That collective uproar you’ve heard in recent days — perhaps at an airport near you — is the sound of many of the world’s biggest tech companies opposing the immigration travel ban that President Donald Trump issued last Friday.
Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Uber are working on a letter opposing the order. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is resigning from the President’s Business Council. Google’s Sergey Brin — the son of refugees from Russia — has spoken at travel ban protest rallies and the search engine giant has given $4 million to four organizations to help fight the order.
So what about the clean energy industry, cleantech companies or energy research groups that are looking to use the brightest minds to build future technologies that will wean the world off fossil fuels and fight climate change? Well, not so much.
There’s been a decided lack of strong public opposition to the travel ban from the clean energy sector, and from many energy tech firms.
While a few organizations have taken some mild and some aggressive anti-travel ban stances, many groups say privately they haven’t been directly affected by the order. Others appear to want to pick their battles, given concerns over how the new administration could view clean energy policies. In other words, in an uncertain political environment, there’s more pressing battles to fight.
One of the reasons it might not be a particularly dire issue for the clean energy industry is that it’s not necessarily a jobs issue. The U.S. solar and wind industries are booming, employing hundreds of thousands of workers. While data is hard to find on how many of those jobs are American citizens, the majority of these jobs, like solar installers and wind technicians, are filled by Americans.
In contrast, the tech industry is by far the biggest beneficiary of the H-1B Visa program, and thus are concerned about talent and jobs.
The Solar Energy Industries Association and the American Wind Energy Association both declined comment.
The groups that could be most affected by the travel ban are highly skilled engineers and developers that are looking to work at new and young startups. But the cleantech sector doesn’t have that many high profile startups out there with outspoken influential leaders.
The biggest name in cleantech — Tesla CEO and SolarCity Chairman Elon Musk — actually did come out, albeit somewhat tepidly, against Trump’s travel ban on his Twitter feed.
The South African-born entrepreneur wrote: “The blanket entry ban on citizens from certain primarily Muslim countries is not the best way to address the country’s challenges […] Many people negatively affected by this policy are strong supporters of the U.S. They’ve done right, not wrong & don’t deserve to be rejected.” Musk then asked for suggestions from his Twitter followers about how to make the order better and said he’d present them to the President.
It’s a pragmatic approach, though not exactly fighting words. Musk, who’s on two of the President’s advisory boards, is walking a thin line between working with the Trump administration and opposing the administration’s policies. Aligning himself with the President has given Tesla a stock boost, and could help in other ways, but could also come back to haunt him, given many of Tesla customers might oppose some of Trump’s positions.
Indeed, the loudest tech and business voices opposing Trump’s travel ban have strong consumer brands, like Facebook, Apple and Google, and don’t want to be associated with anti-immigration and anti-Muslim stances. Uber’s CEO stepped down from Trump’s advisory board likely because the company was starting to see a growing backlash against being aligned with Trump.
The cleantech sector doesn’t have that many of these big consumer brands. One of the bigger ones, smart thermostat makers Nest, participated in rallies of support for those affected by the ban this week, according to Nest co-founder Matt Rogers' Twitter feed. But Nest is also part of Alphabet (Google) which already has aggressively come out against the order.
Another big name in energy has also come out (again somewhat tepidly) against the ban. That would be GE CEO Jeff Immelt. GE, of course, employs hundreds of thousands of workers around the world and sells energy equipment like wind turbines and gas turbines.
Immelt sent an internal memo to its employees two days after the order was issued and wrote: “I understand many of you are very concerned about the potential impacts of this order and I share your concern.” Immelt went on to write that GE has many employees from the named countries, and that GE will “stand with them and will work with the U.S. Administration to strive to find the balance between the need for security and the movement of law abiding people.”
Again, it’s a reasonable position, but not fighting words from Immelt, who’s also on Trump’s advisory board.
In a column this week, New York Times' Thomas Friedman pleas to America’s business leaders to stand against misdirected Trump policies because business leaders are some of the only people that might have some leverage with the administration. He writes: “your businesses will thrive only if America is the country that prepares itself and its workers to live in a world without walls, not one that goes around erecting them.”
The strongest stances from the cleantech sector, not surprisingly, have come from entrepreneurs and investors who need access to the best entrepreneurs to succeed. The so-called innovation pipeline, bringing the brightest minds from around the world to Silicon Valley needs access to all of the minds.
Foundation Capital, which has invested in energy tech startups like Silver Spring Networks and Sunrun, replaced their home page with a strongly-worded letter against the immigration ban. The letter calls the order “odious,” “ill-considered,” senselessly cruel,” “unjustified,” “fool-hardy” “immoral,” and “acts against our prosperity.” Now that’s a statement.
Another good one came from Bright Power’s CEO Jeff Perlman who wrote a blog post calling the order “ugly isolationism and xenophobia,” and inviting his peers to “stand with him,” against the ban. Bright Power, a 12-year-old company based in New York, has about 100 employees and provides energy efficiency and water efficiency services to major apartment buildings around New York.
In a phone call with Perlman, I asked him why he felt compelled to make a statement when not many in the energy sector have. In his view, it was simple: “This is wrong.”
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