FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 063: Bill Nussey – The vision behind Freeing Energy and lessons learned from three clean energy entrepreneurs.

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Host Sam Easterby talks with entrepreneur and founder of the Freeing Energy Project, Bill Nussey. Nussey shares why the local energy approach will reshape the transition to clean renewable electricity and shares lessons learned from three inspiring clean energy entrepreneurs interviewed in the past year.

Here are a few of the insights from Bill…

“[What I love about technology is that] experts say it can’t keep getting any cheaper. [The costs] can’t get any lower. [Despite this] innovators and scientists and engineers … just keep making it better and cheaper, year-over-year…”


“[A key success factor for clean energy entrepreneurs is the] ability to know yourself, to find your North Star, to be doing it for reasons that are so much more important than making money. You’re doing it because you want to help people, because you want to make a difference, because you want to be putting your best energies towards something that matters. And that’s what’s so magical about the clean energy and the broader climate tech industry, is that they have so many of the benefits, business opportunities, exciting growth, making customers happy, but it adds to that wonderful motivation that you’re able to make a difference in the world.”  


“I’ve been working on the book for three, almost four years now. I’ve interviewed 320 people. I’ve been to factories in China and visited places like Africa and Puerto Rico… we’re hopefully just a few weeks away from giving the final draft to the production teams, This will take a few months, but the book will come out in early November.”


You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Bill Nussey and Dr. Jemma Green during the recording of the podcast

Transcript

Sam Easterby:

Welcome to the Freeing Energy podcast. I’m Sam Easterby and I’ll be your host for today’s special. And really, really want to thank everybody for joining in. We are so appreciative of the fact that you spend a little bit of time with us as we try to share with you some of the insights that we’re learning as we talk to some of the experts around the world and some of the top thinkers and doers and shakers and movers in the world of clean local energy.

Sam Easterby:

And today I have a very special guest, and we’re kind of turning the tables a little bit, but my guest today is Bill Nussey. Bill has been a venture capitalist. He’s built companies right and left. He’s been a strategist for one of the largest companies in the world. And now, oh, I guess maybe three or four years into it, he has taken a leap into an industry that, Bill, what, three years ago, you knew very little about? Clean, renewable energy.

Bill Nussey:

I actually shudder when I think back to how little I knew and what an amazing journey it’s been to have learned so much about it. And every month that goes by, I get more excited about the opportunities, both as a business person and as a citizen of the planet Earth. I think the future is bright. And if we are successful, Sam, with all these things we do, we will help shine a small light for thousands of other folks to get as excited as we are and to leap in feet first to help drive these changes that the world needs.

Sam Easterby:

Awesome. Awesome. Well, okay, so you know the drill.

Bill Nussey:

I do.

Sam Easterby:

On the Freeing Energy podcast, we like to get a little more of the backstory on our guests and you don’t get to escape that today. So here’s a question for you. Bill, I read that as a teenager, you jumped feet first into the entrepreneurial world, and you spend a lot of time analyzing numbers as a teen. You spent a lot of time looking at cost reductions and the changes that were taking place in the personal computer space. What’s up with that?

Bill Nussey:

I think the part that fascinates me, for as long as I can remember, is the dichotomy between technology’s unstoppable year over year improvements and the constant refrain from the experts that it must stop. Back in the 1980s and 1990s you couldn’t go a year or two without some headlines saying the laws of physics prevent microprocessors becoming more dense. The laws of physics say that you can’t store more information on a memory chip. And yet somehow magically those laws of physics, they weren’t broken, just they were creatively rethought, and incredible scientists and engineers would create products that year over year after year defied convention, defined the experts, and created an industry that everyone thought was impossible.

Bill Nussey:

And I’ve seen that play out in computers in the ’80s and ’90s. I saw that play out in the internet and communications in the ’90s and noughts, as my friend calls the 2000s. And we’re seeing that play out in the 2020s with energy. But it’s the same pattern. Experts say it can’t be done, can’t get any lower, can’t get any more juice out of the system, and innovators and scientists and engineers come in every single year, just make it better and better.

