The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Jigar Shah, Generate Capital
Our latest Common Sense Colloquy is a Q&A on energy finance, climate change and the power of communications with Jigar Shah of Generate Capital.
Jigar is the president and co-founder of Generate Capital and one of three co-hosts of The Energy Gang podcast. Earlier, he was founder and CEO of SunEdison, where he popularized the idea of “no money down solar” and built the largest solar services company in the world in the process. Later, Jigar was the founding CEO of the Carbon War Room, the global non-profit Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Unite started to help entrepreneurs tackle climate change. Jigar is the author of the book “Creating Climate Wealth: Unlocking the Impact Economy” and a member of the Board of Directors of sPower and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
We’ve been fans of Jigar’s for years and we’re thrilled to now have the opportunity to ask him a few questions about a topic he knows well: communicating about climate change. Special thanks to our friend and collaboration partner Katherine Hamilton of 38 North Solutions for the introduction!
Our BIG thanks to Jigar for sharing his time and insight with us – and you.
Q: You've been a leader and innovator in renewable energy development and finance for decades. What trends have you observed in the marketplace in this time? How have things changed or stayed the same in terms of the ways we communicate about energy technologies?
A: I started in the industry in 1995. At that point the value of capital and the debate on innovation/deployment was still completely unknown. Today, there has been definitive proof that deployment leads to higher quality and better innovation, which leads to substantial cost reductions. The key to that deployment is government intervention and access to project finance. Today, this learning is being applied across not just solar/wind, but many other sectors including electric vehicles, anaerobic digesters, and precision farming. This has led to a radically new way to communicate about climate technologies – these represent the largest wealth creation opportunities of our lifetime.
Q: You're one of three co-hosts (along with our friend Katherine Hamilton as noted above) of the Energy Gang Podcast, so you have a unique perspective on energy communications right now. What do you wish energy advocates would do and/or say differently in talking about energy technologies and the reasons they are vital?
A: I think it is important to recognize that the interaction between the three of us is what breaks through and creates the trust, not any one voice alone. Today there are over 10 million people employed in clean energy around the world and they need good advice on how to interpret our fast changing industry. Instead of trying to communicate to the mass market, I am focused on communicating to these folks and expecting them to be ambassadors to their sphere of influence. Our industry is now so large that we are the main employer, property taxpayer, or economic development engine for many parts of the world. We need to expect our colleagues to be educated on what we can do and what the future holds for our industry.
Q: As an investor in numerous energy technologies, you've undoubtedly been the subject of many, many pitches from lots of different people. Without naming names, can you share one good and one bad example of how best to make the case for funding of an energy project or program?
A: In general, what we do is provide capital to companies that are deploying clean energy solutions that are misunderstood or under-represented. Our criteria is straightforward project finance: (1) A technology that works; (2) A set of contracts that we believe will set us up to be repaid; (3) A clear plan on how the asset will be maintained over the life of our investment. We receive hundreds of pitches a year and the ones we reject fail on one of those three criteria. That is not to say that the pitches are not worth funding, they simply have a risk profile that is too high for our capital. Technologies we have funded recently are areas like activated carbon, fuel cells, electric vehicles, and anaerobic digesters. There are many other areas that have seen solid progress but are better supported by capital that can take more risk like private equity or venture capital.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: The press and others actually need content. So they need you more than you need them. It is important to have a clear goal about why you are engaging in communications and what goals you want to reach with each outreach. If you are not clear about what you are trying to accomplish then your message will just be lost in the sheer volume of media today.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: In general, I never assume that the audience I am working with is as familiar with the issues I am communicating on as I am. People are busy and you have to be able to start with first principles and build from there. Otherwise you lose the audience and they think that you are basically treating them like they are uneducated.