photo of Beth Hartman

October 19, 2016
Posted by Beth Hartman, Electric Power Research Institute

With a closing keynote from Bill Nye, showcase presentations from a variety of innovative entrepreneurs, and plenty of great receptions, SXSW Eco was another huge success this year! Along with these highlights, there were several fascinating sessions including the Greentech Media Energy Gang Live, Funny or Die discussing climate change, Beyond VC focusing on alternative financing models for clean energy startups, National Resources for Startups and a Meet Your Accelerator panel with members of the Incubatenergy Network, and a conversation about the future grid with EPRI, SCE, and SolarCity. Check out more on these panels and others below, or scroll through details in real time from our Twitter coverage!

The keynote from Bill Nye was certainly one of the main highlights of the event, as he covered everything from climate change deniers to space exploration with both comedic flare and a focus on the facts. Starting off, he acknowledged that when it comes to climate change, “people may be tempted to run around in circles screaming – but this has been proven to be ineffective.” Far more effective, and important, he explained, is a strong focus on clean energy innovation and deployment, and he mentioned the Stanford Solutions Project as a model outlining what needs to be done.

He also argued that in addition to renewable energy, people all over the world must have access to clean water and free information in order to build a successful global society. Finally, he concluded with a focus on the importance of space exploration as a way to keep the human spirit of discovery and optimism strong for the future. Complimenting this inspiring closing keynote was an opening keynote from Google’s Kate Brandt, focused on how technology can reduce climate impacts.

The startup showcase presentations featured a variety of entrepreneurs from different areas of focus, including energy, food and agriculture. On the energy showcase, the winners were tied between SkyCool Systems and XStream Trucking, two companies that also presented at the Cleantech University Prize finals this year. In food and agriculture, GroBioplastics received the Audience Choice Award for overall most innovative company presenting at SXSW Eco this year, for a solution using the waste product from paper production, lignin, to make biodegradable plastics for farming.

Another interesting solution presented in the food and agriculture category was called Bitwater Farms, which grows crickets for feeding chickens, a solution predicted to be increasingly effective in a warming world impacted by climate change. Finally, Farm From a Box was described as the “Swiss Army Knife” of farms, offering a shipping container complete with solar power, drip irrigation, wifi, and other supplies needs to start a farm feeding 150 people, and Land Life Company sells trees in a cocoon system that only need 10 gallons of water to grow. Other startup showcase categories at the event included water, social impact, recycling, and internet of things.

The Greentech Media Energy Gang Live discussion focused on the transition from coal to renewables, autonomous electric vehicles, and other topics as questions from the SXSW Eco audience came in live. When it comes to transitioning jobs from coal to renewable energy, a healthy debate broke out between Jigar Shah and Katherine Hamilton about the need for moving people out of areas in the country that have been suffering from the loss of coal jobs. Hamilton argued in favor of retraining people where they already live, while Shah pointed out that this type of retraining program has been proven ineffective in the past, and stated that it would be more logical for people to simply move to another area of the country with plentiful jobs in clean energy. Concluding the discussion with an interesting but little known fact, Shah pointed out that solar panels are now cheaper to install than new windows.

In a standing-room-only session called “Climate Change is Funny,” a speaker from Funny or Die discussed how the organization is aiming to use humor to more effectively communicate about climate change and other challenging topics such as the election. Using short, amusing videos such as the Climate Change Deniers’ Anthem or Old People Don’t Care About Climate Change, the group aims to spread the word through viral social media networks, often featuring celebrities to help further strengthen and amplify the message. For the upcoming election, the group is also producing a series of videos targeting key battleground states as deadlines approach for voter registration.

Finally, a series of sessions focused on the electric grid and opportunities for clean energy entrepreneurship in the industry, including Beyond VC, Meet Your Accelerator, National Resources for Startups, and the Future Grid. In Beyond VC, Ben Gaddy from the Clean Energy Trust moderated a discussion featuring Jennifer Garson from the DOE and two investors about alternative models for financing clean energy companies, including government grants, challenges and competitions, and incubator support. For example, student business plan competitions alone have helped over 1200 teams in the last 6 years, according to Garson.

The Meet Your Accelerator panel introduced several groups in the Incubatenergy Network including the Austin Technology Incubator, Clean Energy Trust, the Cleantech Open, Greentown Labs, the Innosphere, the LA Cleantech Incubator, and others. National Resources for startups focused on programs such as Incubatenergy and those available through government labs like the Small Business Vouchers Program and LabCorps. Finally, the Future Grid panel featured a discussion between representatives from EPRI, SCE and SolarCity about how increased deployment of existing technologies will impact energy delivery systems over the coming decade. Overall, the event was a well-organized whirlwind of clean energy innovation and optimism surrounding solutions for climate change. We look forward to seeing everyone again next year and at other upcoming events such as the ARPA-E Innovation Summit!