From Combat to Clean Energy: Securing America’s Energy Future

The Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise celebrates 20 for 20 honoree Kevin Johnson, MBA ’09, cofounder of Caelum Ventures.

By: Staff
upper body photo of Kevin Johnson.

Kevin Johnson, MBA ’09, cofounder of Caelum Ventures and senior advisor to the Defense Innovation Unit in the U.S. Department of Defense

From captain in the U.S. Army to senior advisor in the Department of Energy Loan Program Office to cofounding two clean energy companies, Kevin Johnson, MBA ’09 has demonstrated a relentless commitment to mission-driven leadership. Johnson, a graduate of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, is one of the 20 for 20 Notable Alumni honored this year as part of the 20th anniversary of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise (CSGE) at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.

Johnson’s military service in Iraq from 2004-2005 profoundly shaped his perspective on the country’s reliance on fossil fuels. Witnessing the devastation of oil fires throughout that year and grappling with soldiers’ daily questions about their purpose ignited his passion for a career in clean energy.

During his MBA at the Johnson School, Johnson was a Roy H. Park Leadership Fellow and pursued the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion. This emphasis on leadership development and sustainability provided the ideal gateway for his transition from the military to the clean energy industry. Johnson launched his private sector career at Acciona Energy, where he spearheaded the sale of over $50M in solar and wind assets throughout the United States. Leveraging his military and renewable energy expertise, he had a swift ascent in the clean energy space, becoming the managing director for Canadian Solar (USA) and driving over $70M in sales to the Department of Defense (DOD) in under 18 months.

Johnson’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to cofound CleanCapital, where he served as chief commercial officer. Under his leadership, the company acquired over $50M in solar projects and secured more than $100M in capital investment. Following that, as president of GlidePath Federal Solutions, Johnson focused on providing distributed power systems to government agencies. In 2022, he joined the Department of Energy (DOE) Loan Program Office and the Department of Defense (DoD) Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) as a senior advisor, supporting the government’s ambitious clean energy initiatives. Most recently, Johnson cofounded Caelum Ventures, a venture capital firm at the nexus of government, climate tech, and national security.

Johnson’s influence extends beyond his professional achievements. He is a Truman National Security Fellow, an emerging leader at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and serves on the boards of the Environmental Defense Action Fund, Win the Era, and the American Resilience Project. In 2013, Johnson was the recipient of the White House Champions of Change award for leadership in renewable energy industries. 

One woman and three men sitting on a stage. One is gesturing and speaking.
Kevin Johnson (second from left) as speaker on the Veterans Clean Energy Founders panel at the Veterans Advanced Energy Summit, August 9. 2022. Also pictured are Sara Barbo Nielsen, Jon Gensler, and Troy Van Beek

Learn more about Kevin Johnson in this Q&A.

Advancing a clean, equitable energy future

Q. Describe the biggest challenge you encountered as you built your career in sustainability and how you overcame it.

Johnson: My transition from the military into the MBA at Cornell and subsequently into the M&A space for a global clean energy company was extremely difficult. Imposter syndrome is a real thing and finding the confidence to compete and lead in new industries is difficult for everyone, including me. I was very lucky to have great mentors and colleagues along the way who provided me room to make mistakes, add value, and ultimately find the confidence to cofound my own companies, CleanCapital and Caelum Ventures.

Q. Describe a project or initiative related to sustainability that you are particularly proud of. How has it influenced your role, company, industry, or community?

Johnson: I’m incredibly proud of the team we built at CleanCapital. While I stepped away from CleanCapital’s day-to-day operations in 2017, I’ve had the privilege of watching the company grow into the 10th largest owner of commercial and industrial solar in the United States, thanks to the financial backing of John Hancock / Manulife. Transforming CleanCapital from a mere idea shared with two remarkable cofounders, Jon Powers and Thom Byrne, into a leading industry powerhouse has been a deeply rewarding journey and fuels my optimism for the future of clean energy and our nation’s progress. These experiences allowed me to forge invaluable relationships and provided me the confidence to embark on a new venture: cofounding Caelum Ventures, a VC firm positioned at the critical intersection of the energy transition and national security. I look forward to advancing its mission.

Three men standing side by side, holding flags, with the White House in the background.
Kevin Johnson (right) at the White House with fellow CleanCapital founders Jon Powers (left) and Thom Byrne for the Inflation Reduction Act Ceremony, September 13, 2022

Q. Envision the future of sustainability in your industry. What trend excites you and gives you hope for the future?

Johnson: When I graduated from the MBA program in 2009, career opportunities in the clean energy industry were few and far between. Today, I’m thrilled to see the incredible surge in public and private capital deployment and job creation within this sector. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have revolutionized the landscape, cementing the United States as a global leader in the clean energy economy. While stable government policies are important, the private sector has been and will continue to be the key catalyst to scaling profitable investments in clean energy. I am most excited about the transformative investment opportunities emerging in the United States, which promise to propel us towards a sustainable and prosperous future.

Insights and advice for aspiring sustainability leaders

Q. Can you share any insights or lessons learned from your experiences that may inspire current students who want to be sustainability leaders? What advice would you give them?

Johnson: While it may sound cliché, follow your passions and remind yourself often about what truly drives you. I often questioned whether or not I was making the best career decisions by pursuing a career in the clean energy sector versus something more traditional. Now, with 15 years of experience in an industry that is quickly becoming mainstream and with professional experiences that include M&A, capital raising, capital deployment, consulting, and government advisory, I know that I made the right decision in following my passions. 

Q. What role do you see business schools and universities playing in advancing sustainability initiatives, and how can alumni contribute to this effort?

Johnson: Business schools like Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management are essential in creating the corporate and entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow. I am currently advising two startup companies that are providing clean energy solutions to the Department of Defense, both of which were incubated and spun out of business school programs.  Moreover, business schools and universities like Cornell provide invaluable resources and subject matter experts that are incredibly important to startup founders, corporate planners, and capital providers. Caelum Ventures actively engages with students and professors from around the country to assist and advise on investment opportunities and provide due diligence support.

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed

Q. What is your favorite sustainability quote or book (+ author)?

Johnson: My favorite maxim in my field of work and in life is not a quote or author, rather a scientific principle: the law of conservation of energy. This states that “energy can neither be created nor destroyed—only converted from one form of energy to another.” This simple but universal law of thermodynamics is a reminder that energy is a constant in our lives. How we convert that energy into positive or negative outcomes, in both the literal and figurative sense, is completely up to us.

Q. What do you do to recharge?

Johnson While it may not sound like a typical way to recharge, I draw immense energy from assisting others in solving their problems. Whenever I’m not sure what to do next and need to disconnect, I will reach out to others to lend a hand, whether big or small.  It’s in these moments of helping others that I get sparks clarity and discover the answer to my own challenges.

Learn more about 20 for 20 nominations or nominate an alum.