A Modern Day Gold Rush for a US Utility Company

On the Saturday after Hurricane Sandy had ravaged the New Jersey coast line, David Crane, the CEO of NRG, Inc. a New Jersey based Fortune 300 utility company, sat in his candle lit office waiting for a group of Japanese businessmen to arrive. On the agenda was the proposed construction of a replacement nuclear plant in Fukushima. As they entered his office, Crane noted their expression of disbelief and expected to hear more stories about the storm’s extensive damage. Instead his Japanese guests expressed how stunned they were to see transmission lines elevated on wooden poles throughout the State of New Jersey. What had caught their attention was the startling reality that the electrical infrastructure in America was truly obsolete.

Crane avoided expanding on the root causes of America’s infrastructure malaise for fear of losing their business. He chose not to tell them how complacent the US utility industry had become over the years nor how US consumers often take their reliable electricity service for granted. However, after Sandy, nothing would be the same. The status quo for both CEO and consumer would change forever creating an unprecedented opportunity for disruptive innovation.

MIT Energy Conference
At a recent two-day energy conference held at MIT, Crane in his unabashed, straight forward style, bluntly declared in front of a packed auditorium that America’s command and control utility business model was at the end of its useful life. The centralized grids used to service cities and towns would one day be replaced by independent mini-grids fueled by an assortment of readily available renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Some in the audience acknowledged that it would only be a matter of time before technological breakthroughs would enable neighborhoods to produce their own power.

One such example of a potentially disruptive technology was presented at the conference by Abengoa Solar USA, a Spanish-based manufacturer of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) plants. Just like the name suggests, these plants use mirrors to concentrate multiple sunlight beams toward a tower filled with a special fluid that is capable of reaching temperatures near 500℃ or 5 times hotter than the energy needed to boil water. During the day, some of the fluid’s heat energy generates power from steam turbines, while the remainder is stored for later use, (i.e. night hours or cloudy days). Between its extended energy storage capabilities and its ongoing innovative design enhancements, the Spanish company’s CSP plants are expected to compete with natural gas and coal on a price basis by 2020. …not bad for an electrical power source that requires a modest upfront capital cost (that has already dropped by 60% so far) and a near-zero operating cost extended over a 30 to 40 year lifespan!

As CSP and other similar renewable technologies continue to evolve, behemoth utility companies like NRG are preparing for a different future, one with less coal and more natural gas. At first glance, the transition has improved their public image from the 30% reduction in CO2 emissions. However, a closer look tells a different story. Utility companies converted to natural gas because they are betting that the soon-to-be, wide use of electric vehicles or EVs will breathe new life into the utility industry’s otherwise dying existence.

Just as air conditioners accounted for nearly 25% of power consumption decades ago, EVs are expected to have an even greater effect. First, large utilities like NRG will service fuel stations the same way oil companies have tended to their branded gas stations. However, unlike gasoline that can be stored for later use, electricity must be consumed at the same time it is produced. This difference will pose various peak demand challenges such as managing unpredictable recharging schedules from a disparate consumer base who at any given moment could plug-in for a boost.

Charging stations will offer a far different experience than what consumers are used to. For example, a trip to a Walmart might include self-operated charging stations located in a parking area where drivers can plug-in their vehicles before shopping. For customers in a hurry, charging stations may resemble a large dealership where leased EVs would be swapped or batteries exchanged for a freshly charged set. Perhaps a Zipcar-like self-serve business model with fully-charged EVs parked throughout a city could integrate an online reservation process with a smart phone App to offer a keyless activation experience.

Pricing models will probably resemble that of cell phones where a flat rate monthly subscription for say $89 would allow unlimited charges or exchanges at member stations. However, the success of these subscription models will depend on the size of the subscriber base. In California, for example, where local government support is strong, the number of EV owners participating in a fixed monthly rate pilot has only attracted 400 EV owners, well below the break even levels of 5,000 EVs needed to support a meaningful network of charging stations.

As the economy picks up, Crane and others believe that an increase in charging options along with green energy tax breaks will give consumers more reasons to tryout an EV. For NRG and other utility companies who are also EV advocates, the race to supply charging stations has only just begun. To get a jump on their competition, NRG’s board recently approved a $100 million investment to build out recharging stations in California where the adoption of EVs currently shows the greatest promise.

