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Columbia Energy Exchange

Hawaii Model: Locals Can Drive Climate Solutions


Dawn Lippert

Founder and CEO, Elemental Excelerator


Dawn Lippert [00:00:03] Studies have shown that the key determinant in how well a community recovers from a natural disaster or climate disaster is not the physical infrastructure on the ground, but the strength of social ties of community connectivity.


Bill Loveless [00:00:17] Three months ago, deadly wildfires swept across the western shore of Maui. It was the deadliest environmental disaster in Hawaii’s history. Now the community is rebuilding what it has lost. And around the state, residents are working to prepare for more extreme weather events. Elemental Accelerator, a Honolulu based nonprofit investor in climate technology, relies on local knowledge to create a wide range of climate solutions. The organization pairs technology startups with local nonprofits, which have a deep understanding of community needs. This model aims to address the unique challenges that Hawai’i faces in the ever worsening climate crisis. And Elemental says these solutions can scale well beyond the islands. So in the aftermath of the Maui fires, what is the community doing to rebuild? What other projects are underway across Hawai’i? And how can local solutions be used at a global level? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Today on the show, Dawn Lippert. Dawn is the founder and CEO of Elemental Accelerator. In 2009, she created a climate focused investment platform called Energy Accelerator, which merged with the Emerson Collective eight years later to form Elemental Accelerator. Dawn also chaired the advisory board for the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative from 2015 to 2020. The initiative is a joint effort between the state and the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels and build renewable energy resources. In addition to leading, Elemental, Dawn is a founding partner at Earthshot Ventures and the founder and board member of Woman in Renewable Energy. I talked with Dawn about community oriented technology investments and some of the projects her team is working on in Hawaii and elsewhere. We discussed the importance of building up resilience to environmental disasters and how lessons learned in Maui could apply to other island communities like Puerto Rico. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Dawn Lippert, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange.


Dawn Lippert [00:02:43] Thank you so much for having me.


Bill Loveless [00:02:45] Well, we’ll look forward to have a discussion. We want to hear how Maui is going follow in this disaster and learn more about yourself and your company. But let’s start with you, if you would. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what made you what you are today.


Dawn Lippert [00:03:01] Sure. When I first came into this space about 14, 15 years ago and I was working on a project, I was living in Washington, D.C., working on a project to help turn Hawaii from dirty energy to clean energy. And I was commuting to Hawaii about once a month. And we were thinking a lot about how to transform a whole economy from one powered by oil and coal to one that would be powered by local renewable energy like solar wind. And in that work, it became very clear that a lot of the new technologies that were coming out of universities and VC funds and others were not necessarily the ones we needed on the ground in Hawaii to transition Hawaii. And so I became very interested in this idea of what would it mean to be a technology investor who was really informed by what was happening on the ground. And so that led me to moving to Hawaii.


Bill Loveless [00:03:57] And 29 yeah, I was interested in that because I saw where you had worked. I think this was after you left Yale, where you earned degrees in environmental studies. And you were working for Booz Allen, right? Mm hmm. And and you were working as a consultant to the Department of Energy. And at some point, you decided to leave sort of the concrete building in the the pavement of Washington, D.C. and go to Hawaii. What you kind of explained what prompted that, but what drew you to Hawaii at that point?


Dawn Lippert [00:04:26] Well, what really drew me to Hawaii was my mentor. I have an incredible mentor in Hawaii who was leading the energy strategy in Hawaii for 20 years. His name’s More East. And I was working very closely with him for a couple of years on this transition from Hawaii to clean energy, along with hundreds of other stakeholders and incredible leaders in the Department of Energy. And his view was that it was really important to be on the ground somewhere and to really understand what it takes to have renewable energy projects, electric vehicles, regenerative agriculture, to really do some of those projects on the ground in and with community in order to understand how to scale them nationally, internationally. So he invited me to come to Hawaii and to learn that alongside him and to innovate in a way about how we invest in technology that could be really different and ideally scaled much more broadly around the world. And that’s what led to Elemental Accelerator.


Bill Loveless [00:05:27] And there was another fellow I’ve read that was an important in your development. That’s Andy Karsner, who was the ear at the Department of Energy during the Bush administration. And you and he continue to work together, as I understand it, because of the involvement of the Emerson Collective in the work that you do.


