In this episode of CleanTech Talk, I spoke with serial successful entrepreneur Bill Nussey. He just published a book, Freeing Energy: How Innovators Are Using Local-Scale Solar and Batteries to Disrupt the Global Energy Industry from the Outside In. The focus of the book is local solar and storage behind the meter. He’s also CEO and founder of Solar Inventions, which has a key technology that makes solar panels more efficient. He has a podcast too, also called Freeing Energy, just to rub in how much more energy and organizational drive he has than most mere mortals.
We connected late in 2021 to talk about his book and the insights he gained while researching it.
As Nussey tells it, he was a nerd as a kid who couldn’t hit a ball, and as a result got into tech early. He also couldn’t keep a job, so in self-defense he started creating companies. His first firm was a graphics company when that was much harder than it is today, then he moved on to building LAN software for early local area network technologies. After that he spent time at a Baby Bell during the major telecommunications shakeup. That led to a firm called IXL, which brought the internet to Fortune 2000 companies. The final part of the prelude to Freeing Energy was Silverpop, a digital marketing company so successful that IBM bought it.
He ended up as the VP of Corporate Strategy, helping the executive team figure out where to take IBM next, which is where he made a few realizations about clean energy. The first was that it was a largely undigitized industry, so there was a lot of room for IBM to do interesting things there. But the second was that solar was going to be cheaper than anything else, and its characteristics meant it was going to be deeply disruptive.
A friend at the time told him, you have to quit IBM and write a book about this. 36 hours later, his resignation was in, and three months later he was starting the journey of writing a book.
This was not his first rodeo in terms of book writing. Previously he’d published a book on digital marketing, and he, his family, and all of his friends had agreed after that harrowing process that he’d never repeat it. Despite that, optimism prevailed, and he managed to sell his personal circle on it being a necessary and good thing. He also thought it would only take a year.
Close to 4 years later, with 360 or 370 sets of interview notes from discussions with over 320 people, the book is available now, and well worth reading.
There are some big messages in the book, but the biggest is that small-scale energy systems have been set aside for decades, haven’t received the same attention as bigger systems, and that is going to change. Nussey has lived, started companies, and thrived through several disruptive technological changes, and he recognizes the signs. It’s time for local energy to shine.
He’s clear that microgrids won’t replace the large scale grid, but will be interdependent with it, but in his opinion, more and more of the spotlight will be on local energy. He points to the lower amount of regulation leading to real competition, something utility monopolies tend to inhibit. He thinks that if Edison and Tesla were around today, they’d be surprised and dismayed at what had been done with their technologies and innovations, and how wrapped up they were in red tape.
Nussey points to a few key characteristics of local energy. The biggest one from his perspective is “who owns it.” Energy no longer has to be the domain of large companies. With massive diversity of ownership comes opportunity.
An example he returns to in the book and in discussions are solar lanterns in Africa. D.light solar lanterns is one of several African firms delivering hundreds of thousands of solar-charged lanterns for dollars apiece to people who were still using dangerous kerosene lanterns to allow their kids to do their homework, or walking for miles to charge their ubiquitous cell phones.
The second major characteristic is that it’s almost all behind-the-meter, with the exception of community solar and things like district heating. Governments and regulations don’t care about what happens behind the meter, for the most part, so the opportunity for exploration and innovation is much higher than when the grid gets involved.
One of the examples we discussed was the emergence of airports as local green energy hotbeds. In my assessments of refueling aviation in 2021, a key trend was regional air mobility. In my exploration of the potential for much cheaper operational costs to unlock 8,000 smaller airports in the US and Europe for much bigger economic roles, one of the threads was airports using the extra space around their runways for solar farms. 146 airports in the US are already doing substantial local generation, and airports in Europe are as well. Groningen Airport in the Netherlands, where the electric airplane startup Electron Aviation I’ve written about before is based, has 20 MW of solar generation.
This example was new to Nussey, but will feature on his podcast this year, I’m sure. He was fascinated to hear it, and just as I did, started thinking about the implications of a major, near-to-city electrification opportunities, thinking that it was a great place for truck recharging.
Storage is also a big part of Nussey’s vision for local energy, allowing higher resilience and the potential for price arbitrage. He points to a report from RMI that concludes that behind-the-meter is the best place to put storage, something that comes as no surprise to anyone who read Amory Lovins’ Soft Energy Paths.
And Lovins was one of the first people Nussey interviewed. After about 30 minutes of discussion, Lovins pointed out that Nussey was missing one of the biggest hitters for local energy, negawatts. A large section in the book is devoted to efficiency as a result.
Returning to d.light’s solar lanterns, Nussey outlined some of his trips to eastern Africa, both privately and with major organizations. In one trip, he traveled with Acumen, a non-profit founded by Jacqueline Novogratz to fund startups and entrepreneurs with patient capital to help Africans help themselves. Most of their work is in east Africa, which is most amenable to western capitalist models, with governments that support entrepreneurship and protection of intellectual capital. The majority of innovation and headquarters of innovative firms are in that portion of the huge continent, per Nussey.
As a reminder, Africa’s land mass is about as big as all of North America and Europe combined, has 55 countries, has 1.2 billion people, has about 2,000 distinct languages, and radically different climates. No one goes to “Africa,” they go to a small number of countries within the massive and diverse continent.
One of the highlights of the trip was a lengthy dinner with senior leaders of a country’s government, including a women senior in energy regulation and strategy. Nussey was talking about the advantages of local solar and storage on microgrids, and she interrupted him. She was amazed at the prices for the technologies he was citing, as she had heard prices 2-3x higher just a few years earlier.
And that’s a major point that Nussey and I talked about. A big advantage that local solar and storage has is sheer economies of scale. Whether you call it Wright’s Law or use BCG’s preferred term of the experience curve, experience has shown that for every doubling of manufacturing volume, you see 20% to 28% reduction in costs per unit. More volume, cheaper products.
And in energy, nothing has higher volumes than solar energy. Nussey counts it by the cell, the basic unit, and estimates that we’ve built 120 billion of them globally, something that has contributed the most to the 400x reduction in cost since the 197os. By comparison, there are perhaps 500,000 wind turbines with 1.5 million blades in the world, tens of thousands of natural gas plants, and only hundreds of nuclear reactors.
The volumes will only increase both for solar cells and batteries, as more and more automated factories are brought on line to manufacture them by the millions.
And that was the last point we discussed in this first half of our discussion. Stay tuned for the second half, where the opportunities for people wanting to grow excellent, 21st Century businesses is a key focus.
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