How significant is the size of NRG’s investment?  A glance at their income statement shows that a $100 million investment represents about three times what the company allocated for traditional R&D expenses in 2012. In fact, since 2010, NRG’s R&D budget has declined by nearly 20% annually (from $55m in 2010 to $36m in 2012). Was it the unsettling experience with hurricane Sandy or the lack of government energy policies that pushed Crane to the brink of innovation and reinvention? Either way, Crane has done what so many American pioneers did during the historic mid-1800‘s Gold Rush. Like them, he set his sights westward to California’s EV ‘gold’ in search of a better life for NRG.

© 2013 Tom Kadala

Recycling the Debate of Sustainability

What is sustainability? Is it a personal commitment to save the planet or just another opportunity to charge higher prices?  No one really knows.  When you think of the need for sustainability you might envision countries at war over water rights or abandoned vehicles along highways due to gas shortages.  These ominous images are not fantasy but possible realities, unless we, as a planet, can figure out how to curtail the depletion of our natural resources. Who should be in charge of such an undertaking and what can they do, if anything, to help reverse the inevitable? 

Sustainability is a very complex subject.  It is a byproduct of a long chain of technological advancements that over time have created the problem we face today, namely, the production of cheaper products.  As the global population balloons so too does the demand for our limited resources needed to produce these products.  It is only a matter of time before key resources such as iron ore, petroleum, or phosphates (used for fertilizers) are 100% depleted.  Higher prices help fuel additional exploration into harder-to-find deposits, but sooner than later, those new discoveries will get consumed as well.  Perhaps, what is needed is a comprehensive international sustainability plan that buys time to develop substitutes or alternative solutions.  In my quest to gain a deeper perspective, I recently attended three sustainability conferences.  What I discovered may surprise you.

Conference #1 – Sustainability
My first conference was at MIT’s 4th Annual Sustainability Summit (www.stabilitysummit.mit.edu).  Experts, thought-leaders, and entrepreneurs traveled from as far away as South Africa to compare and exchange ideas. Their animated presence gave credence to the dire urgency for a global mandate among our leaders.   The wide range of ideas and opinions that emerged from the Summit sounded hopeful, but also left one wondering, if a solution to such a large problem was even plausible.  I left with a list of nagging questions such as, who should be responsible for implementing sustainability programs, what steps would be taken to monitor progress, and how realistically ‘sustainable’ would these ideas stand on their own for years to come.  I felt as though our society had reached a turning point between progress and preservation, the same way a sailboat feels while turning into the wind to change its course.

Ironically, the same technological innovations (some of which originated at MIT) that helped make our natural resources readily available to the masses is being called upon to prevent its potential demise.  For now, at least, experts are focusing on remedies to slow depletion rates through improved management, communications, and efficiencies, but these changes only postpone the inevitable and do not provide a ‘sustainable’ solution.  At the MIT Summit we heard two presentations that I felt stood out.  One was from Starbucks and the other from the City of Boston.  As they both shared their experiences and best practices, I noticed an interesting pattern that I will later use to compare with my two other conferences.

Jim Hanna, the Director of Environmental Impact, leads the sustainability charge for Starbucks.  Starbucks began by evaluating the carbon footprint of every activity along their supply chain and focused on those areas that offered the greatest positive impact to the environment.  In one case they discovered that the nitrous oxide used to make their whip cream was 300 times more damaging to the environment than it’s equivalent volume in carbon dioxide.

Along with other like-minded corporations, Starbucks subscribed to a green certification process for their five roasting operations and, in addition, re-engineered their stores to use 25% less energy and water. They also empowered members of their supply chain to reduce their respective carbon foot print (i.e. paper mills) and supported their revered coffee farmers with fixed pricing, stable contracts, and business know-how.

City of Boston
Jim Hunt, the Chief of Environmental and Energy Services for the City of Boston took a similar infrastructure approach to Starbucks.  His research unveiled that ‘buildings’ and ‘utilities’ together offered a 65% improvement impact, vastly greater than other types of improvements including ‘consumer behavior’, which came in at a surprising 7%.  In conjunction with a third-party advocacy group known as LEEDS, Mr. Hunt’s team focused on new construction and retrofitting of buildings throughout Boston with a goal of becoming a carbon neutral city by 2030.  The improved office buildings would attract like-minded tenants who in turn would offer better jobs. One such building called the ‘Atlantic Wharf’ is rated with distinction as a ‘LEED Gold’ building.  It uses 42% less energy, has a 43% reduction in GHG emissions, and recycles 90% of the rain water for its cooling towers.  This clean energy initiative has rendered more than just savings for the City of Boston.  It has also accounted for over 64,000 clean-energy jobs from R&D to installation.