Dawn Lippert [00:05:49] Yes. I think one of the amazing things about being in climate energy for the last 15 years has been how many of these threads come together in different ways and how many of these people that are so mission driven and want to see economy wide decarbonization and are looking at that from many different angles. They’re sometimes in government, sometimes in the private sector, sometimes thinking about it from a startup or technology perspective. And many of us have worked at it for a long time now, and our paths have crossed in some really profound and beautiful ways and really have been blessed by working with incredible people and and really visionary leaders the last 15 years.


Bill Loveless [00:06:27] First off, what is Elemental Accelerator?


Dawn Lippert [00:06:31] Sure. So element of the nonprofit investor. We’re focused on scaling climate technologies with deep community impact. So I started Elemental in 2009. Now we’re about 55 people and we’ve grown to over 150 portfolio companies. And we have projects in all 50 states, and the companies are active in more than 100 countries. So it did start with this seed in Hawaii of how to invest in companies that are invited in that are desired by communities which can help everything go faster and smoother. And has now really grown to a national portfolio and international portfolio across Elemental. And then I’m also the founding partner of Earth Shot Ventures, which is a venture fund we spun out of Elemental about two years ago to take some of what we’ve learned and at Elemental in terms of de-risking technologies and to invest in companies that can provide truly venture returns in the space.


Bill Loveless [00:07:26] About an elemental is a majority female led team. It’s portfolio of companies reflect, as you point out, in your company’s materials. It reflects the companies reflect gender, racial and ethnic diversity. Why that makeup for your organization and. Of the companies you support. It’s not an accident.


Dawn Lippert [00:07:48] We hire the best talent we can find around the country and around the world. And we have an incredible team of people who have a diverse background in government, in startups, in community organizing, different kinds of public service. And we bring all of those different perspectives to bear. We’re looking at which technologies to invest in. I mean, our job at Elemental, because we’re a nonprofit investor, is to be on the edge of innovation. So we have to be innovating at least as fast as the startups that we work with in this space is changing really rapidly. And when I first started Elemental, we were the first accelerator in climate and I went to other voices and angel investors and told them what we were up to. We were seeded with government funding. We had some very strong backing from Department of Energy and Department Navy to start and said, There’s so many things that we’re learning across tech companies that need to be applied to climate energy, and we want to take this accelerator model and test it out in climate energy. And people told me this was the worst idea they ever heard, and I would not be smart for pursuing this idea. But now we’ve seen this space changed so dramatically in the last 14 years. So when I first started and the real challenge that we had at Elemental was we were trying to attract talent and investment in attention into renewable energy, into climate. Most of the founders were coming out of universities, were highly technical, but didn’t have a very strong business background with which to scale companies. And that’s really shifted. I mean, now we see extraordinary talent coming out of tech. Their entire schools dedicated to climate and energy, like, you know, the one at Columbia and others and extraordinary entrepreneurs coming into the space. And we’re also seeing a lot of technologies being built in in academia and national labs, but also in garages and really across the country and startups. So innovation is ripe. But what’s happening is that we these innovations have not yet scaled. So you can think of electric vehicles and solar. Circa 2010, we have innovations that work, but most people didn’t have solar on their homes. Most people were not driving around electric vehicles. They were not yet available at scale. So this is this stage is now where many of the decarbonization technologies we need. This is where we are today. So this is where heat pumps are and recycled clothing, all these other decarbonization solutions. And that’s where we are today.


Bill Loveless [00:10:18] And in the process, though, you’re seeing among these great minds in various places who are working on these technologies, you’re seeing the sort of diversity that’s reflected in your company’s ranks.


Dawn Lippert [00:10:30] We are. And you know something that’s a profound, important fact, that elemental. We want to invest in companies that reflect the communities that they’re working to serve. So our companies are more than half led by traditionally excluded founders, are traditionally underrepresented in venture. And we have worked really hard to build relationships with community members and with early stage investors and others who are seeing a vast array of talent and technology. And we think there’s incredible value in supporting entrepreneurs that have traditionally had less access to capital.


