On July 9, I had the pleasure of moderating a wide-ranging discussion of current trends in cleantech and how the media handles them at our shared office space in San Francisco. Big shout out to Charlie and the Eco-Systm team for letting us use their space. An informed and engaged audience of cleantech professionals (some in town for the Intersolar trade show and conference that week) got a full dose of inside info from three leading reporters in the sector: Emma Foehringer Merchant of Greentech Media, David Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle and Mark Chediak of Bloomberg.
The panelists were generous with their insights, speaking about views and experiences that were often shared by all three and a few that were less common. After level-setting the discussion at the outset by answering the question, “what is cleantech?” (consensus: any technology that, directly or indirectly, facilitates reduction in CO2 or other GHG emissions), we dug into the hot topics of the day.
To no one’s surprise, we began on the topic of Tesla and the ubiquitous Elon Musk. The EV manufacturer that everyone loves to love or hate may have tumbled through more than a few news cycles since then, but the panelists’ takes on the company remain relevant. When asked whether Tesla’s dominance of the news is a good or bad thing for other cleantech companies vying for media attention, the answer was essentially both. Good that one cleantech company with so much promise to transform the transportation sector is capturing mainstream attention; bad that a single company so dominates media coverage that it sometimes pushes out other newsworthy stories from lesser-known companies. The panelists each confessed to feeling a bit of Tesla fatigue now and then, but agreed that the Tesla story is worth following. At the same time, they reminded the audience that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this massive, publicly-traded company with a larger-than-life CEO (who wasn’t actually the company’s first, and won’t be its last, according to Musk himself–h/t to David for pointing that out) has yet to turn a profit. So while the endless stream of stories about Model 3 production rates and other Tesla minutiae may be tiresome for reporters and their readers, the moment that the company reaches the summit of Mount Profitability or dies trying will be a seminal one for cleantech.
On a related note, the panelists discussed the topic of hype in the cleantech world, and how they separate real news stories from buzzword-laden empty shells of news stories. The panelists shared that vetting a cleantech story is all about proof points: third-party endorsements, partnerships and, as Mark articulated, a record or investments, other fund raises, and/or revenue generation. The takeaway for cleantech companies here was pretty clear: don’t try to push your stories out to the media until you’ve secured some key elements–namely a clear value proposition, differentiators, and evidence to back up your claims.
With the resignation of EPA administrator Scott Pruitt fresh in our minds, the panel also touched on the state of cleantech and cleantech reporting in the decidedly unfriendly federal policy environment constructed by the Trump administration. As the other panelists nodded in agreement, Emma reframed this policy shift as an opportunity to recognize and learn from policy leadership at the state level, noting that the state of Minnesota is currently and somewhat unexpectedly the country’s hottest market for community solar development.
Thanks to our panelists, the evening was full of useful insights and interesting facts that brought much-needed clarity to the world of cleantech media. Stay tuned for video clips from the panel discussion and keep an eye out for future Antenna Group events that bring cleantech commentators and tastemakers to you!
In the meantime, please follow these three great reporters closely and read their excellent work.