Brother, Can You Spare a Stimulus Dime? Washington Innovation Summit Notebook

4/10/09Follow @xconomy

Every entrepreneur in the Northwest seems to be wondering about how to scrape up a few bucks from President Obama’s economic stimulus, yet hardly anybody has any coherent answers about how to actually get any of it. That was the main impression I got yesterday after attending the Washington Innovation Summit.

This event, organized by the Washington Technology Center for the past five years, gathered about 350 people to the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, WA. It drew a mix of entrepreneurs, government officials, and service providers to put their heads together about business opportunities in alternative energy and environmental sustainability.

Almost two months have passed since President Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as “the stimulus.” Like a lot of people I talked with at the conference, I found it more than a little disturbing that I didn’t hear anybody lay out a sharp, focused game plan for how Washington state is going to capture a fair share of this historic opportunity. But through popping into various talks by politicians and businesspeople, and catching hallway buzz, I found plenty of nuggets of useful information. Here are the highlights:

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell told the crowd during a morning keynote that they should start getting ready for stimulus windfall to arrive in the state sometime soon, through a regional demonstration project funded by the Department of Energy, and funneled through the Bonneville Power Administration.

Cantwell didn’t attach any dollar figure to this project, but she said it will call for proposals to demonstrate the viability for “smart grid” technologies in which consumers can better track their electricity consumption, and utilities can better manage the peaks and valleys of demand. She made clear that she played a role in finessing the legislative language to make this happen.

It’s always risky to read between the lines of public statements from politicians, but I detected an edge in Cantwell’s remarks that suggested she was a little exasperated with how the state government and private sector here at home might not pull their act together in time to maximize this opportunity. (She’s not the only one baffled by Washington state’s inability to grab this opportunity by the horns—see Greg’s February interview with Cascadia Capital’s Michael Butler.)

“I want some smart business people in the clean energy business,” Cantwell said in her talk. In case anybody needed any more caffeine, she later added, “Energy is the mother of all markets. It’s a $6 trillion opportunity.” The Internet, she said, is a $1 trillion opportunity.

—Speaking of gigantic opportunities flowing in from D.C., I heard about a jaw-dropper … Next Page »

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