Bill Loveless [00:11:09] You know, I want to talk more about your work and the work of The Elemental, but let’s catch up with what’s happening in Malawi, where the wildfires simply devastated the the island, especially the historic town of Lahaina. It was the biggest environmental disaster in Hawaii’s history, and nearly 100 people died as a result. How is Maui doing today?


Dawn Lippert [00:11:37] Well, first of all, thank you so much for asking. I think, you know, I actually can’t speak for the Maui community and and friends and colleagues who have been directly impacted by the fires. But what I will say is that we realize that this is going to be a long and very complex healing and recovery process. And what we’ve learned is how important not only technology and the specific technical help is at a moment like this, but how important community ties are in a moment like this. And through natural disasters over over the last decade, studies have shown that the key determinant in how well a community recovers from a natural disaster or climate disaster is not the physical infrastructure on the ground, but the strength of social ties of community connectivity. So one of our companies and portfolio companies at Elemental is based in Maui and is very active in recovery efforts. And what we’ve learned from them is that it is very important to wait for the invitation to help. And once that invitation comes, then there’s a responsibility to work very closely with the community and stay there for the long haul after the news cycle has traditionally moved on. And what has been fascinating is just a couple of weeks ago, we got about 90 of our CEOs together for our CEO and leadership Summit. We do this every year to build community. Very similar to the kinds of social ties we’re trying to see within communities. We’re building communities among entrepreneurs and the CEOs. We’re asking this our company in Maui, what they what they’ve learned from this. And we were we talked specifically with CEOs about how to get an invitation into community. And this applies not only in the Hina, not only in Maui, not only in places they’ve been affected by climate disaster, but really everywhere where we have to implement electric busses, where we need new solar panels, where we’re adding manufacturing plants to do different things, where we’re doing carbon dioxide removal. All of these projects require an invitation from community. It’s really important not to jump ahead of that invitation. And so we work really tactically and specifically with companies on how to. Create an authentic invitation from communities where they’re looking to serve. So this is completely tied into the work that we’re doing at Elemental. We’re investing in technologies that have deep community impact, and we’re working very closely with founders and technologists because our thesis is that technology has half the solution. We need technology. We need decarbonization technologies. We have to transition so much of our economy and the community has the other half.


Bill Loveless [00:14:25] So often I guess we learned the hard way with the the best approaches and the lessons that that we can apply that you were applying. But all the more so now based on what you’ve seen there recently, You know, we we look at these disasters and wonder what happened. Climate change may well have been a factor in the intensity of the fires, but there are other circumstances that experts say likely contributed even more to the disaster, such as changes in agriculture and water use and downed power lines. Put these factors into perspective for us so we have a better idea of what happened there and the extent to which these climate issues might have been a factor.


Dawn Lippert [00:15:06] Yeah, I think there’s is still a lot of learning to come from what happened on Maui and exactly how these factors contributed. And, you know, clearly climate change has has played an important role in the fires. And I think what we’ve learned is that these are not going to be the last climate disasters. They’re hitting so many parts of our country and so many majority of counties this year had some kind of climate impact. So whether it’s extreme heat or floods, hurricanes or other things or wildfires, and so it’s something around community resilience that we have to get better at. And one of the things that we’ve learned and on Maui is how. Important it is to be planning ahead as well. So, you know, we’ve seen clean energy projects continue to do well in Hawaii as we continue to move forward. Interestingly, on the same day the fires happened in the Hina, another island in Hawaii, Kauai, was powered by essentially 100% renewable energy. And so we’re seeing all of this happen the same time that even while we’re on the front lines of climate disaster, we’re also in Hawaii at the forefront of innovation that can help us be much more resilient and rely on homegrown energy for for our energy needs. And we’re working on the same kinds of things around food and transportation. So, you know, all of these things are happening at once. And I think as a community, we have to continue to act and move forward even as we breathe and focus on recovery.


Bill Loveless [00:16:46] Why, of course, has very aggressive climate goals. 100% renewable energy for its electricity generation by, what, 2045? Has this disaster had any impact on the way state officials or others take those goals into account?


