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Why the Energy Sector Needs a Sharing Economy

Image credit: Gridmates/Fastcoexist

These three facts should give pause to anyone who wants to see a resource-efficient clean energy future become a reality:

  1. Corporations looking to control their energy destiny and improve sustainability often aren’t structured to drive action across the enterprise. Energy-related decision making is decentralized, and local purchasers typically lack the time and expertise needed to make sense of an onslaught of new technologies. This leads to long purchasing cycles — anathema to emerging companies, which need to scale quickly to meet investor expectations.
  2. Emerging companies are building relatively large sales and business development teams, chasing the same talent and burning through precious capital, while they’re all targeting the same commercial and industrial customers with siloed solutions.
  3. Established energy service and building technology conglomerates acknowledge that customers want integrated, comprehensive solutions, but these companies are structured to market individual portfolio company products and often hesitate to cross organizational boundaries.

The way out of this conundrum: The energy sector needs its own sharing economy.

Envisioning a collaborative business model

Wasted effort and capital significantly slow progress toward our shared goals of sustainable resource use and business resilience. One solution is a collaborative business model — a shared services organization that is customer-focused and solutions-oriented, and that receives active support from commercial customers seeking integrated solutions and willing to provide needed data. This model would enable companies to go to market more efficiently, and could incorporate a vetting component that makes technology capabilities and comparisons transparent.

This sort of collaboration is already on the rise in the food world. For example, the NFI Crab Council brings importers, processors, and sellers together to support projects that help crabbing communities better manage their fisheries. The result is an ongoing high-quality supply for the big customers, and enhanced capabilities and sustainability for the fisheries. The energy sector can similarly benefit all players — and the world — by working together as an ecosystem.

Many of the products and solutions that emerging energy companies offer are complementary. We all spend a considerable amount of time and money on marketing and sales, going after the same customers at the same companies. A highly skilled and trusted shared-services organization that marketed members’ products in a fair way would get technologies and services to market more efficiently. And it would have the scale to attract top talent and to be credible to large corporations.

This level of collaboration would address the barriers that prevent large corporations from moving forward on energy initiatives: complexity, and a lack of familiarity and trust. A shared services organization could present integrated solutions that meet financial, operational, and energy sustainability goals — for example, a suite of lighting, HVAC optimization, and demand management technologies that shrink the electric load; distributed renewable energy resources that reduce each facility’s dependence on the electric grid along with its carbon footprint; and a control dashboard that orchestrates the whole thing while providing business intelligence.

Commercial customers could enable this result by actively seeking integrated solutions, encouraging collaboration among cleantech companies and service providers, and materially supporting the collaborative.

Sociology, not physics, stands in our way

Of course, getting this kind of sharing economy approach off the ground will be a challenge, and the effort could stall — not because it doesn’t make sense, or because it wouldn’t work, or because we don’t have the technology pieces in hand, but because we don’t have the right mindset. It’s the sociology, not the physics, that stands in our way.

The model could take off if we start with an initial commitment to not waste time creating elaborate contractual structures focused on “what if it doesn’t work?” We can find ways to maintain each participant’s intellectual property. We’ll know if it works by the end of a year. If we don’t over-lawyer it and over-negotiate it, we can create a collaborative structure that benefits emerging energy companies, energy conglomerates, corporate customers, and the world at large.

A collaborative effort can scale faster, deploy technology faster, and drive innovation into the DNA of an organization faster. Together we can architect a system that cuts energy use, provides measurement and visualization tools that increase energy consumption awareness, improves the operational performance of mechanical equipment on an ongoing basis, and reduces waste of all kinds. We just have to want to.


Bert Valdman is president and CEO of Optimum Energy, a Seattle-based software and engineering firm that optimizes HVAC systems. Prior to Optimum, he was senior vice president of strategy at Edison International and chief operating officer of Puget… [Read more about Bert Valdman]


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