Funding innovation in renewable energy: a roundtable

MIT Sloan and the Sustainability Initiative recently convened a roundtable for leaders at all stages of the renewable energy value chain—from a solar financing start-up to large-scale wind farms—for two days of discussion, debate, and networking

It felt like the beginning of a community of practice – we supported each other’s work, we drew on each other’s insights, and we explored avenues for collaboration.

Renewable energy companies are on the hunt for new financing strategies.

To support them in this endeavor, the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan convened a roundtable for leaders at all stages of the renewable energy value chain—from a solar financing start-up to large-scale wind farms—for two days of discussion, debate, and networking.

“At a time of falling fossil fuel prices and a decline in VC funding, we wanted to help renewable energy companies uncover ways to mitigate risk, raise money, and leverage new technologies to scale their businesses,” says Jason Jay, Director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.

“MIT—with its capacity for innovation and history of partnering with industry—is uniquely positioned to be the locus for this kind of dialogue.”

The forum brought together alumni working in the field to compare notes, provide input on each other’s business, and draw insight from MIT research.

Attendees included: Ray Wood, who leads investment banking in renewable energy for Bank of America; Michael Sonnenfeldt, a private equity investor with significant holdings in solar businesses; Bill Hilliard, the CEO of EcoVolt Finance, a solar investment marketplace set to launch in early 2016; Joel Serface, the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Brightman Energy, a renewable energy development firm; and Michael Thompson, a developer of large scale wind farms in Europe and the US.

Faculty inputs included John Sterman, Director of MIT's System Dynamics Group; Christopher Knittel, Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research; and John Parsons, Senior Lecturer and co-author of the MIT Future of Solar Energy study.

“It was a rich and intense two days,” says Jay. “It felt like the beginning of a community of practice – we supported each other’s work, we drew on each other’s insights, and we explored avenues for collaboration.”

A key piece of the event was the chance to workshop ideas for their individual businesses. “It was really valuable to get feedback from the wider clean energy sector,” says Sandhya Murali, MBA’ 15, the CFO of Solstice Initiative, a social enterprise focused on expanding affordable community-based solar power to underserved populations.

“When you’re inside a startup and talking to your colleagues all the time, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture,” says Murali, a recipient of the Sustainability Certificate. “Being able to talk with experts in the field and share ideas with veterans in the industry was extremely helpful.”

Murali says that the group plans to meet regularly in Cambridge and at different locations around the US. The next meeting will take place ahead of the MIT Energy Conference in March.

This gathering represented one in a series of alumni roundtable discussions. Other sector-specific alumni roundtables will include place-based sustainability (a focus on sustainable approaches to real estate and development) and green data (the optimization of energy efficiency and the reduction of environmental impact from data storage, management and dissemination).

“Part of our focus is to engage and empower our alumni to lead together,” says Jay.