Dawn Lippert [00:17:08] Well, certainly it has had a huge amount of focus from across the state and in local levels to focus on immediately helping families in the Hina. And I’m thinking about the road ahead to recovery. I will say that I think the focus 100% renewable energy and the focus on clean transportation has come into play even more clearly in the last couple of months, largely because much of the work that we’re doing in Ramadi about energy also has to do with creating resilience hubs and creating resilience not only at the state level, but also specifically at the local level. So having solar and batteries at places where people can come when there’s disruptions in service or natural disasters, these are all things that are part of what we were doing and 100% renewable energy anyway in Hawaii. But the importance has really come into focus.


Bill Loveless [00:18:03] Since its launch in 2009. I’ve read where an elemental accelerator has funded more than 150 tech companies in the United States and other countries, including some in Hawaii. In an interview with the magazine Honolulu earlier this year, you said you are committed to taking lessons learned locally and scaling them internationally. What makes Hawaii’s innovative endeavors models worth sharing beyond the islands?


Dawn Lippert [00:18:31] This goes back to sort of starting Elemental. And what we’ve noticed is, is the challenge. So when we started, the challenge was attracting people into the space and attracting talent to the space. And now there is such significant capital available for the early stages, for invention and for people who have new ideas. And we’re seeing an enormous creation of technology at that stage. At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of capital ready to scale proven technologies. So by one estimate, about $33 billion of private capital is now available in dry powder. Essentially, capital is ready to be invested in proven technologies that can be fully financed. And the government has come in with more than $400 million for technologies there as well. What we see at Elemental and where we’re really leaning in is this messy metal in between. And it’s a huge gap. It’s that there aren’t investors that right now want to invest to help companies deploy in communities to get those early permits, to show the metrics of of what it would look like to have your sustainable aviation fuel plant. First one set up to do a new business model for electric vans in underrepresented communities that have really bad transportation access. That missing middle is projects between 5 and $100 million. And if you add them all up, we recently did an analysis with BCG, with a consulting firm. It’s about 150 to $250 billion gap. And why is this important? I mean, the International Energy Agency says that the technologies we need to reach our net zero goals, only about half of them are now available at scale. The other half, we have to scale up. So again, think like solar panels and electric vehicles circa 2005, 2010. They have to be finance. They have to scale up. So that’s the problem that Elemental is laser focused on addressing. And it’s not just a capital problem, it’s capital and it’s community. So it’s having both a capital that’s aligned to fill this gap and working very closely with entrepreneurs and communities to deploy these early solutions. So that’s the problem that we’ve been focused on solving and elemental focused on solving it in Hawaii, working to build community invitation for these new technologies, and that we’re working now really around the country and around the world to solve.


Bill Loveless [00:21:04] What makes for a successful community oriented technology investment? I mean, what’s needed to make it happen?


Dawn Lippert [00:21:12] So we have a few strategies that elemental that we’ve leaned into around making community investment happen. So first of all, more than half of total companies, about 56%, serve low and moderate income communities. And most of our companies that are all of the ones serving low and moderate income communities and about two thirds of our companies in general work with community partners in their deployments. So this is something that we think is absolutely critical at Elemental. And what it means is that just as a company needs to hire a plumber or an electrician or other partners to deploy their technology, they also need the expertise and wisdom of community partners in the places where they’re deploying. And that’s just as valuable as having an electrician on their team. And they need to pay community partners for that expertise. So what this means, for example, is we’re working with a company that has transportation planning software. And what their goal is to help cities. And in this case, we’re working in the city of Oakland, the city of San Francisco, in the city of Los Angeles. Their goal is to help cities do more efficient planning and be able to cost jurisdictions. Kind of like same city for transportation planning. So you can see this all online instead of on paper. And they were really interested in what would it take to assess the impact on different populations and on, you know, social impact and on equity from having a bike lane over here or a highway over there. At the same time, there’s a nonprofit there was in Oakland that was a mobility justice nonprofit focused on how do we get better transportation access for people. So this company and this nonprofit have kind of similar goals, which is that they’re very interested in how to improve transportation access for underserved communities. But they have very different languages, and in most cases, they would never meet. So the Elemental Project, we brought the nonprofit in with a whole advisory board of other community based organizations into software and technology design sprints with the software company. And so they’ve never been in a design sprint before. Is a whole new thing. The technology company had never had community sort of input into their software process, a new process. But together they were able to come up with an equity score and a scoring system in the software to say this is what it means to have a more equitable project. Here’s the metrics we should be looking for. If you really hard for the startup to do that on their own and have real credibility in the community by saying this is what we think. And then once that product. Works and we have it for rolling. The software company can scale it to hundreds of companies that they serve around the world. So this is the way I know how we think about it. Elemental is how do we inform and co-design by using real community partnerships and including community voice. And then because we’re working with technology companies and startups who are designed to scale, who need to scale to grow. And that’s where we get impact. Then we can grow both revenue and impact at the same time. So it’s climate impact and it’s social impact at the same time. So that’s kind of example of what we what the kind of projects that we funded. Elemental what we mean when we say we invest in projects with deep community impact.


