Commitment to clean energy creates economic opportunity
Dawn Lippert is CEO of Elemental Excelerator, a global growth accelerator founded and based in Hawaii, and chairwoman of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative Advisory Board, a hui of energy stakeholders leading the state’s transition off of fossil fuels.
She has an affinity for innovation because she believes in the power of innovative thinking to solve some of our biggest problems.
Innovation is often associated with change and risk, which can be scary because the outcome is never certain. But she took a chance in moving to Hawaii and hasn’t looked back.
Question: Your husband is from Tennessee and you are from Seattle. How did you end up here?
Answer: My first job was with Booz Allen’s energy team in Washington, D.C. (after relocating from the West Coast). We were consultants to the Department of Energy on a first-of-its-kind collaboration with a U.S. state called the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI). I was the only person at Booz Allen familiar with Hawaii, having worked with the County of Hawaii to establish a clean-energy vision in graduate school, and its unique energy landscape, so I was picked to staff the project. I spent two years commuting back and forth between Washington, D.C., and Hawaii and never imagined moving here.
Q: What changed that? A: While working on
HCEI, I got to know Hawaii’s energy administrator, Maurice Kaya. After HCEI was signed into law, Maurice asked me to move out here, and I politely deferred. I had spent two years working with the state on legislation that would become the nation’s most aggressive state energy policy and a few other bills that would help decouple Hawaii’s economy from fossil fuels. I thought my job was done.
Maurice explained that he was leaving two decades at the state to start an accelerator program that would fund the growth of clean- energy technologies. This was an opportunity that could not only change Hawaii, but it could show the world that it is possible for a community to innovate its way to 100 percent renewable energy. I knew that working with Maurice would be an incredible gift, and he explained to me that being on the ground during this time in Hawaii’s journey would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I packed up my apartment and my bicycle and made the move.
Q: Today we’re more than a quarter of the way there. What’s the relationship between our commitment to clean energy and innovation?
A: Our commitment to clean energy has driven interest from some of the top energy startups in the world to Hawaii, and inspired the creation of new companies born here. If you use our (Elemental Excelerator’s) number of applicants as a gauge for market pull, we have seen it jump from 47 startups applying for our very first cohort in 2012 to 450 last year. Companies with new ideas and new technologies are really interested in this transformation, and that’s exciting.
Policies like net energy metering at a state level and solar tax credits at the federal and state levels — alongside technology improving so that the price of solar dropped by more than 70 percent — contributed to a sharp increase in distributed solar. Today Hawaii has more than 800 GWh (gigawatt-hour) of distributed solar on our grid, about 9 percent of electricity sales. With that amount of solar, we need storage to capture energy from the sun during the day and store it for when we need it at night. We have funded projects for companies like Stem and Amber Kinetics — with Hawaiian Electric — to install batteries in commercial buildings and flywheels at a utility generation station.
Q: How do startups and clean energy translate to economic activity and jobs?
A: Innovation is not really about technology; it’s actually about enabling people of this and future generations to have jobs that positively impact our community. Of the 63 startups we work with at Elemental Excelerator, there are 24 companies with current active operations in Hawaii and 55 fulltime employees calling Hawaii home. Four companies have opened new offices here and hired local team members — electricians, engineers, farmers, technicians, writers, attorneys, interns. These are the actual faces of innovation and people building our future — not only in energy, but also in agriculture, water and transportation.
Q: Any final thoughts? A: When I woke up on June 9, 2015, the morning after Gov. David Ige signed a law increasing our renewable-energy goal to 100 percent, I realized that I needed to double down on our work. Although setting goals can be challenging, building systems to achieve them is even tougher. … In Hawaii, every day we wait means we burn more oil and send more hard-earned money overseas. The good news is that every hard step we take now, both as individuals and collectively, makes our community cleaner and more prosperous, and brings our goal closer to reality.