By Lee Barken
With southern California in the midst of thunderstorms and flash-flooding, attendees at the 6th Annual Clean-tech Investor Summit listened intently – among occasionally flickering lights – to conference chairman Ira Ehrenpreis remind the audience that “we choose Palm Springs as the conference location for the past 6 years because of the wonderful weather here.” Despite the cancellation of 3 speakers due to weather related travel problems, the January 19-21 summit convened over 400 industry professionals to reflect on 2009, opine on 2010 and network with piers.
Networking, as it turns out, was a major attraction for attendees. As one Private Equity managing partner said to me: “I’m here to meet up with colleagues and see old friends.” Another popular theme, as shared by one clean tech company exec I met: “We’re here to look for funding.”
Flipping through the conference attendee list (provided to all participants) reveals an eclectic mix with concentrations in two communities: Capital Providers (Venture Capital, Private Equity) and Entrepreneurs. The other notable presence: attorneys. Lots of attorneys. Now, imagine adding cocktails, a few hors d’oeuvres and then swirling them all together in one big room. It’s party time.
In addition to networking, a major attraction of the summit is to provide a forum for presentations by industry luminaries and thought leaders. Let’s just call them the “rock stars.” From senators to CEOs, numerous presenters took the microphone and shared their vision and expertise with the audience. Two particularly notable presentations provided unique insights: Ray Andersen, Chairman, Interface Corporation and Amory Lovins, Chairman, Rocky Mountain Institute.
The Most Interesting Person in the Room
Ray Andersen is the author of “Confessions of a Radical Industrialist” and Chairman of Interface, Inc., the worlds largest manufacturer of modular carpet. Carpet manufacturing is one of the most petro-chemical and resource intensive industries out there, yet Andersen – who introduced a sweeping sustainability vision in August 1994 – is committed to a company goal of zero environmental impact by the year 2020.
Andersen speaks with a calm and dry southern accent as he describes his own personal journey reconciling environmental and business issues through an ethical lens. At times, the presentation drifts from instructive to poetic, as Andersen breaks into prose with the intelligence and artistry of a spoken word poet.
Said Andersen, “The earth is finite. You can see it from space. That’s all there is.” He adds, “Nature is the goose that lays the golden eggs. We must not squeeze the golden goose to death.”
What’s striking about Andersen is that he delivers his presentation without any of the granola persona or smugness that you might expect to be attached to his message. Andersen cares about the environment. But he also cares about business. Interface Global has revenues exceeding a Billion dollars and Andersen is the first to remind the audience that “I am every bit as competitive as any corporate executive you will meet.”
To Andersen, sustainability is a war on waste. As such, he views sustainability as a competitive advantage, not a burden or a diversionary marketing exercise. Says Andersen, “This turns out to be a better business model. We make a better profit.”
The Smartest Person in the Room
Amory Lovins is the Co-founder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a self described independent and entrepreneurial non-profit “think and do tank” with a staff of 90 and annual budget of $15 million.
Lovins’ intellect is matched only by his humble and down to earth demeanor. Following a lengthy and elaborate speaker introduction, Lovins begins his presentation with a smile and an unassuming quip: “With an introduction like that, I can’t wait to hear what I have to say.” After some laughter, he engages the audience with a simple multiple choice question: “Do you prefer to die of: A. Climate Change, B. Oil Wars, or C. Nuclear Holocaust.” The answer, he suggests, is: “D. None of the Above.”
For Lovins, environmental change is all about reengineering energy generation and consumption, or as he puts it, “Reinventing fire”. When done properly, he suggests, this concept of freeing the world from our dependence on fossil fuels comes with significant financial benefits. “Problems go away, not at a cost, but at a profit,” says Lovins.
In a series of engineering vignettes, from redesigning how water flows through pipes to data center optimizations, Lovins demonstrates how thoughtful engineering and asking the right design questions can produce spectacular efficiency results. In fact, Lovins has a website dedicated to this topic, called the Factor 10 Engineering project.
According to Lovins, “The notion that climate protection is costly is simply false.” He adds, “Saving energy is cheaper then buying it, so smart firms are rapidly investing in energy efficiency—whether they worry about climate issues or not.”
Singing in the Rain
Amidst the torrential downpour, the Summit proves that the clean tech movement is producing both environmental benefits and economic profits. Leaders like Ray Andersen and Amory Lovins are shining examples of how to make this model work. The economic recovery, much like my trip home to San Diego after the conference, is demonstrating that eventually the rains stop and the clouds fade away. The year ahead holds great promise. Are you ready for some sunshine?
Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the IT practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and the US Green Building Council, San Diego chapter. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of carbon accounting, green building, IT audit compliance, enterprise security and wireless LAN technology. You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.