A Visit to the Capitol Markets (Part 3)

4/2/09Follow @jmatheson

~5pm, April 1—Outside the Library of Congress (it’s raining lightly, and hordes of students are milling about).

A full day of running around Capitol Hill began yesterday with the New England Clean Energy Council masses arriving at the Capitol Building just as it was having a security alert—again, April Fool’s or not? Turned out to be real, but we circumnavigated our way to a cramped briefing room inside the Capitol, where NECEC president Nick D’Arbeloff provided an overview of the Council’s priorities and talking points, which are headlined by the need for a viable “Cap & Invest” Program for Carbon. This item turns out to be very timely; it is the main hot button topic on the Hill right now (in addition to the budget), as the Waxman/Markey Climate Change Bill was introduced yesterday.

The Council priorities and programs also include a push for a Renewable Energy Standard and a set of Energy Innovation Accelerator Programs from early R&D support to commercial deployment and everything in between, both on the funding and policy/permitting sides. There is also a call out for the Invest part of the Cap & Invest program to be focused on efficiency investments and initiatives. The Council Policy Committee has done a nice job of coalescing a broad set of ideas into a cogent set of initiatives and preparing Council members to brief various members of Congress that we all were to meet with this afternoon.

We then spent an hour on the receiving end of several rapid fire briefs from various New England staffers on their core issues, the budgeting process, the climate change bill, and myriad other topics. Each briefing ended abruptly as the particular staffer hurried off, obviously late for his or her next 10-minute meeting, which seems to be the clock cycle of DC, which I actually quite liked—quick formalities, get to business, highlight action items, and then move on to the next meeting. It’s clear that the budget process, especially appropriations (i.e. earmarks), is the top priority as the deadline is this Friday, so perhaps the mostly mid-20 staffers are more harried than normal, but each was insightful, articulate, and obviously engaged. Key takeaways mirrored my earlier comments, with the added emphasis that it is a long process (start soon for FY 11), and one only needs to walk the halls of the Capital Office Buildings for a few hours to realize that there are many and varied parties vying for the ears of our lawmakers, often with very different agendas.

Next up was Congressman Ed Markey, who was very generous in spending nearly an hour with us, briefing us on his Climate Change Bill and the battle that will ensue over the next several months to make it a reality. The President and Chairwoman Nancy Pelosi have been specific on calling for a Cap & Trade structure, but it seems that there are pockets of Carbon Tax folks who are vocal as well. The Waxman/Markey bill is Cap & Trade and will be flushed out very heavily over the next 4-6 weeks with some fundamental questions and structural issues yet to be worked out. The takeaway is that now is the time to engage and try to influence this seminal bill, which will both set the landscape for the U.S. but also the world for the rest of our lifetimes. The bill calls for a 25% renewable portfolio standard by 2025 and for reduction of greenhouse gas levels to below 1970 levels by by 2050, a key benchmark that puts us out of most danger zone predictions (unless you don’t buy into the greenhouse gas issue, which some here still don’t).

Congressman Markey also reflected on his role in deregulating the telecomm industry as a metaphor for evolving the clean energy economy and crisply described the three stages of the political process as Education → Activation → Implementation, adding that while these stages are predictable in their sequence, they are not so predictable in their timing. Once again I (and many others in attendance) was left impressed by his vision, enthusiasm, and sense of balance between the role of regulation and markets.

The gaggle then broke up into a score of different sub-groups, all bound for various Congressional offices armed with the Council talking points and their own specific topics of interest. I think the group visited nearly 20 different offices this afternoon—I first headed over to Senator Kennedy’s office with Matt Morrissey, Executive Director of New Bedford’s Economic Development Council, and Bill Davis, Founder & CEO of Ze-gen (of which I am chairman). We were there to further the dialogue around creating a clean energy accelerator park at the old Polaroid facility there now partially occupied by Konarka. The vision of this “Green Line” Energy Accelerator Park would be to leverage federal stimulus infrastructure funding to improve the Polaroid industrial facilities, to make the park a demonstration location for early commercial installations of new clean energy technologies. This campus and network of ready-to-go buildings and sites would provide flexible infrastructure for a cluster of clean energy companies to co-locate, collaborate, and build the next generation of clean energy ventures using common labs, utilities infrastructure, matching funds, and program support. It is a big idea that would greatly accelerate New England’s maturation towards global leadership in clean technology and create hundreds, perhaps thousands, of jobs.

