As Oilprice.com embarks on its Top 5 series, we thought it expedient to begin with our take on the key figures shaping and influencing U.S. renewable energy efforts, not least because the issue of energy security is being prioritized in campaigning ahead of U.S. presidential elections.
In considering from the numerous choices for these top five slots, we take into account a number of variables, including investment in renewable energy, the ability to influence policy and shape public opinion, and advocacy efforts. This goes well beyond simply counting coin – it is about innovation, imagination, vision, risk and patience. Arguably, these people will play an important role in your life and leisure, for better or worse.
These are our picks:
Steven Chu – The China Link
Co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997, US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is one of the most distinguished faces of renewable energy in the world, tasked with helping the Obama Administration invest in clean energy, reduce dependence on foreign oil, address climate change concerns and create millions of jobs while doing it. Chu has devoted a large part of his scientific career to alternative energy solutions and climate change research, in part as former director of the DoE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. While the last century saw him win the Nobel Prize, this century earned him R&D Magazine’s Scientist of the Year award for 2011. In announcing his appointment as Secretary of Energy, President Obama said that the “future of our economy and national security is inextricably linked to one challenge: energy [and] Steven has blazed new trails …”. Chu’s most tangible successes have been the government’s investment in geothermal and offshore wind projects.
Indeed, Chu is one of the world’s leading authorities on renewable energy; and on a geopolitical level, his influence reaches to China. Chu is a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has trained prominent scientists in China and helped to establish the Bio-X Center at Jiaotong University in Shanghai – all of this gives him valuable access to Chinese politicians.
Dan Reicher – Energy Guru
Until November 2011, Dan Reicher served as Google’s director of climate change and green energy initiatives, during which time he convinced the company to invest in a number of energy projects, some of them rather eccentric and risky, others more pragmatic. He was also behind Google’s policy proposals for Washington. Prior to 2007, Reicher served in the Clinton Administration as the assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy. He was also considered for the post of energy secretary in the Obama Administration, but lost out to our first pick, Steven Chu.
Today, he’s practicing his innovation at Stanford University, which chose him to lead its new $7 million center to study and advance the development and deployment of clean energy technologies through innovative policy and finance. Stanford alumni Thomas Steyer and Kat Thomas donated the $7 million and trust in Reicher to lead the university’s efforts, which they said “is uniquely positioned to change our nation's attitudes and capabilities regarding how we make and use energy. What our university did for the information revolution, it must now do for the energy revolution." Broadly, the Stanford center will conduct research on energy policy and finance, with a particular focus on legislative, regulatory and business tools – all intended to boost public support for funding clean energy technologies. It also hopes to produce world-class research for policymakers, the business community, and technology leaders. Reicher is influential in the renewable energy world on a number of levels, from finance to policy to advocacy. Not only does he have the ear of the government on policy, he also has the $7 million Stanford research effort at his disposal.
Elon Musk – Iron Man
Elon Musk is probably the most colorful of the figures on our Top 5 list. He has Hollywood’s eyes and ears, as well, which only adds to his public influence. Musk is the co-founder of and head of product design at Tesla Motors, the producer of electric cars, which is almost a singular focus of Musk’s current green energy efforts. Musk entrepreneurial innovation had already been demonstrated pre-Tesla, when he co-founded PayPal and SpaceX. He also chairs the board of SolarCity, a start-up focused on photovoltaics products and services aimed at climate change solutions. Most recently, Musk created the first viable electric car of the modern era, the high-end Tesla Roadster sports.
The Tesla Roadster will be followed by the four-door Model S sedan, scheduled to release in July, and the ModelX (a sort of SUV/minivan hybrid), slated for production in 2013. Musk’s vision: making electric cars affordable to mass-market consumers thereby making a huge footprint in American and global energy efficiency and security. The Roadster is a high-end vehicle that will only attract the wealthy, but that is the point: Roadster revenues can fund research and development for lower-priced electric cars.
Countless awards and honors have come Musk’s way, from the Heinlein Price for Advances in Space Commercialization in 2011 to inclusion on Forbes’ list of “America’s 20 Most Powerful CEOs 40 and Under” that same year. Incidentally, Mush designed the first privately developed rocket to reach orbit and served as the inspiration for the genius billionaire Tony Stark in the Iron Man movie series. He also made it onto TIME Magazine’s (often dubious) list of 100 most influential people in 2010.
Eddie O’Connor – Supergrid Superhero
Eddie O’Connor, the CEO and co-founder of Mainstream Renewable Energy and the original founder of Airtrcity, is one of the world’s most interesting, energetic and innovative clean energy figures. O’Connor sold Airtricity to E.on and Scottish and Southern Energy for €2.2 billion in 2008, when he launched Mainstream along with Airtricity’s former finance chief, Fintan Whelan, investing €32 million in the start-up. O’Conner, who got his start in Ireland’s electricity company, has earned energy leadership awards across Europe, and in 2003 was named World Energy Policy Leader by Scientific American Magazine. O’Connor is behind the creation of some amazing onshore and offshore wind farm projects in Europe, North America, South America and South Africa, and is perhaps best known for his promotion of the European Offshore Supergrid, which envisions electricity interconnectivity on a scale that would entirely transform the European energy scene. O’Connor’s work has been extremely influential on global policy and he has certainly earned his place among the world’s most innovative public figures. He combines ideas with advocacy and action.
Paul Woods – The Algae King
Paul Woods would like no less than to revolutionize the energy sector, and his charisma is hard to match. Woods is the co-founder and chief executive officer of Algenol, the Bonita Springs-based alternative energy company, and his trademark is turning algae into ethanol (with the help of salt, carbon dioxide and sunlight). Algenol has not yet made its definitive mark on the energy industry, but Woods is certain it will. It has not been easy but Woods has proven a very patient warrior. There have been stops and starts. Most recently Algenol was forced to shelve expansion plans after concerns were raised about potential environmental consequences, but in April expansion plans were back on track and in full force. We like Woods because he’s a risk-taker and not one who will give up easily. We’re hedging our bets that algae will play a major role in America’s future energy security.
By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.