Growing Green: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Cleantech Innovation in San Diego


[Editors note: Architect Robert Noble wrote this article with Glenn Croston]

The San Diego area is the home of numerous cleantech businesses that are developing innovative green cars (Aptera, V-Vehicle Co.), developing alternative fuels (GreenHouse International, Synthetic Genomics Inc., Sapphire Energy), finding alternatives to petrochemicals (Genomatica, Verdezyne), and providing renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions (KEMA, Kyocera, Envision Solar).

Assisting our growing cluster is a network of non-profits, trade groups, government agencies, universities, and investors who share a common interest in cultivating a green economy. These groups collaborate on many projects, strengthening our vision for more green businesses, jobs, and investments in cleantech innovation. But while they share common goals, local green groups are also distinct in many ways and often compete for money, members, and media; their varying perspective, focus, message, membership, and goals can be confusing. If you’re an entrepreneur, how can you find support for the green innovations you hope to commercialize? Where do investors look for opportunities and advice? Where can founders find the resources they need to move their ventures forward?

We’ve compiled a listing of these groups to help San Diego entrepreneurs and others find the resources they need to grow green, and to help San Diego’s green economy grow.

—The California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE) is the cornerstone in developing San Diego’s green business cluster. As a non-profit, the CCSE works to advance the adoption of renewable energy, green building design, clean transportation options, and energy efficiency by providing workshops, information, and training.

Cleantech San Diego is a membership-based non-profit industry association that sponsors events for businesses, investors, and others working in the cleantech cluster. They summarize their mission on their website, saying, “Cleantech San Diego advocates for new sources of investment capital, workforce development, international trade, federal and state research funding, targeted regulation, and sustainable land use planning and development.”

San Diego Clean Enterprise Program, which is administered by Cleantech San Diego through a partnership with the City of San Diego and the mayor, which provides interest-free financing for energy efficiency improvements for small businesses. Cleantech San Diego also is working with the rest of the green community to support funding and grant applications, such as the effort to win $260 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) for local solar projects.

San Diego Gas & Electric committed to develop a distributed solar power generation system in the San Diego region in 2008. So it’s no surprise that our utility, through a $99.8 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, recently announced plans with the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) and Electric Transportation Engineering Corporation (eTec), to build out the largest transportation electrification project in the nation. Debra L. Reed, SDG&E’s CEO, says the project will make San Diego “a national center for clean technology that will help achieve our nation’s goals of energy independence and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.” ETec, a subsidiary of ECOtality, Inc. (OTCBB: ETLY), also is partnering with Nissan North America to introduce thousands of electric vehicles and significant charging infrastructure in five markets, including San Diego. As eTec President Don Karner said, “By studying lessons learned from electric vehicle operations and the infrastructure supporting these first 5,000 vehicles, the project will enable the streamlined deployment of the next 5 million electric vehicles.”

The San Diego Regional Sustainability Partnership is building a voluntary consortium of business, academic, government, and other groups to promote sustainability, reduce pollution, enact energy savings, and improve quality of life in the region. Other non-profits that are advancing specific cleantech topics include the San Diego Renewable Energy Society, which promotes the use of solar energy, and the San Diego Clean Fuels Coalition, which is helping to advance the use of cleaner fuels and vehicles.

—The San Diego Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has over 600 members. Executive director Gary Gibson, who works to advance the use of greener building techniques in San Diego, says, “Our goal is to make San Diego the greenest city in California.” In addition to maintaining the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard for green building certification, the USGBC helps people earn green credentials as LEED AP (accredited profession) and LEED Green Associate.

—The City of San Diego has a lot at stake in the growth of cleantech, helping both the local economy and the local environment with its outreach to the business community, and recycling offered through the city Department of Environmental Services. A key contact for cleantech businesses Jacques Chirazi, manager of the city’s cleantech initiative in the City Planning & Community Investment Department. “We help them to navigate the process,” Chirazi says. The city is also working to stimulate the demand for green products and services by developing a financing alternative for solar and renewable energy projects. “AB 811 allows cities to create a special assessment on properties that can pay for solar or other projects,” says Chirazi. The legislation is still in the process of being implemented, allowing more homes to go solar, and more jobs to be created.

—The Eco Investment Club is a membership-based group that offers a forum for entrepreneurs and investors seeking a ROI from the green economy. Members meet twice a month in San Diego and there is a growing online presence with members around the world. Yeves Perez, the CEO of Eco Investment Network International, the parent company, says the club’s “ClimateChangers” designation, recognizes “businesspeople who have demonstrated an eagerness to reduce carbon emissions in their industry of practice, and the knowledge and creativity to achieve that goal.”

—The San Diego Green Business Network helps cleantech entrepreneurs and small businesses succeed through networking and education. Another local green networking group, Green Drinks, is an international network of informal gatherings that is intended to bring together people from the local green business community to talk, have a drink, exchange ideas, and do some professional networking. People who are interested in the monthly meeting can email them at to join.

—The UC San Diego Sustainability Solutions Institute (SSI), led by Lisa Shaffer, seeks to encourage sustainability as part of campus projects on water use, energy efficiency in buildings, and facilitating technology transfer from campus to the private sector. In their efforts related to water use, the SSI is looking at the impact of climate change, individual behavior, economics, and marketing to sell conservation rather than water consumption. They have workshops looking for solutions to water resource issues in Africa and the Himalayas, and are working on campus to explore the feasibility of becoming “water neutral” using conservation, water production, or whatever other technologies can help accomplish this goal.

The Future

“There is a fantastic opportunity to coordinate efforts,” says Heather Shepard, a partner in Wiser Ventures, a business services firm that works with entrepreneurs and socially responsible small and medium-sized businesses. “A lot of education still needs to happen, and better coordination can help to make it happen faster. The challenge is to come together to make green mainstream.”

The great number of groups involved and their passionate commitment does not always readily translate into solid action. With so many groups working and often moving in different directions, effective collaboration will continue to be one of the keys to realizing the potential of this field. The developing cluster of green groups and cleantech companies has come a long way, but there are still massive opportunities as the challenges ahead with our environment are as pressing as ever.

Robert Noble is the founder, chairman, and CEO of San Diego-based Envision Solar International, Inc. and Chairs the California Center for Sustainable Energy. He is an architect, environmental designer, industrial designer and environmental technology entrepreneur. Follow @

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