Podcast 094: Astrid Atkinson – What do Capybaras and Google’s famous reliability have to do with managing a dynamic, zero-carbon electric grid?

Scalability, high availability, rapid detection and mitigation of failure…just some of the requirements of a highly performant infrastructure managing a massive distributed environment…like Google’s cloud services. 

Could the same principles and patterns apply to the requirements of managing a rapidly changing electric grid? And, what might that mean for different types of electric utilities in a future defined by decentralized resources like solar, batteries, demand response, and EV charging? 

Listen in as Camus Energy CEO and Co-founder, Astrid Atkinson, discusses these topics and shares how she and the Camus team are translating a decade of lessons from the best of Google’s and Silicon Valley’s advanced technology architectures to make the grid more reliable, more equitable, and more affordable.

Here are some of the highlights from their discussion…

“…fundamentally, what we’re trying to do is build systems–whether that’s in computing or in the grid–that are collectively more reliable than the sum of their parts.”


“It was really transformational for me to be looking at my little baby and thinking about the fact that he was going to be 37 in 2050 when the energy transition is supposed to be done. It really made me realize that this was not a problem that we could kick the can forward on… If we were going to be successful in attacking this really existential challenge, that it was going to be my generation and maybe me that as part of that solution, that there was no waiting around for somebody else to solve this problem.”


“The past is less and less a good predict predictor of the future. So being able to actually adjust for changes in the grid environment, just on a supply and to demand basis, [is no longer an option]… It used to be something that you had to do 4 or 10 years ahead… something you might need to do in the course of an afternoon. [Today, it’s] a really different problem.”

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Camus Energy

Kit Carson NM Electric Cooperative Completes First Phase of Energy Independence Transition Plan

Holy Cross Energy

Capybara – Wikipedia

DSIRE Insight

Full Transcript

Bill Nussey:

Well, hello. I’m Bill Nussey, your host for another episode of the Freeing Energy podcast. We are shifting away from fossil fuels and we’re shifting towards renewable energy as fast as we can. And as we plug in more and more of these renewable energy resources into our old grid from the homes and communities in industrial or commercial sites, well, the job of making that old grid continue to work to orchestrating all those components is becoming way more complex. Fortunately, there’s newer technologies and systems that are up to the task of orchestrating, curating this brand new symphony of solutions and resources. Our guest today is one of the visionaries, architects, and driving forces behind just such a solution, so I’m really excited to introduce our guest today, Astrid Atkinson, the CEO and co-founder of Camus Energy. Astrid, welcome to the show.

Speaker 2:

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Bill Nussey:

We’ve had a lot of conversations around how do you take this amazing big machine teaching this elephant to dance, so to speak? We’ve had some great guests on in the past. In fact, it was Bryan Hannegan of Holy Cross Energy, who I think is one of the visionary leaders of the next generation utility CEOs, and after he and I were done recording, he said, “By the way, Bill, the next person you have to have on your podcast is Astrid Atkinson.” So we reached out and were super delighted to get you on this.

Let’s just start at the earlier part of your career at Google. You left Queensland University of Technology in Australia and you jumped into technical writing in the US but then you jumped to Google. And there you had a pretty amazing career, almost 15 years with Google. You really helped that amazing technology icon create some of the things we take for granted today. One of the things that I really want to talk about today is you helped Google figure out how to take a lot of different tiny little machines, orchestrate them into something that was one of the most reliable, always available systems. Were people skeptical? Were they ready for it? What was it like?

Speaker 2:

Well, I joined Google at a really interesting time. It was about 2004, and it was right at the moment when Google was beginning to roll out what became basically the cloud. It was about two years before anybody started talking about cloud computing or use that-

Bill Nussey:

Wow.

Speaker 2:

… phrase publicly. But that is what they were doing, and it was a really big step for them. They were taking the first really significant company-wide step from a world where software basically runs on a computer, maybe you run it on some more computers if you want to do more work, to one where you have very large scale platforms effectively managing the network connectivity and all of the work being done by very large numbers of very small computers all working together.