What struck me most from these two presentations was how both entities focused their resources on infrastructure improvements rather than on consumer or voter awareness.  Their consumers or voters were almost an afterthought and probably not worth the investment.  Perhaps they both felt that consumers/voters would eventually change their behavior or awareness on their own as they adapted to new and improved surroundings at the workplace, especially at companies renting the LEED’s-approved, ‘green‘ office spaces.

Conference #2 – Innovation vs Sustainability
At Reagan National Airport earlier this month, Boeing’s CEO, Jim McNerney, unveiled their new Dreamliner 787 aircraft boasting a 15% fuel reduction due to a whole host of technological advancements including a parabolic wing span and a lighter hull structure made of 100% carbon fiber.  The event attracted other sustainability leaders such IBM’s chairman, Samuel Palmisano, and iRobotics Chief Strategy Officer, Joseph Dyer.

Organized by ‘The Atlantic’, a Washington-based political publication (www.theatlantic.com), these influential  companies delivered a unified message on sustainability that contrasted with the MIT Summit.  Unlike Starbucks and the City of Boston, Boeing, IBM, and iRobotics focused less on infrastructure changes and more on new ways to apply ‘sustainability thinking’ to the process of innovation.  They wanted members of Congress to listen to their views on their collaborative strategic approach to innovation where each player, including the government, would have a specific role.

Boeings Mr. McNerney, felt that the US Government should not invest in specific companies, citing the recent Solyndra bankruptcy.  Instead they should focus on investing in tomorrow’s education and research, write laws to regulate a balance between economic growth and safety, and approve tax policies to help pay for these projects.

IBM’s Mr. Palmisano, noted that the politics of ‘offshore’ manufacturing no longer applies.  According to him, global business no longer has any ‘shores’ to have an ‘offshore’.  As a consequence, Congress should endorse more liberal immigration policies that will allow the global elite who study in US universities to remain working in the US rather than be forced to leave upon graduation.  To the underemployment issue, Mr. Palmisano announced a multi-corporate initiative with Mayor Bloomberg in New York where they are jointly offering a 6-year High School/Associates Engineering Degree program to qualifying students with a promise of a $50k/yr job after graduation.  This program is in its second year and has demonstrated dramatically improved test scores when compared to other schools.

Finally, iRobotics’ Mr. Dyer, felt that innovation companies like his, need a government mandated 30% financial cushion to meet all of the regulatory requirements. At the scale required to make a sustainable difference, innovation companies can no longer rely on the bootstrapping talent of a few eager entrepreneurs.  Just like new employees, startups need ‘an insurance policy’ of sorts to innovate successfully.  Mr. Dyer also shared an imperative discipline for generating successful R&D projects.  The first 10% of a project’s funding should include extensive planning and scheduling for the remainder of the project.  According to him, too many promising projects begin on loose terms that are based on hope rather than on sound planning.

Conference #3 – Excess Capacity
The third event I attended was an MIT presentation given by the co-founder of Zipcar.com and the founder of Buzzcar.com, Robin Chase.  Ms. Chase’s world looks at sustainability from a different lens.  Rather than address depleting resources, Ms. Chase focuses on organizing excess capacity to help alleviate the demand pressures from a growing population.  For example, assets sitting idle such as a parked car can be used by another person who might otherwise purchase their own vehicle.  Another example she cited is in Bogota, Colombia where a 130km stretch of a roadway is opened for pedestrian usage on Sundays.  …and of course, there is ‘cloud computing’.

The conclusions from Conference #3 were strikingly different from the other two.  First, unlike Starbucks and the City of Boston, Ms. Chase’s approach to Zipcars leaned heavily on the community for both endorsement and feedback and paid little attention to infrastructure improvements.  Once more, Robin’s approach to innovation was far simpler than Boeing’s, IBM’s, or iRobitics.  In her case new ideas could evolve with one or two trials at a near zero cost per trial.

Despite their common goal to achieve sustainability, each entity identified the approach that best suited their immediate needs.  Obviously what would work for one may not necessarily work for another, making the task of promoting sustainability that much more difficult.  No doubt sustainability is complex and the debate of how the planet can achieve sustainability will continue through many more iterations.  Allowing the debate to recycle freely and often, may be the optimal universal approach to lay the foundations for an international master plan.