made at the state and local levels. State and city government, universities, community colleges and local coalitions can be really powerful and make the difference. While national support is always important, I’m a big believer in state and local action and for things that can happen on the ground in our communities.
Richard Matsui: Lastly, moving forward into 2021, we’re going to be asking everyone in the Solar100 series about racial equity in the solar industry. The thought is that the solar industry is of course important because of climate change, but it’s also important because of jobs: There are a lot of people who work in this industry or want to work in this industry. As a respected renewables leader, I’m happy to have you weigh in if you’re game.
Dawn Lippert: Certainly. At Elemental Excelerator, we believe climate change and social inequality are directly tied, and that providing cleaner and more sustainable options for a small few will never allow us to solve for climate change or reach the regenerative economy we’re striving for.
Elemental uses a framework of “equity in/equity out.” "Equity in" includes hiring practices, inclusion, professional development, representative leadership and supply chains. "Equity out" is about how a technology impacts communities, including unintended consequences and how to create mutual benefit, particularly with frontline communities. In the solar industry, this is essentially jobs and opportunities on one side and deployment on rooftops and in communities on the other. From an innovation perspective, we’re interested in companies that are democratizing solar, deploying community solar and otherwise increasing access to solar in multifamily buildings and low-income households.
Currently, 88 percent of solar executives are white men and only 8 percent of the solar workforce is Black. When you start looking at who’s benefited from the solar boom, it becomes clear that we haven’t yet tapped into the talent who should be part of this movement. So as part of our “equity in” work, we are supporting entrepreneurs in building a more inclusive and effective workforce and supply chain. When teams are more reflective of the communities and customers they serve, they are much more likely to achieve the equitable outcomes that are critical to solving climate change.
Richard Matsui: Are there people or groups in solar that you think are modeling the kind of actions that we as an industry need to take?
Dawn Lippert: Yes! We believe that in order for technology to truly succeed, it has to be rooted in the community. We fund $5 million to $8 million of climatetech projects with a dozen startups each year. For many of these projects, we employ a square partnerships model, where we will work with startups, a customer or deployment partner, and a community partner to deploy technology. Through square partnerships, we start to weave community values into innovation projects, bringing together grassroots perspectives and technology startups. These are two groups that don’t often work closely together, but we see enormous potential in close partnership and bringing community values into technology design and implementation.
As for other models, there’s EDICT (which stands for "empowering diversity in cleantech"); that was started by Devin Hampton of UtilityAPI and Jason Michaels of Leap, two of our Elemental portfolio company leaders. It’s a growing community of companies dedicated to making measurable progress in diversity and inclusion. We’re also huge fans of Earth in Color, which was started by a former Elemental intern, Darel Scott. And our Director of Innovation in Energy Nneka Uzoh recently launched Greentech Noir, a professional community for Black people working in climatetech. These and many more make me optimistic for the future.