There's a green gold rush on Capitol Hill.
With Congress plowing toward legislation on energy and climate, lobbyists and their clients are swarming House and Senate offices. They are booking up conference rooms, shaking hands and submitting proposals for financial help and policy changes.
There are hundreds of hired guns now working on the energy issues. They represent a swath of diverse and sometimes conflicting interests, from small companies turning algae into oil to traditional utilities and big corporations, including Google, United Parcel Service and Safeway.
"What's happening in energy and carbon, what's being contemplated is nothing short of transformational," said Steve McBee, CEO of McBee Strategic Consulting, a lobbying firm with 31 clients interested in energy. Bills planned on energy and climate in Congress, he said, represent "an attempt to fundamentally shift the market."
"There's enough momentum and political will," McBee said, adding that Congress and President Obama "have a fighting chance of getting it done."
Momentum on changing energy policy began in the last two years, as state after state passed regulations promoting renewable energy. The private sector started shifting toward green power production, but that movement stalled with the economic crisis, several lobbyists and energy experts said. With credit dried up and venture capitalists ceasing investments, companies that need money for power projects are turning to the federal government.
Lawmakers besieged by ideas now must decide how to weigh requests and pick which are most aligned with their constituencies' needs and policy goals.
"What we're seeing is a very large number of clean energy companies and clean energy developers pursuing Congress and federal support in an effort to maintain the momentum that began 12 to 24 months ago," said Nick d'Arbeloff, president of New England Clean Energy Council, a trade group.
"It won't be an easy process for any of these companies to unlock dollars for their organization," d'Arbeloff added. "But a signal is being sent by the White House and by the Department of Energy that clean energy is a priority."
Companies and groups interested in energy and natural resources legislation spent nearly $355 million on lobbyists last year, up from $240 million in 2007, according to Congressional Quarterly's MoneyLine. That spending and the pool of people pleading their case are growing steadily this year as well.
Since January, 185 companies hired lobbyists to work on energy issues, MoneyLine records show. Even Fortune 500 companies that have long employed lobbyists on other issues have needed to hire more to track potential energy policy changes.
Established smaller companies want to shift toward clean energy. And new companies need help approaching lawmakers.
"We try to listen to everybody, because we know that there is no one single solution," said Anne Johnson, spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "There's a lot of demand. There are a lot of people calling.
"We know that we have to look at these technologies while also looking at cleaner traditional energy."
With so many people knocking on their doors, lawmakers know they will ultimately write policies that will benefit some and exclude others. The goal, one said, is to avoid picking winners.
"It is our job here to set the signals right so we have a level playing field for these clean energy companies," said Rep. Jay Inslee, (D-Wash.), who sits on both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
"Virtually any technology that has potential to be viable, they should have a seat at the table to move forward," Inslee said.
Outside experts from universities, including Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are helping lawmakers evaluate which proposals might be commercially viable.
"We're not just throwing darts here," Inslee said.
Wanted: 'game changers'
While lawmakers favor mature technologies that are proven and might work at a scale that could make them profitable in the future, Inslee said, Congress is also interested in innovative applications that could be "game changers," such as nanotechnology that would make solar cells more efficient.
Some lobbyists, including McBee, believe businesses with products or plans that are transformative are more likely to gain traction with Congress.
"There is a desire for real strategic change," McBee said. A key to success in this competitive market, he said, "is not wasting people's time with ideas that are incremental."
"Where the strike zone is is ideas that are mature, that are proven, that are bench-tested, but either capital or policy is needed to take it to scale," McBee added. "We are sort of actively seeking companies out that fit that bill."
Because of the congressional desire for big ideas, he said, traditional lobbying tactics like seeking help from old friends do not necessarily work.
"Great ideas transcend who it is you know, what it is your [political action committee] looks like," McBee said.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based company Better Place is working to persuade Congress that it has one of those revolutionary ideas. The company wants to build an infrastructure for charging electric cars. But the idea requires a shift in how electric cars would be sold and recharged.
