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Q&A: CalCharge’s Danny Kennedy, changing the world through clean energy

10/3/2015 5:49:20 PM

Danny Kennedy sees a common thread to his career, from engaging in environmental protests in Papua New Guinea to co-founding a solar energy company to leading nonprofit green energy organizations: "Changing the world for the better.

By Louis Hansen, San Jose Mercury News

Danny Kennedy sees a common thread to his career, from engaging in environmental protests in Papua New Guinea to co-founding a solar energy company to leading nonprofit green energy organizations: "Changing the world for the better."

Kennedy was born in Los Angeles, and returned to his parents' native Australia as a child. He studied geography at Macquarie University in Sydney. He left law school, worked for Greenpeace and protested oil company development in New Guinea. Kennedy contracted malaria while in a remote village and nearly died. He was rescued and treated by an oil company doctor, then return to his protest in the village. "I get the irony," he said. "But there were bigger issues at work."

In 2007, he co-founded solar energy company Sungevity with former investment banker Andrew Birch and social entrepreneur Alec Guettel. The 44-year-old entrepreneur and activist has again shifted gears, moving from an executive position at Sungevity to a role of special adviser.

In September, Kennedy became managing director at CalCEF, a clean energy fund. The public-private partnership promotes clean energy through investments and financial innovations that grow clean energy markets. He also became president of CalCharge, an energy storage consortium.

His comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did you get into environmental activism?

A: Picture a young Australian growing up in the late 20th century and very conscious of environmental issues at the time -- from forestry to ozone depletion. As many young people do, I became involved in the social movement. Over the years, I worked both as an amateur or volunteer if you will, and then professionally with organizations in the nonprofit space that did human rights and environmental work for 20 years. The inspiration of others about changing the world for the better, I think, is the real spark. It's also what led me to entrepreneuring, because it's the same to me. Whether you're fighting for a cause that we all believe is good and just, or building a solution, it's about creating a better world for everyone.

Q: What was the impetus behind Sungevity and making that leap from activist to entrepreneur? Did you have any doubts?

A: It's actually very consistent for me with my career and working for a solution for this problem we face on fossil fuels. The majority of the world knew we had a problem. Now, we need solutions. Social movements have to shift from pointing out what they're against and what we're going to change, to showing how to make the change and what to do. That's the work of business. That's the entrepreneurial moment. Jumping to do that work was entirely consistent and logical within that frame. On a personal level, it wasn't something I was going to take lightly and didn't have the wherewithal until I found the right partners. All great businesses are one of partnerships. That complementary set made it possible to take advantage of that need to demonstrate that you can make solar affordable and accessible.

We want to show the solution. We want to touch people with it. We want to save them money and create jobs and demonstrate by doing that, there are options to business as usual.

Q: Why leave Sungevity?

A: It was the opportunity to lead CalCEF. The California Clean Energy Fund has been a really important player in the clean energy space, particularly around an unknown aspect to it or not well known aspect, which is financial innovation. Finance innovation is something CalCEF does very well. I want to do more of that in the coming decades.

Q: Can you talk about what you mean by Clean Energy 2.0?

A: We've just begun a very heavy lift, which is the transition of energy from the central-station, dirty-fuel-based energy of the 20th century. The transformation that we're talking about is far greater than what we've seen today. We all think that solar industry and the Tesla story and all these things are huge, but they are akin to where the Internet was in 1999, I think. The real value creation story, the real transformation that is inherent in going to solar electricity, going to storage, going to electrification of vehicles -- that's going to take years and decades and be sweeping in terms of the destruction it brings to some incumbent businesses and the opportunity it brings to us all, to improve our lives.

We all remember Pets.com, but that was well before Google had even found its name, let alone its new name. That was before Facebook had even been imagined. So, likewise, 2.0 is this yet-to-come phase. I can't tell you all of it bit-for-bit, but it's going to be massive, when you think about electricity and how its going to change in the next couple of decades because of the economics.

Q: What's ahead for the storage industry?

A: It's really exciting because within that Clean Energy 2.0., batteries and electric mobility and electrification of transport and the energy water nexus are the next big things. In many ways, I feel like I'm starting all over again in this entrepreneurial journey. It feels a lot like solar energy did in 2006, when Gov. Schwarzenegger was running around the state and talking about the California Solar Initiative. It's a really fun time to see that next huge opportunity to emerge. We're talking about tens of billions of dollars of business to be created in a few short years.

5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT DANNY KENNEDY

  1. He met his future wife when they were both environmental activists. 
  2. He was inspired and influenced by Jeremy Leggett, a geologist and clean-energy entrepreneur. Kennedy worked at Greenpeace while Leggett served as a senior scientist for the organization.
  3. He's a huge rugby fan. Watching World Cup games played in England has been robbing him of sleep in recent weeks.
  4. He attended law school but left to join the environmental movement.
  5. In 2010, he led Sungevity's campaign to bring solar to the White House, which helped persuade the Obama administration to install solar panels on the first family's home.

DANNY KENNEDY

Age: 44
Position: Managing director, CalCEF and president of CalCharge. Adviser to Sungevity Inc.
Previous jobs: Co-founder of Sungevity. Author of "Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy -- and the Planet -- From Dirty Energy." Environmental activist with Greenpeace. 
Family: Wife, Miya Yoshitani, and two daughters. Yoshitani is executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.
Home: East Bay

Source: http://www.mercurynews.com/2015/10/03/qa-calcharges-danny-kennedy-changing-the-world-through-clean-energy/