The Wharton Energy Conference has become one of the top energy events for MBA’s, bringing together energy industry leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, government officials, journalists, academics and students for a day of learning and networking. This year’s conference incorporated a number of innovative events that broke the monotony of traditional conferences, delivering beyond expectations.
Entrepreneurship in Energy
The morning kicked off with an in depth account by Wharton alum Jacob Susman of the niche that he saw and of the challenges he faced in founding Own Energy. This wind development company partners with local communities to develop economically viable wind farms. Susman’s path has not been easy. If not for a recent round of investment from EnerTech Capital Partners the company may have been unable to continue in this tight credit environment. Key relationships with GE allowed Own Energy to have access to turbines. Susman is confident that Own Energy will “lead the coming shift to locally owned renewable power generation by enabling today’s clean energy entrepreneurs.”
NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard Look at Nuclear and Wind Power
Peter Harris led an innovative session on NIMBY. In a room filled with a few hundred attendees, he asked us to pretend that we were a community considering plans to build wind farms and nuclear power plants in our town. To promote audience interaction, audience members were provided with a device that was connected to an electronic audience response system. At the beginning of the session Harris asked us to rank how comfortable we felt having wind farm development. In general most attendees said they would support it. Surprisingly (to me at least), when asked if we wanted a wind farm in our own town, support diminished significantly. Next, a wind developer from BP and a lawyer who represents nuclear power plants made the case for siting power-generating assets in our community. Nicholas Hiza from BP made some great points such as that the noise level from wind farms would be basically zero from more than a few hundred yards away, that cats are much more likely to kill birds than wind turbines are, and that wind farms would bring economic benefit to our town. Paul M. Bessette had a tougher task, convincing us that nuclear plants were safe. This interactive approach illustrated how difficult it is to site nuclear plants and wind farms. Ultimately, I left the session more convinced than ever that the only new nuclear reactors in America will have to be built next to existing reactors.
The Investment Case for Demand versus Supply Technologies
During the investment panel expertly moderated by Wharton alum Tucker Twitmyer, and composed of leading Venture Capitalists, one especially interesting theme emerged. With plummeting oil and gas prices and fluctuating commodity prices, demand-side companies may be better positioned than supply-side companies to profit from a push for clean technology. For example, Paul Holland of Foundation Capital asserted that his investments in electricity demand management companies EnerNoc and Silver Spring Networks are safe unless consumers, utility companies and governments decide that energy efficiency is not something they want to pursue. In contrast, investors in bio fuel plants that depend on volatile commodity prices have been squeezed over the past year.
And Much More….
The conference contained an array of interesting information, including a remarkable sit-down interview with Stephen Chazen, President and Chief Financial Officer of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, an inspirational presentation on human innovation by award-winning writer Vijay Vaitheeswaran, and an insightful panel on Opportunities in Global Power. The conference also had 20+ themed networking tables that offered great opportunities to discuss issues important to participants. In conclusion, Conference Chair Michel Di Capua and his team set out to make this “a very special kind of conference”, and they succeeded with flying colors.