Bill Loveless [00:24:27] Yeah, I was reading about some of the projects and they were impressive. There was one that really struck me too, about cement, right? And I think this was Hawaii. Tell us about that one, because I found that one particularly interesting.


Dawn Lippert [00:24:38] Of course, so concrete, it turns out, is the most abundant concrete, manmade material and that which has made factual cement the most abundant manmade material in the world. So it’s a big deal from a carbon perspective. And trying to reduce the carbon intensity of concrete is the focus of many different companies and a really important area for innovation. So a number of years ago, invest in a company called Carbon Cure, which takes carbon dioxide and injects it into concrete during the mixing process. And through this, you can use less cement. So really reduces the carbon intensity of the concrete. And you also have concrete that’s just as strong and it sequesters that carbon forever. So we worked with carbon care. They had a number of plants already across the US. When we start working with them and they’re really looking to expand to Asia. And why is a terrific jumping off point for Asia in many ways. And so we brought them into the Hawaii market. And then the project with Elemental that we funded is to was to build a piece of a highway actually on the west side of Hawaii with this concrete. And so we did it in partnership with community groups, with the Department of Transportation, with the city, and brought everyone out to see the highway. The private transportation loved it. The mayor got to come out the hard hat, the city council and see the project in reality. Always very helpful. And then through being able to see and experience that and see how much Department transportation folks liked it, we were able to pass a resolution at the city and county of Honolulu, which is called the Honolulu Resolution, to prefer low carbon concrete in all public procurements. And this is a big deal because government is one of the biggest purchasers of concrete. And then we worked with this Council of Mayors to adopt that resolution across hundreds of cities around the country. And then now it’s moving into states. It’s this kind of low carbon procurement has made its way into the federal government through the Inflation Reduction Act. And so we’re able to see the line between seeing projects on the ground that have community buying and community support that then has local government support, then can get scaled beyond that. So it’s the perfect example of how that elemental thesis works is to get projects on the ground, take some of that initial risk. But then once you get that flywheel spinning, you have stakeholders excited about it. You’re starting to retire some of the initial risk so that investors can can come in and get really excited about it. Then we can really start scaling technology. And that’s what carbon care is now done. They’re now around the world.


Bill Loveless [00:27:10] So that’s what you found and you found over the past ten years or whatever had been so sorely missing was sort of that local involvement that whereas you you could it may be, you know, you do your due diligence for technology and investment, but maybe there wasn’t sufficient due diligence done when it came to the community’s interest, the community investment in a particular technology.


Dawn Lippert [00:27:35] I think that’s exactly right. I mean, we see it this messy middle of this missing middle is equal parts capital and community. The capital is really important. The capital that’s willing to go ahead with some of these projects, particularly in frontline communities, particularly in new technologies, and be willing to be catalytic to say we’re going to go first and then we want to bring others along with us at Elemental because we’re a nonprofit investor, we take those returns that we get from our companies and they go right back into future projects. So when companies are successful, we just recycle that capital right back into future projects at Elemental. But because we’re a nonprofit investor, we’re able to stay right on the edge of innovation and say we’re able to create new financial tools, which we’ve done. We’re able to really lean in to what does the industry need from a capital perspective? And we can create that. We have lots of flexibility. We have some amazing partners and philanthropic donors who love to be on the edge of innovation in this space and have been right along with us in innovating. And then on the community side, like you said, and that’s the other. Critical piece. It’s not just about having capital. It’s about having communities that create invitation for founders and new technologies to come in and that we help them do that. And that’s the other key piece for Elemental.


