He drives an electric vehicle and lives in a home in Santa Monica powered by 100% renewable energy. Petersen, 54, is also chief executive of the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, a nonprofit that helps bring to market innovations from local startups focused on clean energy, transportation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and “smart, sustainable cities.”
Since its launch in 2011, the incubator has worked with 254 startups and helped them raise $500 million. It provides office space; introductions to investors and access to its debt and investment funds; advisory sessions; mentorship; and business services, such as public relations, legal and government affairs support. In exchange, the organization takes a 1.5% to 3% equity stake in each company, a price that varies based on factors like the diversity of the founding team, and a portion of that can be earned back.
Petersen took the reins in 2017 after serving as the city of L.A.’s chief sustainability officer. Prior to that, he was president and chief executive of the nonprofit sustainability organization Global Green USA.
Petersen talked with the Business Journal about the incubator’s commitment to building a more inclusive green economy, electric vehicles and strategies for a more sustainable Los Angeles.
You have a master’s degree in public administration but have devoted much of your professional career to the green industry. What sparked that interest?
My dad tells the story of when I was 5 years old, and we were sitting in the park on a Sunday afternoon — this would have been the early ’70s — there was trash all over the ground, and I said, “Dad, we’ve got to do something to take care of our planet.”
As I got older, the environment was always something I was interested in.
But it became crystalized for me when I was at grad school. I got asked to run Americans for a Safe Future, an organization working to come up with alternatives to radioactive dump waste policies. And I read two books that influenced me greatly, “The Ecology of Commerce,” which is about how you have to approach the environment from a holistic strategy, and “Ishmael,” a novel about how we treat the planet as a resource to plunder.
How do these experiences influence how you lead L.A. Cleantech?
My focus has been: How do we take a whole-systems approach toward accelerating what the business community can do for the green economy, and how do we improve the conditions in which people live?
We’re taking a three-pronged approach of working with startups, bringing in more diverse entrepreneurs — and bringing green technologies into underrepresented communities — and sending market signals to accelerate progress through things like our Transportation Electrification Partnership.
We set bold targets for transportation electrification by 2028 when the world will arrive for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The partnership, which LACI leads, includes the mayor, the county, Edison, DWP, Metro and a number of major private sector companies like BMW (and) Audi. Why are EVs the No. 1 export? It is because California policymakers set policies early on to prioritize electric vehicles.
Did you change the mission of L.A. CIeantech when you were hired?
We had talked about an inclusive green economy before, but the mission was more narrowly focused on the startups and entrepreneurs. I reframed the mission to be about bringing people together to create an inclusive green economy.
We’ve brought in more diverse startup founders than ever. Of the startups we were working with in 2016, 14% had founders of color. Now 56% have founders of color. In particular, Black and Latino founders made up 10% of the startups. Now they are 31%.
We’re really leading and trying to put the pieces together. We’re doing work near the ports along the 710 to get electric batteries in Class 8 trucks.
We’re encouraging food deliveries from ebikes (from ebike rental company Bolt Bikes, dba Zoomo) in Leimert Park. We have an electric shuttle (from Circuit Transit Inc.) taking seniors to doctors’ appointments and around the historic core of Leimert Park.
Hopes are high that the Biden administration will help jumpstart the green economy. If you could sway the new president to take one action right now, what would it be?
The biggest thing they can do is ensure there’s a robust electrification focus in the $2 trillion infrastructure package that the president has said he wants Congress to approve. That package has not been detailed out yet, but we’ve proposed $150 billion in recommendations, including $85 billion for zero-emission infrastructure; $25 billion for EV manufacturing; $25 billion for all forms of electric transit; $12.5 billion for workforce development and job training; and $2.5 billion for supporting innovation, including for entrepreneurs who are underrepresented.
Covid-19 has forced many Angelenos to stay home, which means they are driving a lot less. How are you working to keep emissions low after the pandemic?
I think we’ve all seen the benefits of quieter streets, safer streets, less air pollution. Hopefully it opens peoples’ eyes. If you need a car, then buy electric or hop on an ebike. If you’re able bodied, walk. Not everyone is able to afford an EV. That’s where the idea of electric car sharing came about, like the BlueLA program. (BlueLA is a monthly membership program for car sharing that has 40 drop-off and pickup locations in and around downtown.)
More than half of L.A. households are renters. How do you ensure that people who live in apartments and want to buy EVs have access to charging stations?
Apartment buildings are currently the toughest place to get a charging station. That and workplace charging is where we really need to focus. There’s a company, PCS Energy, in our Transportation Electrification Partnership that has installed 8,000 charging stations in apartment buildings. They’re figuring out how to use existing power and software to manage the chargers to optimize the charging rate and be more intelligent. For new apartments, the city has moved from requiring buildings to be “EV ready,” which is making sure you have the wiring in place, to actually having charging stations installed.
How should L.A. incentivize the purchase of non-car vehicles?
You’re seeing some efforts in the city of L.A. and around the county where there are improvements for safer bike lanes. You see it in Santa Monica where there are bollards, usually they are plastic posts, or there’s more street space given to bikes. There’s sort of a strategy as well (to improve) bus stops that are just benches in the blazing sun with no shading. Those are the types of strategies we need to make people feel comfortable taking the bus.
What role, if any, are you taking in moving Los Angeles toward the adoption of congestion pricing, where drivers are tolled in order to dissuade them from being on the road at peak hours?
We’ve supported Metro in its study of congestion pricing. To achieve getting people out of their cars and encouraging EV strategy, we need congestion pricing. If you look at London, for a while, you had to pay to get into the central part of London, but they were giving electric cars a discount. Now they’ve adopted pollution pricing; if you have an EV, you still have to pay a congestion fee but not a pollution fee. That’s the direction L.A. needs to head.
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