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Getting to Know Your Expert Interview Series: Larry Eisenberg, Expert in the Clean Power Community

Energy Central

As the utility industry continues to seek ways to encourage and hasten the clean energy transition, we’re going to need innovations from creative minds and unparalleled leadership in the face of tough choices. With that in mind, the Energy Central network of experts is a great resource to see as a sort of “Who’s who” of people who can speak with authority on the topic and help drive the conversations where they need to go. Our Clean Power Group has its experts, in particular, that will be important voices at this critical juncture for the utility industry.

In allowing you to get to really know who these experts are and why you should pay close attention to their perspectives, we’re continuing on with our “Getting to Know Your Experts” with a profile and engaging conversation with Larry Eisenberg.

Matt Chester: Thanks for being an expert, Larry, and for participating in our expert interview series so more of our Energy Central Community members could get to know you and what you bring to our platform. To kick it off, can you give a brief overview of your background and experience in the utility sector and what you’re working on these days?

Larry Eisenberg: I have been working on energy issues for 30 years in my various positions. As the Chief Facilities Officer for the University of Wisconsin System in the late 80s, I was approached by Johnson Controls with an idea. They said they would upgrade our lights and be repaid from the savings.  I said great idea. We did it, and that was the birth of the ESCO industry.

I installed the first fuel cell on the West Coast in a set of buildings I was building in the Portland, Oregon, area in the mid-90s. In the mid-2000s, I developed the power purchase agreement concept for use in the public sector with the help of the largest banks in the world. By 2011, I had developed net-zero energy solutions for buildings and campuses. When I left the public sector in 2011 for the private sector, I launched two businesses: a utility-scale renewable energy developer and a business that works with building owners and developers to implement net-zero energy solutions and provides the funding to do it.   

 

MC: Your focus is on bringing utility-scale renewable energy to the grid—what are the greatest challenge of this endeavor? What are the greatest hurdles going to be on the path towards net zero carbon?

LE: Two issues to note here. One is the continuing need for education so that owners and energy off-takers are comfortable saying yes.  The other issue is the need for utility companies to get on board and support the wholesale conversion to renewable energy. There has been so much resistance from utility companies, both public and private, to the idea of moving away from fossil fuels and embracing renewables. The fundamental utility monopoly model is flawed. Utility companies have the opportunity to provide leadership instead of looking more and more like dinosaurs that will disappear.

 

MC: Your experience also brings you to focus on the financing of renewable energy projects specifically. Are there any new or upcoming innovations in the world of clean energy financing that you think people should be on the lookout for how they may move the needle?

LE: The reality is that there is a vast amount of investment money worldwide looking for a home that offers a secure and strong rate of return.  Many lenders are learning that major investment in the renewable sector provides a very lucrative rate of return and relatively little risk. From my early work in the 2000s, power purchase agreements have become very well accepted across the financial industry.  They are straight forward and easy to understand.

The other vehicle that I have been a strong advocate for is Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) funding.  Since its invention in the late 2000s, it is still a bit of a mystery for most property owners and developers and politicians. PACE still has not been adopted by all states. It is a great economic development tool and supports the need to make every building everywhere net-zero energy. We are working with an innovative group in New Jersey to create a PACE-like funding vehicle that does not use the property tax system, and can be employed in those states and cities that have not yet adopted PACE, and can be used by entities that do not pay property tax.  

 

MC: There’s largely agreement that the power sector needs to transition to clean energy ASAP, but there’s a lot of disagreement in how to best achieve that goal—both in terms of which energy sources are best suited for the challenge and which mechanisms (market and policy) would be most successful in hastening the progress. From your perspective, how do we ensure that those groups who want the same end goal but have different visions on how to get there are able to come together and find the optimal solutions?  

LE: First, I do not advocate stopping the mining of coal and the pumping of oil. We just need to stop burning it immediately. Our society has a huge need for carbon in numerous products. We need to implement environmentally-friendly resource extraction practices to obtain the carbon that our society needs.  The war between my environmental allies and the fossil fuel industry needs to stop, and the effort needs to be channeled into a new future that allows our energy needs and our product needs to be met in a way that no longer damages the planet.  I advocate working with utility companies to help them understand the very real and profitable potential to rely 100% on renewables.  Utilities have the infrastructure, trained workers, and administrative and maintenance capability that are all essential to a reliable energy capability worldwide.  I see a future where my local utility company owns the solar panels on my roof and the battery system in my garage and charges me for the energy that the system produces.  The distributed capability for renewable energy generation will allow us to reduce grid congestion and give us the space necessary to rebuild an upgrade electrical infrastructure.  It is going to take leadership, an open-minded attitude, and innovation to make the conversion that we need to happen immediately.

MC: As one of our trusted experts at Energy Central, you’ve used the platform as a means to share your insights fairly actively. What do you think is the value in the Energy Central community and the ability to bring together utility professionals from different areas? What keeps you coming back to Energy Central?  

LE: I am an advocate for collaboration and team-based decision making. I do a training for a non-profit group that I support that shows definitively that the best decisions are made by diverse teams where all of the participants provide input from their unique knowledge and experiences. Energy Central facilitates the conversation that needs to take place in a non-threatening manner to advance our collective thinking about the huge challenges that we face as a society when we consider how we will get energy in the future.  I really like the diversity of opinions and interests represented in the conversations that occur through Energy Central. Ultimately, I am hopeful that Energy Central will help facilitate a consensus that we can move forward together to implement.

 

MC: What’s the final message that you’d like to convey to our readers and to the energy sector in general?

LE: I am an optimist when it comes to our ability to tackle and overcome climate change. I am working with a number of companies that have highly innovative energy technology coming into the marketplace that will be completely disruptive to the technologies that we work with at the moment. Energy prices will be much cheaper, and reliability will be better.  As I predicted years ago with renewables, the lower prices and the job opportunities are in the process of transforming our economy and the economy worldwide.  The diffusion of these innovations might take a bit of time, but the power of the great flywheel of the economic shifts are impossible for anyone to stop.  This power of our collective effort will allow us to implement the measures that will reverse climate change, and give us a bright and fulfilling sustainable future.

 

 

Thanks to Larry for taking to time to let the Energy Central community get to know him better and for consistently providing valuable insights to the site. Be sure to keep an eye out for him answering questions, submitting content, and being a knowledgeable presence on the platform.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

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