New electric cars would be sold with exchangeable batteries, said Andy Davis, vice president of the clean energy team at McBee Strategic Consulting. Drivers would buy battery usage plans based on their driving amounts, similar to how cell phone plans work. They would use charging stations owned by Better Place.
States and cities have shown interest in the company's concept. The business has an agreement with the Israeli government to build infrastructure there, Davis said. In the United States, Better Place and its lobbyists are working on giving lawmakers information about its plan.
Moving from lab to marketplace
Others seeking help on Capitol Hill say they have proven technologies that need help moving to commercial scale.
PetroAlgae, a Melbourne, Fla.-based company, wants to build a demonstration plant to show that it can grow algae and turn it into oil. Such oil would not emit any carbon dioxide when processed and burned, said Patrick Von Bargen, director at lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
Algae grows on a diet of carbon dioxide, Von Bargen said, which makes the technology especially useful as Congress pursues policies to lower the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
The company, which has about 100 employees, hired Quinn Gillespie this month. PetroAlgae is seeking help applying for DOE grants created through the stimulus bill, Von Bargen said. The company also wants to make sure that future legislative definitions of biofuels are broad enough to include algae. A biofuel in general is fuel developed from plant material.
"One of the critical things that policymakers need to do, they need to be technology neutral," Von Bargen said.
MicroPlanet, a Seattle-based company that hired a lobbyist last October, wants help deploying a technology it says would help conserve power. Because the nation's electrical grid is inefficient, utilities send out more power than a customer actually needs to ensure that when the electricity reaches a home, it is at the required 114-volt level.
Using products installed outside a customer's home, MicroPlanet's technology keeps the power that goes into the house at 114 volts, said Noah Reandeau, lobbyist with Gordon Thomas Honeywell Government Affairs. Any additional power above 114 volts stays on the electric line, he said.
The technology has been deployed in nine countries, he said. In Washington, Reandeau said, "We're raising awareness of the fact that the technology exists."
As Congress moves toward a national requirement that utilities produce some power from renewable sources, Reandeau said, MicroPlanet wants to make sure that lawmakers consider voltage regulation as an option for meeting the mandate.
Some companies that have hired lobbyists are looking for research and development help.
Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding, a Maine-based company, wants to use boat building technology to develop wind blades that could work on the Eastern Seaboard, where air currents can top 100 miles an hour. That requires a different kind of blade than one that works in Colorado or West Virginia, said Thomas Goldberg, the company's lobbyist.
Because the blades are more than 200 feet long, he said, the tip of the blade would spin much faster than the hub. Blades need a redesign to ensure they do not tear apart in the East Coast environment, Goldberg said.
"You have to have something that is significantly more robust," said Goldberg, who is with the American Technology Specialists lobbying firm.
The company wants money for R&D. Tax credits that recently passed are not as helpful, Goldberg said, because no investment banks are lending for renewable projects.
At the federal level, there is limited cash available and many businesses asking, Goldberg acknowledged. Members of Congress are asking sophisticated follow-up questions, such as requesting that a company provide more information on its product plan and assessments of its competitors' engineering designs.
"The number of people who want to come forward and claim that they can do this is increasing," Goldberg said. "You make your case on the merits."
Tracking bills, regulations
Lobbyists also are representing companies that say they are ready to go commercially with energy products but need help tracking congressional and Obama administration regulatory moves.
ADA Environmental Solutions, based in a Denver suburb, makes a product that reduces the mercury emitted by burning coal. The process uses activated carbon, similar to how water filters work, said President and CEO Mike Durham.
The company, which hired a lobbyist this month, is building a $400 million plant in Louisiana. It wants to build five more in other cities to meet demand from coal plants because 16 states have passed mercury-control regulations, Durham said.
"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when bills in Congress would require mercury control at all power plants," Durham said.
In addition, Durham said, the company may want to compete for DOE grants for research on sequestering carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Cleaning coal of its greenhouse gas byproduct is a widely discussed idea but at this point unavailable at a commercial scale.
"The country has to invest in the technology," Durham said, "if they want to rely on this very secure fuel and reduce carbon emissions."