Bill Loveless [00:28:59] What roles do government entities play in making this happen? Happen? Dawn. Are you finding support in Washington today with the enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act and other pieces of legislation? Or is it just as important to get the support and the buy in from state and local governments?


Dawn Lippert [00:29:18] Government is a key stakeholder and enabler of much of this technology. And a couple of years ago, Elemental we launched a policy lab to specifically strengthen the ties between entrepreneurs and government. Sometimes government can kind of feel like a little bit of a black box to entrepreneurs, and many times policymakers don’t really know what’s happening on the entrepreneurial innovation side. And so be able to have strong communication between the two is incredibly powerful and also be able to take stories of what’s working on the ground to policymakers so they know what’s working and they have confidence in moving forward. So government’s been really critical. What’s interesting is that when I started in this work, you know, we were investing in community partnership. There was sometimes a little bit of a reluctance or people thought we were just sort of being nice or it’s a nice to have you sort of checking a box of your social responsibility to work with community partners. And I will say that has all changed with the Inflation Reduction Act, because with the Justice 40 Initiative, which requires 40% of the investments in climate to be in underrepresented communities, and other emphasis of the Inflation Reduction Act on serving frontline communities of thinking very hard about workforce and thinking specifically about community benefits plans and how you’re benefiting communities. All of a sudden, the largest funder in our space is putting this right at the forefront. And so investors and founders are realizing this is not a nice to have or a check box, but this is right in the middle of what they need to be good at. And so there’s an incredible focus, I would say, now from entrepreneurs and investors, which is very new. And in my experience of having done this work in in getting this right, And we actually saw that this year when we recruited for our 12th cohort, Cohort 12, which we announced in October for Elemental, and we saw a significant increase in applications of companies that now know that doing a really thorough and authentic work around community engagement is critical to their success.


Bill Loveless [00:31:30] Are you seeing this happening on a broader scale? Clearly Elemental is doing it. But but is this sort of a trend you’re seeing beyond your own organization?


Dawn Lippert [00:31:39] Yes, it’s absolutely trend beyond our own organization. I think that in order to capture some of the tax credits and funding coming in place, Reduction Act companies need really authentic and credible community benefit plans. And so they’re working much more closely with communities, much more closely with mayors, and to develop those plans and to ensure that their projects are serving the needs of communities. And last year, Elemental launched a partnership with the African American Mayors Association, and we were specifically interested in how to help mayors find and prioritize projects in their communities that serve their community needs. So whether it’s Led streetlights or electric vehicle charging or decarbonizing public housing, these are key priorities for mayors. And so we’ve been working very closely with mayors to help access federal funding and private funding and ideally public private partnerships, which is really where kind of Elemental leans in to implement projects in their communities. And we’ve seen companies be extremely receptive and interested to working with these mayors and working in community. And I think a lot of that has to do with the Inflation Reduction Act, but it also has to do with the fact that as companies are trying to deploy their climate technologies, they’re experiencing firsthand that the most effective way to do that is to be in lockstep with the community, to be co-designing, with community, to bring community based partners in early and often, ideally, and to develop that competency on their team. So I think it’s a mix of two things. I think it’s both what where government’s leading and where government is leaning in. And it’s also just a result of on the ground experience and seeing the real business value in working authentically with community.


Bill Loveless [00:33:28] You mentioned and in an interview following the disaster in Maui, that it reminds us, as you said, that we need to look to the future and pivot from resilience planning to resilience deployment. What did what did you mean by that?