The idea that you were going to be doing that, that that was definitely the way to get more scale and more reliability and more power out of a computing environment was actually one of the things that was an early differentiator for Google, and that was even before I joined. They had been scaling so fast that they were really struggling to buy enough computing capacity to keep ahead of user demand. There’s all these great stories from the folks who came just before me of going down to Fry’s, the computing parts store that used to be in the Bay Area, and buying up all their motherboards and RAMs to rack up for servers for Monday morning. They were so desperate for more computers that they would buy parts that had been returned to the manufacturer, motherboards that were known to have problems, they would buy RAM that was known to have hardware flaws. Their big motto at the time was, we’ll fix it in software.

They had this idea coming in, the true scale and real computing power comes from reliable software on unreliable hardware. And so, that in and of itself is probably going to sound familiar to folks in the grid space because fundamentally what we’re trying to do is build systems, whether that’s in computing or in the grid, that are overall more and collectively more reliable than the sum of their parts. That was where we started at Google.

And so, when I came in at Google, it was really just at that point where they were trying to make a platform out of that. How do you take the work that software does, split it up over 10,000 or 100,000, or a million computers and tie together all of those pieces into one incredibly reliable whole. And so, when I came in and joined the site reliability engineering team, the first job they gave me was basically, “We’re rolling out this new cloud platform all in a new version of web search at the same time. Can you just go document how that works so that everybody can use it?” I was like, “Okay, well, sure, I can write about that. I’m very smart.” So I went and sat in on a number of the conversations with the engineering team and got to understand how the technology worked. And then I went to everybody else at Google, which was not a very big company at the time, and I was like, “Hey, there’s this new cloud thing, what’s it going to take for you guys to use it?” They were like, “Oh, we could never use the cloud. It’s not reliable enough. We can’t do it that way. We need to manage our individual serving assets.” Sound familiar?

Bill Nussey:

That’s why I love this, the parallels are absolutely crazy. People in the grid today who struggle to believe that you can do this don’t realize that the IBMs of the world back 20 years ago thought what Google has accomplished was utterly impossible. So for you and the folks at Google that pushed through this and created an entirely new reality for computing, I love your confidence that this is going to be doable in the power industry as well.

Speaker 2:

Yep. Well, we absolutely did it at Google fast enough and effectively enough to build a system that continued to be not just the original four to five nines reliable, but really very close to 100% by the time I rolled off working with those teams. It was just this very long process of figuring out from a software perspective and from a hardware perspective, really looking at the whole system, what are the capabilities that you need in the hardware? What are the capabilities that you need in the software to glue all that together? And then, what are the operational and human capacities that you need around that in order to make effective use of these systems and make them friendly to being operated, to being managed, to being changed, and so forth.

Just cutting a really long story short, for my time at Google, we started out with asking this question of like, “Okay, well, what would it take to run all of Google’s existing systems on this new cloud thing?” And built a set of software capabilities that supported that. And then later on, I hopped over and started leading up my own site reliability engineering team. I was leading the team that was responsible for Google’s homepage. So-

Bill Nussey:

No pressure.

Speaker 2:

If you went to google.com between 2007 and about 2012 to see if your internet was working, then you’re welcome. Obviously, I didn’t do this alone, although I did personally carry a pager for google.com through that time. But myself and my small number of sister teams, particularly our traffic infrastructure team and our network infrastructure team, we were basically the operational team that was in the big room managing Google. Although we never had a big fancy operations room like the utilities that I visit, and I’m jealous. It would’ve been fun.

Bill Nussey:

What you’re doing is particularly exciting to me because I come from the software space. You are taking some of the best thinking from the software industry and you’re applying it in a very direct way to improving the grid and you’re creating a well-funded West Coast startup. I mean, so you’re really doing the best of all the worlds that I’m passionate about and I suspect everyone who tunes into Freeing Energy is passionate about. So let’s go back a tiny bit in time and tell us about how you and your co-founder, Michael Ryan, who’s now the COO, and Cody Smith, the CTO, how did you guys connect? I mean, what were those early conversations like and when did you guys figure out that you’re just going to go do this?