All that said, it was very cool to be in Senator Kennedy’s office and to partake of the virtual museum of Kennedy Family history that is present there—I had read years ago that his office was the 2nd best home court advantage in DC (2nd only to the Oval Office). It was inspiring to see the photos of JFK and RFK, and especially the three of them together; to see Ted as a younger man (replete in Harvard football garb), and as a middle-aged presidential candidate, and to realize how many generations of global leaders and social eras the Kennedy’s have spanned…very special and impressive.

I then visited a few other Congressional offices talking about the Council, how to expand the footprint of NECEC to truly include all of New England (in a NH Congressional office), and working on a few portfolio company-specific topics. Again, I found the Members and their teams to be engaged, focused on what they could do, and very busy. As an extra boon, on the way to one meeting, I happened to walk by the office of a Congressman from Utah, whose name is none other than Jim Matheson. Of course I stopped in and introduced myself and promised a few appropriations to the constituents waiting in the lobby and then departed, all in less than 10 minutes.

With a half hour to spare before the reception, Carmichael Roberts of North Bridge Venture Partners, Jim Mahoney of Novomer, and I popped into the Library of Congress and visited the Jefferson Library, seeing a collection of his books that started the Library and a special collection celebrating the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, both impressive—I could just imagine Jefferson lounging round Monticello reading the various volumes on Natural History. And reading Lincoln’s journals from during the Civil War was sobering.

The Library closed, so I found my way outside and began scribing these thoughts against the backdrop of the Capitol Dome. Carmichael just strode by en route to the reception, along with many others and indicated that it’s raining outside, and inside there is cold beer and warm food…I think he is suggesting that I pack up and head off to the reception—a Capitol idea if I have ever heard one. More later…

Reception Post Script:

The gaggle reformed with a variety of guests in the new Capitol Visitor’s Center adjacent to the Capitol Building. I chatted a few minutes with Kei Koizumi, who is the Assistant White House Science & Technology Advisor and is focused on a variety of initiatives including how to rethink the way that Federal funded R&D is done—Kei had hosted a large group earlier in the afternoon for a lively debate on the topic, including a discussion of the Brookings Institution’s initiative to form regional R&D clusters (of which I wrote about previously in Mass High Tech), and which aligns nicely with some of the NECEC initiatives to collaborate with DOE, academia, and industry on cleantech R&D. It will be interesting to see how the debate forms up and it’s important for the Boston innovation community to engage, as this is a topic that we are somewhat uniquely suited to inform, influence, and benefit from.

More mingling, before Congressman Markey said a few things but mostly introduced Carol Browner, President Obama’s Special Assistant for Energy & Climate Change. In his introduction of us to Carol, he called our group modern “Revolutionaries,” and it’s true in the sense that while our forefathers fought for freedom, the group gathered is fighting for yet another type of independence. Carol was very thoughtful and crisp—impressive that nearly 16 years ago she had been secretary of the EPA and has long been battling for the very issues that are now so centrally on the table. She discussed DOE programs and spending, the focus on CAFE standards, PHEVs, the need for greater innovation, and the importance of the pending climate change regulation. As Carol wrapped up, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire popped into the room and greeted the group briefly, joking that she was there to balance out the MA contingent. All in all, an impressive tour de’ force for the New England cleantech leadership.

[Editor's note: This is the second installment of a travelogue written by venture capitalist Jim Matheson, who is in the nation's capitol as part of a DC Fly In organized by the New England Clean Energy Council. Here is his first post, and his second post is here.]

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