It’s been a long and winding journey for Mark Kalpin, from wildlife biologist to clean tech attorney. Fresh out of grad school, he worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), coordinating a huge pipeline expansion project that spanned 800 miles and involved cooperating federal agencies, six states, and numerous Indian tribes. He started off looking at wildlife and fishery issues – and “by the time I was done, I was coordinating this big development process, including regulatory and public policy issues. I found it interesting and challenging.” He earned his law degree in the evenings, taking the requisite classes in contracts, real property and constitutional law, but also studying energy regulations – a field today that is constantly evolving with the Obama administration’s focus on sustainability, coupled with numerous other energy policy acts.
Clean tech, a term coined around 2000, refers to renewable energy and the process and materials involved in making it. Today, as an Boston-based attorney for WilmerHale, Kalpin helps counsel emerging energy technology companies, taking them, as he says, “from concept to kilowatt” – helping them get the initial financing, protecting intellectual property with licensing or patenting, assisting in building the demonstration project, maneuvering through tax issues, through contracting for construction and equipment purchases. “It’s a big jigsaw puzzle that varies from project to project, and entails making sure that the pieces all fit together while the regulations are constantly changing,” says Kalpin.
Kaplin’s clients range from entrepreneurs who are developing wind or solar power generation to firms looking at more efficient battery technology, drinking water desalination, or energy-saving telecommunication methods. For wind energy alone, the U.S. market will reach an estimated $180 billion by 2013 – not to speak of hydro, solar, and biomass, among others.
Q: Why is this the era of clean tech?
A: What we are seeing is that people are becoming more aware that we are in a resource-constrained world. We have to do things more efficiently and cleaner, in a way with less impact.
Q: How long does it take for a project to come to fruition?
A: Just as one example, a small renewable energy wind project, can move from start to end in the course of 18 months or so; a complex power project can take years to develop. I recently did a biomass energy project, which proposed burning wood instead of oil or coal to create energy. There, we needed to look at everything from where the project is located to who to sell the power to.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in entering this niche practice?
A: You have to have a passion for it, a certain level of curiosity and a willingness to think outside the box about how things can be done better. This field is evolving right in front of us, with new policies and regulations being proposed and issues being developed.
Q: How do you stay abreast of all the developments?
A: The best way is to participate in trade organizations, such as the New England Clean Energy Council and the Northeast Energy and Commerce Association. And the other way that I keep up with what’s happening is simple: I don’t sleep at night anymore.