Speaker 2:

I had gotten really interested in climate change and the energy transition some number of years before we started doing this. Probably not a coincidence, it was around the time my son was born, he’s nine now. It was really transformational for me to be looking at my little baby and thinking about the fact that he was going to be 37 in 2050 when the energy transition is supposed to be done. It really made me realize that this was not a problem that we could kick the can forward on and that it was something that if we were going to be successful in attacking this really existential challenge, that it was going to be my generation and maybe me that as part of that solution, that there was no waiting around for somebody else to solve this problem.

I had been thinking about that for some time, and I spent a number of years, actually, researching the energy space and trying to understand, basically for someone with my skillset, which is very large scale distributed systems, software engineering, engineering management, where’s that helpful? That was around the time that I got interested in the grid because I saw a lot of parallels and grid transformation to some of the challenges that we had been through with thinking about how to build reliable distributed systems to power Google. And so, also probably not a surprise to hear that I’d gotten very boring at parties. They’d be like, “Hey, Astrid, how are you?” And I was like, “Great. I want to work in energy. Do you know anyone who works in energy?”

Bill Nussey:

Man, I wish I’d met you.

Speaker 2:

Oh, we would’ve had such fun conversations.

Bill Nussey:

Seriously.

Speaker 2:

But I got a lot of, “Well, now, but my cousin works for I think a regulator in the Midwest.” And so, I took a lot of phone calls with random people who were very kind to take my call and talk to me about the space and help me understand what are the real problems, where are there opportunities, what is it that I could do to potentially help. And so, it was on the tail end of that research process that I started seriously annoying my colleagues at Google about leaving Google with me to start a company. And so, it was during that time that I’d also been reaching out to people outside of the company to help in various ways. One of the really big things I was trying to figure out was how do you start a company because I had never done that before.

And so, I thought to myself, “Do you know who has an MBA and doesn’t mind dumb questions? Michael doesn’t mind dumb questions and definitely has an MBA.” He was my husband’s favorite ex-boss and a long time friend of the family. My husband and his wife worked together at Netscape. When we got up to leave that first meeting, he was like, “Okay, well, what time are we meeting next week?” I was like, “On Thursday.” And he was like, “Well, here’s what you will have done by then, and here’s what I will have done by then.” I was like, “This can work.”

Bill Nussey:

Wow. Well, I have to tell you that I feel a strong kindred spirit here. I had built and run several startups, took one public, and had some good exits. And so, when I announced to my network of friends and family that I was going to throw away a relatively good career as CEO of high growth venture backed companies, they thought I’d lost my mind. I said no, “But energy’s going to be really big and it’s going to matter, and the work we do can actually make a difference for the future.” Eventually they succumbed, but I haven’t actually tried to raise money, so I’m triple impressed that you push forward with this. I have to say, for folks that don’t know the software world, that the expertise that you had, Astrid, was one of the most sought-after expertise. I mean, when they say your ability to write your own check with the expertise you had developed is the literal meaning, particularly in Silicon Valley, but anywhere. So kudos to you for you guys leaning into something that has a long view. I’m very impressed. A bit inspired here. Thank you.

Speaker 2:

Thank you.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s talk about this company that you all have created and just start with a little point about the name. There’s a fellow named Albert Camus who once said, “Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.” So your company’s named after, presumably this wise gentleman. What’s the story?

Speaker 2:

The company is absolutely named for Camus, and there’s a couple of reasons for that, but the biggest inspiration for it was Camus’ essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s short, it’s only about three pages, you can Google. It’s in a longer book at the same name, but that essay itself is quite short. The essay is basically asking the question of how you derive a sense of meaning and purpose in life when there might not be an inherent purpose to existence. Basically, how do you find a sense of meaning in a potentially godless universe? Camus’ answer for this was basically, you pick something and you work on it and you find meaning in the process and in the struggle of everyday life, not in the accomplishment or the achievement of the goal.

