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Renewables R Us. Where everyone’s an entrepreneur!

 

I have been doing my PhD for almost 2 years now and I’m beginning to wonder why. I mean, I left my job for this. No, despite the bore and annoyance of poring over journal articles, the ceaseless review of literature-that-no one-else-will-ever-read-again has not killed me yet, and though the sound of my own recorded voice grinds on my last nerve, I’ll endure the tedium of transcribing interviews. No, no these are not the problems – not really. You see, my research is about a thing that I have gallantly (and somewhat carelessly) dubbed “Renewable Energy Entrepreneurship” and my anxiety stems from the fact that, 43 interviews and one pending case study later, I am not entirely sure there is anyone in Renewable Energy Land who’s NOT an entrepreneur. In fact, I am convinced that, once renewable energy’s got a hold of you, you’re an entrepreneur… kinda. Here is why.

As a renewable energy professional, unless, perhaps, you are involved on the manufacturing side of things, chances are, at some point in your career you have been (or will be) an independent consultant, or part of an independently hired team, managing the research or development of a renewable energy project. Renewable energy academics seem to be archetypal examples. Every renewable energy professor I have met is a part-time consultant, either having his/her own business or tendering independently for government and NGO projects. Renewable energy consultants and analysts in businesses offer their services as freelancers. I continue to be intrigued by renewable energy and the things that make professionals in the field susceptible to innovation- and independence-seeking entrepreneurial behaviour.

Perhaps the obvious answer is the relative newness of the technology – there are not, as yet, many people with the knowledge or expertise, so the few who have it, own it. Not to mention, in a number of countries today, anyone with a solar panel on the roof, from your tech-savvy Uncle Luka to your grandmother, can sell energy back to a grid. So, if done right, renewable energy means business… for everyone.

Additionally, if there is one thing working in Germany has taught me is that renewable energy systems are inherently international and collaborative. I am not just referring to outsourced parts and components. It seems that any team of renewable energy professionals is made up of people either from widely different countries and contexts, or with experience in different contexts.  The necessary specificity of renewable energy technologies and installations opens up the emergence of many energy and technology niches and, by extension, many different individuals with many different and highly specific experiences. Coupled with the collaborative nature of renewable energy system setup, the development of renewable energy systems often requires calling upon these diverse experiences and expertise. From an entrepreneurship perspective, this means that everyone has a seat at the table.

In many developing countries in particular, when faced with restrictive legal and market conditions, one often has to demand a seat. Renewable energy start-ups in these contexts are able to leverage their unique knowledge and experience to gain a competitive edge. In a few weeks I will have had the opportunity to discuss with solar lighting entrepreneurs in Vanuatu the ways they have used this knowledge and the benefits of their ventures to the nation’s entire energy system. No doubt, the role of entrepreneurial behaviour in increasing developing countries’ share of renewables is important, but at least for my research, its all-inclusiveness was surprising.

I sometimes find myself playing jack-of-all-trades, and enjoying it. Teaching, researching and collaborating on energy projects, as well as reviewing and vetting start-up and project plans, in Renewable Energy Land, and in the general field of sustainability, I am not sure it is possible to be one thing and one thing only. It is the beauty of what we do. It is the thing that makes renewable energy systems work. And it is the thing in which more investment is needed.

 

Cle-Anne Gabriel Bortsie-Aryee cleanne.gabriel@otago.ac.nz

School of Business, University of Otago, New Zealand