Dawn Lippert [00:33:46] Yeah, I think it’s a recognition that. It is now time in the climate crisis to move forward with technologies in the ground as quickly as we can to this point. On on the role of communities across Elemental, we’ve seen that 93% of the companies that we work with who work with community partners say that the community partners have helped contribute to the success of the project. So we’re developing that competency with technologies, and we now have such a range of technologies that are ready to be deployed in communities. So it’s in our view, it’s really time to move heavily into that deployment. These are just a couple of examples from our our latest cohort. So we invested in a company called Spark Charge, which is essentially delivers electric vehicle charging. And the same way you could deliver food, but they deliver electric vehicle charging in a van so you can live in multifamily housing, you can live in a city and get charge delivered right to your door while you’re eating dinner or sleep or whatever it is. So this is the kind of thing that really expands access to electric vehicles for companies. We’re very interested in other parts of the electric vehicle ecosystem. A couple of years ago, we made an investment, a company called Charger Help, which ensures that electric vehicle chargers have 97% uptime. So this is a big challenge right now. If folks drive an electric vehicle, they may have gone to a public electric vehicle charger that wasn’t working. And that can be a really frustrating experience. It’s really important. They’re working all the time. And that’s what Charger help does across the country. So improving the user experience. And we’re also really excited about a company that we’ve invested in called Capture six, and they create both freshwater and carbon capture for communities. So this is something where there’s benefit for community. Removing carbon from the atmosphere, also creating freshwater. And it’s important because, you know, there’s nearly 16,000 desalination plants around the world and they create enough waste to cover Florida with a foot of brine each year. So if we can take that brine and get clean water from it while also capturing carbon, it solves a couple of problems at once. So we’re really excited about companies like that. And I think now is really the time to focus on deploying these technologies that solve multiple problems and that really moving in as forward and decarbonization.


Bill Loveless [00:36:20] You mentioned Kawai before and reminded me of a story, and it was about what you had mentioned, how that island had which had taken a beating right then a hurricane a few years ago. And after that the residents took their local electric utility private. And since then, as I understand it, has seen reliance on renewable energy grow well beyond the rest of the state. And the rates have dropped, too. Is there a lesson there for Maui and perhaps for other islands, coastal regions or whatever that may be worried about the impact on their grid from these kinds of storms or fires?


Dawn Lippert [00:36:57] You know, what’s really interesting about Kwai is they found a model that works for them. And I think this is one thing that I’ve learned working in communities that no community is the same as another one, and there’s no one voice when it comes to community either. There’s always different perspectives. And I think for islands, we all share a lot in common. Actually, one of the things that I’ve loved in moving to Hawaii and and be involved in Hawaii has been the sisterhood of islands around the Pacific, but also in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and the Atlantic. And we learn a lot from each other. So my sense is it’s really important to find effective ways to lift out community voice in islands. But in communities, you know, all over the world and in all of our country. And I really hope that places like Hawaii, like Maui, can be beacons and can share lessons of the ways that we do this with other places around the world.


Bill Loveless [00:38:02] Yeah. You worked in Hook and Puerto Rico, didn’t you, early in your career?


Dawn Lippert [00:38:06] I did. I worked in Puerto Rico. I worked at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and I did my senior thesis there. And my job was to try to figure out why sea turtle populations were declining in the case in Puerto Rico. And I actually had a real front row seat to climate disaster there because during the course of the summer I was in Puerto Rico, I was doing in a sort of wide experiment to try and figure out, was it human predators that mongooses or other animals that were affecting the turtle populations, what was happening there? And as I was doing this experiment, right in the middle of the summer, a huge storm came through and wiped out the nests that I was working on. And so. The lesson to me was that no matter what we’re doing on the biology side and how good we get at. Understanding the factors leading to a specific decline in turtle population. Climate change can overwhelm the gains that we’re making there because it is a force that is increasing. It is so much greater. And if we care about biodiversity, if we care about the well-being of our human communities on the coasts and now inland and places where we’re having extreme heat everywhere and, you know, we have to look at climate change as a key driver.


Bill Loveless [00:39:30] So you could see perhaps some make some comparisons between the the devastation that’s occurred recently in Maui and the impact of these awful hurricanes in Puerto Rico’s grid was pretty much wiped out. And it still has, it seems, barely recovered. There are lessons that each of these island communities can learn from each other.


Dawn Lippert [00:39:53] Absolutely. I think it really goes back to what what drives us at Elemental and what we’ve learned, that we’re now applying Earthshot Ventures as well, which is that as important as the technology is, if we don’t have community resilience and we don’t have community acceptance and the strength of social ties as well, if we if we only have technology, it’s half the solution and communities have to find the other half of the solution. And I think that’s been true across islands, but it’s been true across the deployments that we’ve done in all 50 states and around the world.