This was really important to us as we were thinking about building a company to work in the climate space. Because the climate challenge is not one that any of us will individually win, but it is absolutely the most meaningful struggle that I could think of to engage in both professionally and personally. The meaning and satisfaction has to come in the work, not in the result.

Bill Nussey:

Wow, that’s so many levels deep. I’m just drinking that in right now. It’s a great message. I think you speak for a lot of us that are in this space. Of course, now that recently the US government has passed this law that for the first time really says, “Hey, this clean energy might be something. Let’s see if we can get out of the way and help it happen.” You’re going to look like a genius, but you go back in time when everybody thought you were crazy. I’ll remind everybody listening that you saw this coming before the rest of the world did, and kudos to you and thank you for doing it. Let’s take that transition and do the nerd stuff here. A lot of our listeners are not super technical so we can keep it at a higher level, but with that perspective, tell us what Camus does.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, absolutely. We provide what we describe as grid management software to utilities, basically. The goal is to provide utilities with that kind of system wide, holistic set of software capabilities to firstly make sense of the grid as it is. So taking in all the data that’s out there about physical assets, network flows, so GIS information which gives you the map of all the parts of the grid, SCADA data, which tells you about what’s happening at substations and circuits and downline if you have it, smart meter information that tells you what’s happening at the edges of the grid. And then also information directly from all of the devices, distributed energy resources, and smart grid assets that are out there as well.

This data all exists today, but it’s actually pretty rare for utilities to have it in one place, firstly. They typically don’t really have that capability, let alone in real time. And then we take that data and we use it to power, basically, a number of different management tasks within the grid environment. The headliner there is basically using that to power orchestration of control across a whole bunch of distributed devices to have them act in a good supporting fashion. But it also includes things like just better understanding, network conditions all up and down the line, being able to enhance and accelerate interconnection workflows and hosting capacity analysis, all of these questions around what could you plug into the grid, what’s it doing today? If you plugged it in, what would it do? Once it’s plugged in, how do you get it all to work together? These are actually the core technology areas that we also built for Google, and while we’re at it, for Facebook and Uber and some other companies as well.

Bill Nussey:

I’ve heard of those other companies.

Speaker 2:

It was not a very large number of people that built the core orchestrative systems for each of those companies, and many of them came out of my original core team at Google or set of teams. And some of them work [inaudible 00:19:22].

Bill Nussey:

Wow. I’m going to press you a little bit on this. I’m thinking about managing the grid, which is what you guys do, and I’m thinking back 130 years ago, Thomas Edison managing the grid. So he’s throwing these giant levers up and down and he’s got these coal plants and he’s got these light bulbs. I think know the answer to this question, but why is it different today? What is it that you’re doing that Thomas Edison wasn’t doing on paper ledgers with one of those quill pens, which is what I assume they used back in the late 1800s. Why is this hard? I mean, seriously, why is this a Silicon Valley startup that’s raised a bunch of money?

Speaker 2:

To be fair, I think that the challenges of managing to grid today may be a little more similar to Thomas Edison than to the hundred years in between, because he was dealing with pretty unreliable assets. He didn’t know very much about who would need power or when or how that demand might change. But the model of utility operations for the hundred years after that and leading up to now has really been that you would forecast demand, which was an organic event. It just happened. It waxes and wanes over every day over the course of every year, and it’s something that you just forecast. And then you would turn supply up and down to meet that need.

That doesn’t require a lot of management on the demand side. In fact, it doesn’t even allow for any. We didn’t have that capability really. It also didn’t involve a lot of assets on the supply side that we’re meeting that need. Obviously, that’s changing really rapidly now as we have supply on the distribution side. We have a lot more potential controls on demand. We have also just a lot less predictability in when and how people use energy. That’s partly as a result of technology with things like EVs and so forth starting to change usage patterns. It’s also to do with weather and climate, hotter days, snap cold events, more big storms, changes in the way that people might need to heat or cool leading them to install air conditioners where they didn’t have them before.