Sam Easterby:

So that’s what the teenager Bill Nussey was thinking about.

Bill Nussey:

Yeah, it was the nerd version of you can’t possibly do this and the nerds come back and say, “Yes, we can. And we will.” And I joke with my young adult children that back when I was trying to create these companies, there were no cool nerds. There were no rich nerds. The nerds never had a social life because they were just nerds. But what happened was some of those nerds like Steve Jobs and bill Gates and a few others turned their nerdom into billionaires and world leaders. And so I think now it’s kind of cool to be a nerd. So I’m happy to have been part of the generation that turned nerds from nerds into cool nerds.

Sam Easterby:

Well, so you spent those teenage years talking about and thinking about disruptions and looking at technologies and looking at all those different elements. And so it was not too many years ago that you were one of the top strategist or the corporate strategist for IBM. And that was after you had built several companies after you joined them and sold your company to IBM, started working for them. And then you decided to leave and start on this journey. And as I recall, you have said, I remember you saying in a TED Talk not too many years ago, you talked about your vision for clean local energy then. And a distributed generation strategy that provided homes and communities with a greater access to and control over clean, renewable energy. So what shaped that vision then and what have you learned since then that supports your idea today?

Bill Nussey:

The day that it was announced that IBM was acquiring my company and the news was global. It was a big acquisition for IBM, an important one. And for the first few minutes, as I took it all in, I had this feeling like, “Wow, I’ve made some money. I have some options now.” But as soon as I started to think about that, I was overwhelmed with a more powerful thought, which is that, “There are so many people devoting so much of their lives to making the world a better place. How could I do anything less? How could I possibly step back and relax or take my foot off the gas pedal metaphorically and not help those people, not jump in and help make the world a better place?”

Bill Nussey:

And so I started a journey that day to find something that I was excited about that I could really, really put my best energy, efforts, and resources behind. And so over a long period, I discovered that it was clean local energy, and it was for three reasons, that really resonates with me. The first is that the planet needs help. People are very focused on carbon dioxide and climate change, but I think they would be equally concerned about pollution if they knew just how out of control it was. The second reason is that there are almost a billion people in the world today that have no electricity of any kind. They live in poverty, subsistence farming, and providing even the most basic electrical services like lights and televisions and chargers for their phones is life-changing. It’s the first step in what’s called the energy ladder. And then the last is that I’m an entrepreneur. This is the biggest business opportunity in history. And I really am excited to be part of it.

Sam Easterby:

Well, let me dig a little bit deeper into that, Bill. So I remember you talking about local energy from the very beginning. I mean, what was it that fed that specific approach to this? Why not just giant solar farms and more nuclear power plants? Why that approach? Why local distributed generation?

Bill Nussey:

That is the most important question. And I’m glad you asked. We absolutely need giant solar farms and giant wind farms. It’s a pretty heavy debate whether we need more nuclear power plants, and we won’t wade into that today. But the problem with those large farms is that they are in of themselves will create some new problems and will only lock in the century old electric monopoly further and more deeply.

Bill Nussey:

What I love about local energy is it takes all the benefits, the clean energy benefits, and it delivers it to the people. It’s power to the people in a literal and figurative sense. And so when you think about all the profits from the people who build those giant solar farms, most of those profits are going to flow, and I’m a capitalist, so I don’t actually have any moral problems with this, but it’s not necessary that all the profits flow to giant investors in Wall Street and large corporations. It should be shared. It should be available. The benefits and the profits and the savings should be available to everybody. And the great thing about local energy is if you build your own system or you buy from someone who in your community has built a system, and you’re like community solar, and you’re using part of their system, the profits and the control are in the hands of your community or the individuals, or you, if you have solar panels on your roof. And that just balances it out. And it’s a much more reasoned and fair approach than doubling down on the century old monopoly exclusively.

