Eric Heitz

Marin residents are faithful early adopters, says Eric Heitz, especially when it comes to electric cars, solar panels and other clean-energy technologies. So it’s only fitting that he helped found the Energy Foundation, a partnership of philanthropic investors promoting cutting-edge clean energy, right here at home.

Now based in San Francisco with a satellite office in North Carolina, the 23-year-old foundation uses targeted grants to support clean-energy technologies and policies from coast to coast, as well as throughout China. Working with donors including the William and Flora Hewlett, David and Lucile Packard, McKnight, Pisces and Schmidt Family foundations, it provides roughly 300 grants per year in the United States and 200 in China. In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, it issued more than $76 million to 346 grantees worldwide.

As president of the Energy Foundation, Heitz has overseen its operations in both China and the U.S. since 1991. The Mill Valley resident holds a bachelor’s degree in energy and environmental planning and a master’s in civil engineering, both from Stanford.

For starters, what are the largest clean-energy technologies and markets the foundation is targeting today?We see promise in building big markets for both renewable energy and energy efficiency. There’s really a lot of promise in these new technologies, and the markets are growing. For example, wind is growing massively. Last year, more wind power was installed than any other single energy source in the United States. Solar power has been growing as well. The price of solar has gone down fivefold in the last few years, and it’s going to continue to drop. We’re working with many different types of grantees across all walks of society to try to advance markets for these technologies.

How do you identify and select your grantees? We try to find a pragmatic mix of technical experts, health experts, people who work across partisan lines and leading thinkers to advance these policies. And we try to find who is going to be the most effective at providing great information that decision-makers can use. This includes a broad array of groups like the American Lung Association, which works on health issues, or the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group, or the Union of Concerned Scientists, which brings science to the field. Or groups who work from a labor perspective like the BlueGreen Alliance, or even conservative groups like the Christian Coalition. We work with a broad array of groups who want to have a clean and reliable energy future.

And you do this in both the U.S. and China. Do you try to make grants that could apply to both countries, or are they separate spheres?We work in both the U.S. and China because together they represent 40 percent of the total global warming pollution. So you can’t solve global warming unless you advance innovative technologies and big new markets in both of those places. Sometimes, ideas work in both places — like electric vehicles. China has a big air-quality problem, so it needs very clean vehicles. The U.S. is developing a clean-vehicle market. So there are some issues you can work on in both places. Sometimes you work on a completely different agenda. Ultimately what we try to do is find international thought leadership in particular areas, then bring the best ideas to the decision-makers in whatever country they’re in. We try to find the policies that build big markets and then bring the best messengers who can talk about those policies to the U.S. or China.

How have you seen attitudes among decision-makers toward these energy technologies change, if at all? I think they’re changing a lot. There’s a lot more recognition of the promise of new energy technologies and how they can offer both economic gains and environmental gains. For example, a short time ago in California, even a decade ago, it was not really recognized how much renewable energy potential there was in the state. Now, the top leaders and the Legislature and the governor see great potential for California to be a western leader on renewable energy. And the thing they understand is that it’s policy that drives those markets. You need policy to allow homeowners in Marin to hook up their solar, you need policies to make sure the utilities want to buy renewable energy and connect it to the grid, you need policies to make sure that renewables are sited in the right place. So what we’re seeing is recognition on the part of states and many state leaders of how important it is to work on policy if they want to grow these big new markets and get the economic development benefits.

What are some specific policies you’ve supported? We’ve been working to get increasingly stronger fuel-economy standards in place, and that in turn spurs the kind of innovative products Marin residents are eager to adopt. The next-generation electric vehicles could eventually transform the way we drive. The pace of progress is getting a boost by eight governors, including Jerry Brown, who pledged to get 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the roads in their collective states by 2025. Our grantees continue to be involved as this work goes forward. Looking further down the road, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington and the premier of British Columbia are now working collaboratively to promote clean energy and avert climate change as part of the Pacific Coast Collaborative that was founded in 2008. They recently committed to instituting a carbon tax, adopting low-carbon fuel standards, harmonizing their 2050 greenhouse gas targets and moving forward on building efficiency and grid integration. Our grantees helped develop the plan and are continuing to advise the states.

Obviously there’s still some resistance to these sorts of policies at various levels, often related to up-front costs. How do you deal with that? We believe that if you really look at the cost of truly secure and reliable and affordable energy and put all the costs in, then these technologies we’re advancing are the lowest-cost resource. Sometimes they’re the lowest-cost resource even without putting the environmental costs and health costs on them. But if you include the environmental, health and security costs — for example, keeping Middle East supply lines open — these are the cheapest technologies. And our grantees are constantly and in many ways making that case. I think one of the compelling cases that we’ve seen register, especially with local and state officials, is the economic benefits of these technologies.

Such as? Well, in Tehachapi, down near Palm Springs, you’ve now got a wind industry that’s employing people, it’s got people in community colleges studying to be wind technicians; it’s a new, thriving industry in that area that’s creating a new economic base. Or, in the high ridges of Minnesota, there’s now a thriving wind industry that’s supplying power in Minnesota and down to the population centers in Chicago. When you look at it closely, there are big economic opportunities for every region of the country. I think a great story is renewable energy in the Midwest. In the last 10 years, the Midwest has gone from having very little renewable energy to being a global leader. That’s put billions of dollars’ investment in the ground, it’s created thousands of jobs, it’s built a sense of renewal in many parts of the Midwest, and because a lot of it has been wind development, it’s making farmers happy as they continue to do their traditional farming work but get extra revenues from wind power. So it’s a win for the regional economy and it’s a win for the landowners in many areas.

That makes it harder to make an economic argument against it. Why would you want to import power from outside when you could generate it yourself? Why would you want a coal train from Wyoming when you could generate power in the Midwest yourself, and the revenues go to local folks?

What about technologies making an impact in the Bay Area, or that Marin residents should be keeping an eye out for? Marinites are the early adopters. They should be putting solar on their roofs, plugging it into their electric cars, making their houses full of efficient LEDs and putting in smart thermostats. Efficient appliances are an other part of that. The other thing that Marinites should be doing is getting their voices out and heard and engaging in the political process.

What sort of opportunities will we have for that? The Energy Foundation doesn’t fund lobbying, but I recommend that people look for every opportunity when they have access at the local, state and national level to make their voices heard saying they want clean-energy technology, and they want innovation in energy markets. Whether we get these big new markets depends a lot on whether the policy makers are willing to advance new policies, and oftentimes that boils down to a discussion in the Legislature or at a public utility commission or city council. So people can engage. Certainly there’s some activity going on around Marin, but I’m just urging people to be politically active on this topic in whatever way they see fit. We’re really excited about the potential in this area, so it’s great to be able to talk to Marin folks about it.