The past is a less and less good predictor of the future. And so, being able to actually adjust for changes in the grid environment just on a supply and demand basis, it used to be something that you had to do four or 10 years ahead and now is something you might need to do in the course of an afternoon, and that’s a really different problem.

Bill Nussey:

Got it. Got it. Yeah, I like to think about the old grid… well, actually a lot of the current grid, as train tracks and you’re just managing a bunch of large trains, slow moving, somewhat predictable, takes a while to move them, takes a while to slow down. And where the grid is going, especially with distributed generation, what we call local energy here, you’re looking at more like some crowded city street and downtown Beijing with a bunch of bicycles and scooters. And organizing those folks not to kill each other so the street doesn’t get shut down is actually quite a bit harder than keeping the trains running on time. I think it was actually Mark Andreesen who said software’s eating the world. Software appears to finally be eating the power industry.

Speaker 2:

That has been a slow moving change for the utility sector. A big part of that has to do with the fact that the grid was running with quite reasonable reliability for quite a long time up until recently. As more challenges arise and more opportunities grow up, obviously the management landscape’s becoming more complex, but the state of the art and the grid space for the technology to manage, that is a little behind the times. It’s still really focused on software that runs on a single computer on-prem and struggles with the technology scale required to handle real data in real time at grid scale.

Bill Nussey:

A friend of mine who works at the industry told me that when he goes and visits distant locations that he’ll very often run into an old computer running Windows 7 that is somehow at the heart of the system’s operations. Yes, if the listeners could see your face, Astrid, that was a look of great pain and angst. So it’s a issue of security, it’s an issue of speed, it’s an issue of a whole lot of things that sadly are at the heart of our current grid, which is why we need a team of people who know how to keep the google.com page running 100% of the time, keeping the next generation grid going.

Speaker 1:

Astrid is sharing some amazing insights into how her teams at Camus Energy are translating the thinking behind platforms like Google into solutions for the rapidly changing world of electric utilities. But it’s not just these underlying technologies that are changing. Electric utilities of all types are under increasing pressures to adapt and shift multiple aspects of their business. How they generate, transmit and distribute electricity, how they plan for shifting demand, and how they respond to shifting state and federal regulations all our elements that are now front and center as the energy world becomes more complex.

If staying informed about what is happening around utility policy, especially at the state level, is something of interest to you, we have a recommendation. Since 1995, our friends at the North Carolina Energy Technology Center have been managing the nationally recognized database of state incentives for renewables and efficiency, and they offer a service called DSIRE, D-S-I-R-E, DSIRE Insights that track energy policy activity across all 50 state legislatures and utility commissions. All relevant bills and regulatory proceedings are covered, not just the highlights. It is an independent research and analysis and they don’t engage in any advocacy efforts. They are not advertisers or sponsors of Freeing Energy. We are just all fans here.

So if you want to know what is happening in your local state or nationwide, this service will prove to be invaluable, especially in this important election year. We’ve attached a link to DSIRE in the show notes for this episode over on freeenergy.com, take a look. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to like and subscribe to our podcast. Let us hear from you too. Leave a review of this podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Now, let’s get back to Astrid and Bill to learn more.

Bill Nussey:

Let’s switch from the tech stuff to who uses this. You divide the market into munis and co-ops and investor-owned utilities, so what’s the difference? I think most of our listeners roughly know, but take us down a little bit down the road of how are they different and why is that relevant to you as a supplier to them?

Speaker 2:

Absolutely. Within the US, there’s about 3,000 utilities. I think I’ve heard you quote this number before. Of those, about 150 are the larger investor in utilities and they serve about 70% of the US population, about 50% of the land mass. The other 30% of the population and 50% of the US land mass is served by the other 2,850 or so smaller utilities, which are pretty much all public sector, either municipal utilities or cooperative utilities. The difference matters a lot because the public sector utilities are, firstly, nonprofits, which does make a difference. But the thing that matters more is that they’re incentive structures and the way that they define success as an organization is really built around meeting the community’s needs and keeping rates low for their members or customers. Those are concerns that investor and utilities have, but that’s not how investor-owned utilities measure success. They are profit-driven, and their profit model is based on typically rate of return on capital investment.