Bill Loveless [00:40:25] Don, women look to you as a model for leadership in energy. In 2010, you founded the organization Woman in Renewable Energy. What what do you tell a woman interested in this field as a career?


Dawn Lippert [00:40:37] Mm hmm. Well, I think everyone should be in climate as a career. LinkedIn’s recent report showed that we need two times as many people working in climate as we have today to meet our decarbonization goals. I’ve heard numbers as high as four times, but I think the take home point is that we need many more people dedicated to climate and also that every single job can be a climate job. So whether you’re a teacher, whether you’re working in a facility somewhere and whether you’re a designer or in advertising, you can bring a climate lens to your job. And there’s so many creative ways to do that. We also have a huge focus on this element. I mean, workforce has been an enormous challenge for the startups that we’re working with and a huge opportunity to bring diverse voices into the space. So a number of years ago, we adopted a program that two of the founders in our Elemental portfolio started an intern program. It’s called Empowering Diverse Climate Talent. And we accept employers from all over who want to host an intern from an underrepresented background or are an intern that wants to work in climate. And this last year, for instance, we placed interns in more than 70 interns. We placed interns at 87 different organizations from Fortune 500 companies to community based organizations to start ups. And next year, it’ll grow even more. So, you know, I think what’s important is that data show that interns are two times more likely. If you had an internship, you’re two times more likely to get a job offer coming when you graduate from college or when you graduate from your program. And so interns are internships are really key element of social and economic mobility. And I’m really sad about the program because we’ve seen that about half of the interns, 44% of them are pursuing full careers now in climate or climate related field. So there’s an enormous amount of interest from youth. We have hundreds and hundreds of intern applicants every year for, you know, less than 100 spots. And I’m really encouraged by the amount of interest and enthusiasm from youth. They really understand that protecting our climate is core to their future and protecting the communities they care about. And I’m really excited about some of the the work that they’re doing. And so I would encourage all youth, women and otherwise to find an internship in climate or apply for the Eden program and for women who want to give back or others who want to give back and pave the way for new folks in industry to ensure they’re creating spaces for for youth, for interns and for others who are pursuing a career path in climate and their organizations.


Bill Loveless [00:43:32] Well, you’ve certainly paved the way and provide a great model. You’ve also said, you know, global climate action relies on local action. And today you’ve helped to explain exactly what that means and why it’s important. Don Lippert, thank you for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.


Dawn Lippert [00:43:49] Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.


Bill Loveless [00:43:55] That’s it for this week’s episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. Thank you again, Dawn Lippert. And thank you for listening. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bordoff and me, Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hartig from Latitude Studios. Additional support from Daniel, Prop, Lily Lee, Natalie Volk and Kyu Lee. Roy Campanella is the sound engineer. For more information about the show or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy. Dot Colombia, dot edu or follow us on social media at Columbia. You energy and you can rate the show on Apple or Spotify. You can also let us know what you think by leaving a review. If you really like this episode, share it with a friend or a colleague. It helps us reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll be back next week with another conversation.

Three months ago, deadly wildfires swept across the western shore of Maui. It was the deadliest environmental disaster in Hawaii’s history. Now the community is rebuilding, and around the state residents are preparing for more extreme weather events. 

Elemental Excelerator, a Honolulu-based non-profit investor in climate technology, relies on local knowledge to create a wide range of climate solutions. The organization pairs technology startups with local nonprofits, which have a deep understanding of community needs.

This model aims to address the unique challenges that Hawaii faces in the ever-worsening climate crisis. Elemental says these solutions can scale well beyond the islands. 

So, in the aftermath of the Maui fires, what is the community doing to rebuild? What other projects are underway across Hawaii? And how can local solutions be used at a global level?

This week host Bill Loveless talks with Dawn Lippert about community-oriented technology investments.

Dawn is the founder and CEO of Elemental Excelerator. In 2009, she created a climate focused investment platform called Energy Excelerator, which merged with the Emerson Collective eight years later to form Elemental Excelerator. Dawn also chaired the advisory board for the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative from 2015 to 2020. In addition to leading Elemental, Dawn is a founding partner at Earthshot Ventures, and the founder and board member of Women in Renewable Energy.

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