Empower Cleantech in NC with Anna J SiefkenMay 10, 2023
The 2023 UNC Cleantech Summit included several tracks, including one called “Building Foundations for Cleantech in the Mid-Atlantic.” North Carolina has many resources that can propel the region into a nationally recognized powerhouse for cleantech, but what does that path look like? This blog will share Anna J. Siefken’s perspective on this question, along with her views on the roles of industry, government and academia in fostering innovation, some anticipated outcomes of the energy transition over the next five to ten years, and suggestions for students planning to enter the clean energy and climate tech fields.
Anna J. Siefken is the Senior Advisor at the Office of Technology Transitions at the U.S. Department of Energy. She has a background in industry, and most recently served as the inaugural Executive Director of The Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to that role, Siefken was the Pittsburgh 2030 District Director and VP of Strategic Engagement at one of the largest chapters of the U.S. Green Building Council. Her diverse background and continuous efforts to accelerate the energy transition make her a valuable and unique voice in this space.
Siefken believes that development of a robust regional ecosystem in any region of the United States needs to be a combined, collective effort between government, universities, start-ups, and the private sector.
The government’s role is primarily to establish programs and initiatives, often including catalytic funding, and to create aspirational energy reduction targets (like earthshots and via FOAs) to inspire economic growth and collaboration among stakeholders. The hope is that communities come together in partnership towards a common set of goals that move the needle on energy consumption via myriad opportunities. In many cases, government programs provide the seed funding and on-ramp for researchers and startups to move their technologies along the commercialization pathway.
Universities act as a magnet to attract talent and capital investments in regional clusters, which can be attractive to both industry and start-ups, especially if the universities work to establish IP-friendly terms for their researchers and labs. Siefken suggests that universities have a sizable role to play in connecting faculty, start-ups, and the private sector, particularly if the policies allow for shared use of labs and equipment. In fact, universities can be critically important to startups in the prototyping and pilot manufacturing phases and can provide the human capital and resources an emerging company needs. Siefken suggests that universities continue to offer courses for both technical and non-technical students so that each develop an entrepreneurial mindset as a way of solving energy and climate challenges, no matter which type of industry or organization they enter.
Start-ups also have a large impact on the innovation ecosystem of a particular region. The factors that characterize a good startup – a good idea, a talented and diverse team, a clear business plan, the ability to scale, an interest in commercialization, and a sense of market awareness and technical readiness – all contribute to the success not only of a single start-up but of the ecosystem in a region. Siefken stresses that diverse, interdisciplinary teams boost the likelihood of success.
Siefken believes that the pathway to energy innovation and an equitable energy transition for all will require an “all of the above approach,” and that universities are well positioned to have an outsized impact on climate change if students are encouraged to think BIG. First, Siefken suggests that faculty can encourage students to be open-minded and to explore all kinds of solutions and innovative new ideas without the immediate constraints of “…how exactly am I going to make this idea work?” She says that in her experience, students have a tendency to tackle problems through a different lens than working professionals because they are allowed to be bold. Second, Siefken encourages a strong focus on applied research. Technological advances require new ways of thinking, and universities are a perfect place for ideas to develop and grow. Third, she believes that a concerted effort to build an ecosystem between universities and the community is really vital, especially if universities in a region collaborate with one another to provide students, including female and those from historically-marginalized groups, with more options and resources.
When thinking of how to develop the RTP area, Siefken suggests looking to other regions of the country to find best practices. There are states, like New York and Massachusetts, that have organizations that are able to foster ecosystems to support start-ups and energy tech innovation. In New York, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA) has been working on energy innovation for years and serves as a national model. In the city of Boston, Massachusetts, in addition to universities like Harvard and MIT, there are myriad organizations and co-op facilities, such as the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), The Engine, and Greentown Labs, as well as funding mechanisms like “MassSave” in place to support energy conservation and innovation, and several have state support.
With this in mind, what resources does North Carolina have? It turns out that NC is one of only two states in the U.S. with laws related to carbon reduction. Passed in 2021, House Bill 951 required the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) to reduce carbon emissions by 70% between 2005 and 2030, with the additional stipulation that North Carolina become carbon neutral by 2050. With world-renowned research universities, an energy ecosystem-building effort underway, and robust industry in the region, paired with this set of goals, North Carolina is well-positioned to become a leader in cleantech.
When asked about the technological developments she hopes to see make great strides in the energy transition in the next five years, Siefken pointed to multiple possibilities and emerging technologies. For the purposes of this discussion, she noted the potential and significant international interest in both myriad long-duration energy storage innovations as well as several hydrogen technologies as significant contributors to a lower carbon energy future. In recent months, hydrogen has become a major topic in industry conversations around the country. Additionally, Siefken is a strong advocate for long-duration energy storage, or LDES, including chemical, mechanical, and electrochemical, storage – each of which has the possibility to enable a drastically larger number of renewables such as solar and wind to connect to the grid. She also shared that she is tracking Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings (GEBs), which are energy-efficient buildings that use smart technologies and distributed energy resources like solar and wind to provide demand flexibility and grid services. For more information related to specific areas that DOE is interested in terms of commercial liftoff, she suggested reviewing the March 2023 Pathways to Commercial Liftoff Reports, found at www.liftoff.energy.gov.
Lastly, Siefken wanted to advise the students interested in the energy transition to explore the many opportunities available in this field. She notes that there are thousands of jobs in the industry, and that “no matter what you studied, I think there’s a place for everyone.” Whether you’re studying a technical or non-technical field, Siefken encourages students to pick the place they want to live, a set of technologies or policies to explore, and then dive in.
Overall, Anna J. Siefken’s insights provide a useful framework for thinking about the potential of universities, industry, and government to work together to support innovation and the energy transition. Anna J. Siefken was a keynote at the Cleantech Summit this year and gave an engaging speech entitled, “Emerging Technologies and Energy Innovation: Creating Ecosystems for Lasting Impact.”
Pathways to Commercial Liftoff Reports: www.liftoff.energy.gov
Office of Technology Transitions: DOE office with focus on commercializing emerging technologies www.energy.gov/technologytransitions/office-technology-transitions
EnergyTech UP: Business case competition for university students to create a project based on any energy or climate-related IP (www.energy.gov/technologytransitions/energytech-university-prize)
American-Made Challenges: Competition platform that helps to fund innovations in the energy sector (americanmadechallenges.org/)
ARPA-E: Funding for very early startups (arpa-e-foa.energy.gov/)
SBIR and STTR: Programs to help small businesses including start-ups with R&D (www.energy.gov/science/sbir/small-business-innovation-research-and-small-business-technology-transfer)
Incubators supported by the DOE: www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/incubators-and-accelerators
National Labs: 17 DOE-funded labs across the United States (www.energy.gov/national-laboratories)
Connect with Anna J. Siefken:
About the Author
This article was written by Yutong Qiu, an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern at UNC-Chapel Hill, Class of 2024, and an Environmental Science and Statistics Major. Connect with her on LinkedIn.