Bill Nussey:

Wait a minute, what you’re saying is the large investment utilities improve their profits if they build stuff? Wait a minute. Wow. Somebody said it’s the only industry in the world where you can increase your profits by redecorating your office, facetiously, facetiously.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. No knock on the big investor end utilities, there’s really good people there trying really hard to figure out the future of their industry, but their business model works against them in a couple of key ways. Firstly, they don’t really care about the actual cost of energy to an extent from a business perspective because it’s [inaudible 00:28:27] for them in terms of cost. They’re not allowed to make a profit on the sale of energy. So if it’s cheap, that’s great. If it’s expensive, customers pay. Of course, that has limits, but that’s basically the case.

Also, efficiency in using the existing network isn’t necessarily a plus either when you look at it strictly from a profit model perspective. Neither of those things are true for public utilities. They care a lot about cost of energy because, again, their goal is really to keep rates slow and they also care a lot about making efficient use of their existing grid because they want to keep rates slow. They have a really near, especially the co-ops, like the because tell us, “You don’t do what your members want, you let the rates go up, people will yell at you in Walmart.” Their accountability to their community is very close to home.

Bill Nussey:

I think it’s a great point to echo that the co-ops in the United States, I think there’s eight or 900 of them, they’re managed by members of people who… It’s a cooperative, a legal cooperative. They’re managed by members of the community. The board of directors are people who buy electricity from the co-op, so it’s a wonderful model. A lot of people who live in a co-op territory don’t know that they are partial owners of the co-op. But it’s a really great model that I personally like. It’s wonderful that if they don’t do a good job they’re afraid of getting yelled at in the Walmart because they actually talk to these people as customers. It’s great.

Speaker 2:

The co-ops have a really strong motivation to succeed on these particular metrics. They also are generally self-regulating. So if they want to make a change around how they charge for electricity or roll out a different kind of program or, hell, roll out an entire local market, that’s something that they can just go ahead and do for the most part, either with lightweight regulatory commission sign-off or just with board member approval. They’re also really, in some cases, very open to innovation and very proactive about trying out these new business models and new kinds of relationships with their members that allow them to really benefit from the lower costs of renewables and really take advantage of advanced grid management technologies to bring members and consumers into the fabric of how the grid is operating.

Bill Nussey:

In another great example of where Camus and Free Energy have crossed paths, it actually goes all the way back to the very first two Free Energy podcasts. We had the great privilege of interviewing Kit Carson and Guzman Energy who together created one of the most amazing inspiring stories as firms and the people behind them to basically disconnect from the giant, old, coal-driven grid and go their own way. What I didn’t appreciate at the time, because I was really focused on this go independent from the old-school, coal-powered grid, was that they took on a huge responsibility. They had to manage so many things that had been previously done for them. I learned fairly recently that part of their solution was to go to you guys, to Camus. Take us peek behind the curtain, what did you do for Kit Carson? How did it change, how did it enable them to so bravely go out on their own? I think, really, the first co-op EMC in the United States to go off on their own.

Speaker 2:

We were really fortunate to meet Kit Carson right around the time that we started the company, actually. It was actually a little bit before we incorporated. Michael and Cody were at an [inaudible 00:32:08] conference and they saw Louis speaking. We knew what we wanted to do, and so they decided that Louis was basically the perfect example of the sort of people that we would want to learn from and potentially work with. Kit Carson was our first customer, and they were really our anchor as we were building out the core technology set and the model around what you would need to do in order to manage a grid that had a really large amount of local resources connected to it. As you’re noting, kit Carson’s goal was to get to 100% of their local energy needs served by daytime solar by 2022, which is now, and actually met that goal very recently, last month.

Bill Nussey:

Say that one more time because that’s pretty headline worthy.

Speaker 2:

It’s really impressive. They’ve done such amazing work there. Guzman has been a good partner to them as well. They wanted to get to 100% of their local energy needs served by local solar during the day by 2022, and they met that goal in July.

