As the president and CEO of Solar3D, a company working to maximize the conversion of sunlight into electricity through the development of new solar technology, James Nelson spends his days thinking about energy. While he hasn't always been in this particular industry, Nelson knows something about getting the most bang for your buck. He began his executive career at the global management consulting firm Bain & Company and has spent decades in the private equity industry as both an operating CEO and/or chairman of the board for various portfolio companies -- Euro-Tek Store Fixture, Panelview Inc., American Retail Interiors, Critical Power Exchange -- and capital partner. Sometimes, Nelson's leadership resulted in returns for investors of more than 20 times their original investment.
Here, Nelson discusses how solar energy are helping to make oil and the Middle East increasingly irrelevant; why economics -- not global warming or public policy or fashion -- will ultimately drive the widespread, enthusiastic adoption of green energy; and how the Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative has pushed the solar industry to reduce the cost of solar power to new lows.
What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"
I aspire to make solar-generated power available to all mankind through innovation leading to lower-cost electricity. The key to accomplishing that is increasing the efficiency of the solar cell. Like in any business, you can only accomplish so much by reducing cost. Ultimately, you have to be able to produce more electricity. Applying our 3-D light management technology to development of a breakthrough solar cell is intended to do just that: produce more power, for less cost, in a smaller space.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?
The DOE SunShot Initiative has given the solar industry the impetus to reduce the cost of solar power to new lows. The response of the industry has been amazing as the manufacturers of every component of solar systems have focused on reducing their costs to levels that will lead solar to economic parity with lower-cost alternatives.
What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?
It is economics, not fashion, global warming, or public policy, which will drive the widespread, enthusiastic adoption of green energy. Everyone wants ubiquitous green energy. But nobody is going to get unless it is affordable. That will only happen through innovation.
What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?
As solar energy approaches grid parity, there will be a massive shift toward solar as a key energy source. Currently, less than one percent of the world's electricity is supplied by solar technology. When solar reaches grid parity, that number is estimated to rise to between 15 to 20 percent -- if all other things remain the same. However, all other things will not stay the same. The Smart Grid and new electrical storage technology will lead to much more usable solar-generated electricity. Plus, as efficiency increases in solar, so many solar-powered products will emerge that we can hardly imagine the shift in power requirements. The implications are mind blowing, both in power and political terms.
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What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?
A deeply divided (and dividing) America. Harness what has made us great, and ask what we can do to make us greater. Inexpensive solar energy will help the process -- making oil and the Middle East increasingly irrelevant.
What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?
I once worked for the Gap. It was a great company that was made great by the creative people inside the company. As a very analytical person, I realized that I was out of place there. It took me three years to get back on track.
Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?
Steven Chu, champion of the SunShot Initiative.
Jeff Henley, chairman of Oracle and chairman of the Institute for Energy Efficiency, one of the best cooperative organizations of its kind. Its spring summit is the best conference I go to each year.
And Goal Zero, a little-known company that is producing some of the most innovative products in the world -- all powered by solar electricity.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
I have been a management consultant and a private equity partner. I also considered becoming a professional fly fishing guide.
What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?
Google -- no question. I am constantly on dozens of sites a day looking at new technology, competitive and customer information, information on conferences, leads to new opportunities, travel arrangements, etc. Google is great at translating what I seek into concrete information at my fingertips.
What song's been stuck in your head lately?
"You're the Inspiration," by Chicago. My wife and I are about to celebrate 37 years of marriage. This is our song. It makes me glad to be alive.