Better Business Case Lured Coal And Gas Entrepreneur To Solar And Wind

At the turn of the millenium, Michael Polsky had made a fortune building companies that generated energy from fossil fuels, namely InDeck Energy Services on the East Coast and SkyGen Energy in the Midwest, which he sold to Calpine Corp. in 2000 for $450 million.
After that sale, Polsky began looking for "the next big play."
"I was an engineer, my career started in coal and natural gas, so I was really not an environmental guy," he said at the Clean Energy Trust Challenge this month in Chicago. "I looked at it strictly as a business, and to me the business case was compelling, because of all of the benefits that we can attribute to renewable energy. It makes a lot of sense."
At the time, wind and solar energy development were creeping along as they had for decades, but soon Polsky noticed entrepreneurs in California had come to the same conclusion he had.
"I started seeing that people on the West Coast and Silicon Valley recognized that this is probably the next big play," said Polsky, who grew up in Ukraine under Soviet rule. "We started seeing a lot of venture capital, and a lot entrepreneurs in California started clean tech, so they played in the clean tech area. Later they failed, but nevertheless they did it."
Those early efforts failed, Polsky believes, because California entrepreneurs were modeling growth in clean technology on the growth they had seen in computing, without appreciating important differences between the industries.
"Part of the failure on the West Coast has been they really did not recognize that clean tech, and particularly energy, is a different field than high tech. There’s a lot of policy involved. There’s a lot of regulations involved. The market is not as obvious. If you do something there’s no direct sales channel for that. So it’s a very different area," he said.
"It’s not simply something you can do in a garage. You need some infrastructure, you need some human capital, you need some engineering capability, you need some basic research, so I always thought, why not Chicago?"
Polsky believes those requirements better position Chicago for a Clean Tech revolution than the West Coast. "I think that clean tech and clean energy for our region here is something that is very natural." Polsky's effort to nurture the region, in partnership with Hyatt heir (and Californian) Nicholas Pritzker, resulted in the Clean Energy Trust, a clean tech accelerator for the Midwest.
Polsky also donated $50 million to the University of Chicago to form the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
But his next big play happened via Invenergy, a company he originally started to capture suffering natural gas interests, which now bills itself as North America's largest privately held renewable energy provider. It develops wind, solar, and storage assets. Chicago Business Journal estimates its revenue at $20 million, its staff at 800 employees. Crain's Chicago Business called Invenergy "Chicago's main player in the burgeoning clean-energy economy" while reporting on its $2 billion sale of seven wind farms to TerraForm Power in 2015.
"Investing in clean energy is just a good corporate strategy because that’s the way the world is going," Polsky said. "The more corporations realize that this is where it’s going, it’s good for them. It’s an investment in the future of this country and an investment in the future of this world and it’s going to pay off really well."

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.