Bill Nussey:

Wow. Wow. Well, that’s really confusing because I just saw a Fox interview news with Secretary Jennifer Granholm, and he said to her that she didn’t understand because solar is too intermittent to power the grid. It doesn’t work, he explained to her. I thought that was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. I did not want to be him after she explained to him how the things actually work. But this is a great example where if you have the right systems tying it all together, the right brains, that you can in fact power a portion of the grid with solar despite what this expert on Fox News was saying.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely. Kit Carson obviously has the advantage of being connected to the broader grid through transmission as most of our grids within the continental United States are. Nonetheless, they have been able to take advantage of the cost savings and environmental gains and shifting to a very large amount of local solar energy basically by being willing to push the envelope on how much of that they were connecting to their local grid, thinking about the technologies that would be required to manage that locally, and then partnering with technology providers like us to be able to support that amount of change within their local grid environment.

You asked about what we do for them. We basically have our grid management platform deployed with them. That started with gathering up all of the data about what’s happening on their grid to the extent that it’s available, so that’s smart meter data, SCADA data, GIS, et cetera. We also collect data about what’s happening with all of their solar arrays, and they have a large number of those as you might imagine. And then most recently, they’ve had solar go in with large amounts of storage co-located with it. And so, that’s just come online and pushed them over that threshold.

And so, managing those solar arrays, the batteries and understanding the impacts on the local grid, monitoring for grid conditions, making sure that power quality remains good and that they’re providing the service that they expect is a lot of what they use our platform for. So it’s basically like universal visibility. And then as things get more complicated, it’s also being able to fold local resources into managing on the demand and flexibility side as well.

Bill Nussey:

Are you guys primarily providing them insights, or is there a point where Camus is also telling them what to switch on and what to switch off or even directly controlling that?

Speaker 2:

Until pretty recently, their asset mix was basically just solar panels. There’s not a whole lot that you can do to manage just solar panels other than curtailment. With their batteries coming online, we’ll also be signaling the batteries. But a really good example of what this can look like with a more controllable asset mix is at Holy Cross Energy. Also, one of your guests, Bryan Hannegan is the CEO over there. They have much less solar but many more batteries, so they’re the other side of that flexibility and renewables coin. They’re looking to get to 100% decarbonized energy supply by 2030, one of the most short term decarbonization goals in the nation. Not very many utilities have that, only about six or seven others.

At Holy Cross, they have a bunch of local resources including solar, some hydro, some biomass, et cetera. But they have a really well-developed set of battery and EV programs that are in place there. So if you’re a Holy Cross customer, you can get on-bill financing for a Tesla Powerwall, and for a small on-bill credit where the utility pays you, they will basically get the right to operate that battery up to 10 times a month to support the function and health of the local grid. They have access to those customer batteries. It’s really good terms too, I wish I was their customer. They have access to use those batteries and also the charging network deployed across their territory to do peak shaving and power cost reduction by moving load around. We do manage all of the assets as part of that program, so they have-

Bill Nussey:

That’s so cool.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. We basically have a button that they can press and be like, “I would like to turn down my peak load this evening.” So they pick when they want to push the button, and we do all the work that’s required to pre-charge the batteries, stage them, hold them, discharge during peak, hold until later than peak so you don’t actually accidentally club the peak on the other side of it, meanwhile, also, if needed, turning down the EV charging network and managing usage across the chargers as well.

When we talk about orchestrative control, managing the balance between renewable output on the one hand and then battery flexibility on the other, and then customer demands the third, those are the moving parts of that. And so, Holy Cross is a really nice example of that.

Bill Nussey:

Thomas Edison would be proud.

Speaker 2:

I think so.

Bill Nussey:

I don’t think he could do that stuff on his paper ledger, for sure, and his giant switches probably wouldn’t have cut it. But I am happy to know there’s one giant button that Bryan Hannegan’s team can press. I want to see that button someday, but it does sound like a great button.

