THE BLOG
11/04/2014 07:06 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

5 Reasons Chicago Is a Clean Energy Powerhouse

Recently U.S. Department of Energy Assistant Secretary David Danielson visited Chicago and spoke at the new Chicago Innovation Exchange, a new tech incubator on Chicago's South Side. During Dr. Danielson's remarks, he declared Chicagoland an "emerging regional powerhouse" for clean energy. He has a credible perspective on this. As head of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy, he is responsible for $1.9 billion in federal energy investments. So when Dr. Danielson says something special is going on in Chicagoland, it is based on his deep knowledge of what's happening across the country.

The organization I lead, Clean Energy Trust, has been the proud recipient of three Department of Energy grants over the years - and we're proud of our role leading the development of the clean energy ecosystem in Chicagoland and across the Midwest. Since our founding in 2010, we have provided $2.2 million of funding for clean energy startups, which have gone on to raise $46 million and create nearly 300 jobs. The State of Illinois recently granted CET $2.3 million to support our efforts identifying and funding energy startups. Do we see Chicagoland as an emerging clean energy powerhouse? You bet. Here's how we're doing it:

1. Top Notch Research Institutions

Research institutions throughout Chicagoland help drive innovation from the lab to the market. Argonne National Lab in Chicago's western suburbs, with a budget of nearly $800 million, is the undisputed leader in advanced battery innovation and has deep expertise in transportation, fuels, water and computing science. Institutions like the University of Illinois, Illinois Institute of Technology, University of Chicago and Northwestern University have world-class research programs, top ranked business schools and leading entrepreneurship programs. Professor Mike Marasco's NUVention course at Northwestern has produced a consistent string of excellent student energy companies over the years including SiNode Systems, AMPY and MeterGenius.

2. Industrial Strength and Diversity

The industrial strength and diversity of the City of Big Shoulders provides a broad base of energy end users, professional mentors, industrial expertise and other resources for young clean energy companies. Chicagoland is home to more than 30 Fortune 500 corporations and numerous other large and middle market firms. Many of these companies are active in the energy field or have sustainability goals to make their businesses cleaner and more resource efficient. These companies include United Airlines, Wells Fargo, Invenergy, General Electric, Schneider Electric, Boeing and Honeywell, just to name a few.

3. Thriving Entrepreneurial Support Network

Chicagoland has a thriving support network for the brave entrepreneurs who have taken the plunge and are forming new clean energy businesses. In addition to Clean Energy Trust's funding and mentorship programs for clean energy startups, Energy Foundry was launched two years ago as a $22 million fund and accelerator dedicated to funding Illinois smart grid companies. Chicagoland entrepreneurs benefit from having co-working spaces and accelerator services close to home. According to World Business Chicago, there are more than 90 co-working spaces across the region including those at universities as well as bustling independent spaces like 1871, TechNexxus, Catalyst and Coalition: Energy.

4. Philanthropic Capital

While the Midwest trails the coasts in venture capital dollars, we have a secret weapon: philanthropic capital. Chicago is home to dozens of family offices and foundations that are funding cleantech companies. Chicagoans have tremendous civic pride and feel a responsibility to work together to improve the city and give back once they have achieved success. In fact, Clean Energy Trust got its start when civic and business leaders came together united around a vision of clean energy jobs, a healthier and more sustainable environment and a higher quality of life. Today, as a 501c3 organization, Clean Energy Trust channels philanthropic capital into the marketplace through investments in clean energy companies. But our investment returns don't pay back investors; instead, they get paid forward to the next generation of clean energy startups. This spirit of shared commitment is an undervalued asset that can be found in Chicago and in cities throughout the Midwest from Detroit to Des Moines and from Minneapolis to Indianapolis.

5. High Growth Businesses Creating New Jobs

Illinois' clean energy industry employs more than 97,000 workers - more than the accounting and real estate industries combined - and employment growth is about nine percent annually. Clean energy startups drive job growth as nearly all net new job creation in America over the past 30 years has come from companies less than five years old. Our economy is moving quickly towards less carbon-intensive energy sources as renewables become cost competitive with traditional sources and natural gas takes market share from coal. States like Illinois can further speed this transition and support the creation of good paying jobs and training programs by prioritizing renewable energy and energy efficiency as they craft state energy plans.

If you want to see a cleantech powerhouse up close, come to Chicago. My city. You will be blown away by the passion, new ideas and commitment to building a better world.