Talking about the iconic perspectives into your company and totally going tongue-in-cheek here, but I went to your website and your mascot is a capybara. I was in Peru two weeks ago and they have them everywhere, but I had never heard of one before. What is a capybara, and why is this animal your mascot? We’re just going to pendulum between super serious nerd and company culture, so just swing with me here.

Speaker 2:

For sure. The capybara is the largest member of the rodent family. They look like giant guinea pigs basically. The thing about capybaras that’s really great is that capybara are really, really the friendliest members of the mammal kingdom, as far as we can tell. If you google capybara with other animals, the results are 100% wholesome and adorable. There are many, many pictures on the internet of capybaras balancing turtles or monkeys or ducks or chilling with alligators, many members of the animal kingdom. We loved that because we got in this for mission reasons. We wanted to help tackle climate change. We wanted to help the grid work better and work better with all the people who want to use it to be successful with their own businesses. The capybara is friends with everybody. The capybara makes no enemies, is the glue creature of the animal kingdom. Michael, my co-founder, describes us culturally as being radically collaborative. The capybara is the radical collaborator of the animal kingdom.

Bill Nussey:

You had me with a duck on its back.

Speaker 2:

The duck on its back, the balancing the duck curve, that was the reason also.

Bill Nussey:

Well, that’s a perfect transition to our final set of questions, which we lovingly and threateningly call the lightning rounds. I think you may have already answered the first one, but if you want to give us the quick answer on the first lightning round question, what excites you the most about being in the clean energy business?

Speaker 2:

This is the most important challenge of our lifetimes. We got to get it right.

Bill Nussey:

That’s an A+ lightning round answer. Thank you. If you could wave a magic wand and change just one thing, what would it be?

Speaker 2:

I would really like to see a greater sense of urgency and systemic transformation. I’m really happy to see the federal action on the investment of the Inflation Reduction Act, but more urgency would help, especially when we deal with utilities and states and so forth.

Bill Nussey:

Yes, hallelujah to that. What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate, store, and distribute electricity in the next five years? And it can’t be everyone has to use Camus, but that’s a good answer. Beyond that, what do you think the biggest change is going to be?

Speaker 2:

Well, I think the really good news is that we already have the technologies that we need to make this happen. We have all of the technologies we need for 100% decarbonized electricity system. The only thing that we need is to be able to connect them all together and make sure we use the right ones at the right times. We need a platform that does that. And we’re so fortunate that we already have… Oh no, you think I’m talking about me? No, the grid, the actual grid. It connects everybody, all the sources of energy to all of the users of it. That would be so difficult to put in place if we didn’t already have it, but we do. The great news is we have all the tools we need, we just need to make them all work together. And that’s something you can do in a few years. It’s not a small challenge, but I don’t think it’s an unsolvable one.

Bill Nussey:

Yes, it does strike me as being more straightforward than, say, putting people on Mars, and we’re probably going to do that anyway, right? All right, final question, and maybe the most important one, when people come to you for advice, Astrid, and they want to do the things that you’ve done, build a career that has this depth and meaning to it, what’s your advice to them?

Speaker 2:

I think it really kind of comes back to leveraging your particular superpowers and the service of the things that you care about. You really want to make an impact on something. You don’t necessarily just go and do random volunteering, although you certainly can and that’s helpful too, but figuring out how to take the time that you spend at your job every day and direct that towards the outcome that you want can make a really big difference every time. So I think just figuring out what is it that you can uniquely provide, what is it that you can do, and where’s that really helpful is the start of answering that question for everybody.

Bill Nussey:

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This has been so fun, so inspiring. I hope our listeners have that same sense of potential that I feel when I listen to you. How amazing it was back 15, 20 years ago that this crazy set of individualized computers became the backbone of what is now the cloud, and the people that made that work are applying that genius, that superpower to the grid. I have every belief that it will be as impactful and as successful. And no doubt, Astrid, Camus, and all of your team are going to be very large participants in enabling that future. Astrid, again, thank you for joining us today. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for the great work you and your team are doing towards this very important future.

Speaker 2:

Well, thank you. I really appreciate having the opportunity to join the conversation.

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