Sam Easterby:

So one of the things that you have written about, and you’ve spoken a lot about, is the use of solar energy in this distributed generation strategy and as well as solar plus batteries. And you’ve talked about solar and the batteries being technologies and not fuels. So tell us what you mean by that, please.

Bill Nussey:

That’s a great point, Sam, and I think it bears some good discussion because we’re exiting a century of energy delivered via fuels and all the downsides of that and entering a century of energy delivered by technology. I don’t burn anything up when I create a kilowatt hour with a solar panel. Just taking the sunlight and I get electricity out. There’s no fuels, there’s no mining, there’s no waste, and that solar panel, current solar panels will last for 30 to 40 years. It does take some materials to make the solar panel, but it also takes materials to make a coal plant. So you get a lot more value for your infrastructure when you’re talking about renewables like solar and wind.

Sam Easterby:

Well, and I suppose the oil and gas and even the coal industry could say that their fuels are all derived from solar energy. I mean, and certainly oil and gas work on economies of volume, like the mass production of say iPhones or the flat panel TVs. Aren’t those industries shaped by technologies?

Bill Nussey:

Indirectly. There is tremendous technology in the extraction of oil and gas, but the thing that they’re extracting is a limited finite quantity, and there’s only so much economic benefit you can get from the extraction of it. And no matter what you do, you still have to distribute it and process it and handle the waste. And so the economics of fuels are just entirely different than technologies. Although I agree that technologies have helped make fuels, particularly natural gas and fracking. Fracking was a technology funded by the US government and innovated by entrepreneurs and it completely upended the traditional electricity and oil and gas markets by finding a much cheaper, more abundant source of natural gas here in the United States. But that doesn’t happen very often. And it doesn’t continue to get better year over year into perpetuity, like say hard drives or memory or solar panels.

Sam Easterby:

When you started looking at the electricity business, when you started looking at the world of energy, the energy business, one of the things I remember reading that one of your comments was that you thought that this industry was really not embracing software the way they could.

Bill Nussey:

I got to tell you, Sam, that was my first initial draw to the electricity business, or is it calls itself the power industry, because its absence of software was crazy. It’s one of the last giant industries in the world that has been barely changed by software. I mean, not just the way we manage the grid, but just every aspect of it. It certainly has software around it, but it has not been overtaken by software like almost every other industry has. And that was initially very attractive to me. And I’ve been a part of other industries where software was on the peripheral, and then it became central to the value proposition, and reinvented the industry. And I think what’s going to happen particularly in local energy and particularly with batteries. I think software is going to change the equation and the fundamental economics on those two aspects of the clean energy transition.

Sam Easterby:

Well, when you talk about the power of the incumbents with the utilities and the investor owned utilities and the gas companies, they have huge assets that likely could get stranded in this transition. And that seems that consumers would bear a huge cost for that over time.

Bill Nussey:

Yes.

Sam Easterby:

How do people resolve that? I mean, how do you address that and make this transition?

Bill Nussey:

A really important thing to understand is that none of us want a world without utilities. There’s a very strong value that’s been proven historically to have giant institutions that are monopolies, that look after certain assets. We have this for water. We don’t have choices on where we get our water, unless we put a well. We have one fire department typically, one police department, one military. That’s one of the benefits of governments is that they oversee those areas where you don’t want a competition.

Bill Nussey:

What’s different is that, what Sam Insull convinced everybody of, is that the entire industry should be a monopoly. And I think where we’ll end up is that the wires and some of the maintenance and some of the core things like substations, those will probably be best run by protective monopolies, but when it comes to generating, consuming, and trading electricity, that’s where the market opens up. And I think that’s what isn’t in place today and needs to be as soon as we can get it there.

Sam Easterby:

Let’s jump a little bit into entrepreneurs, and the people that are taking that leap, and we’ve talked a good bit to some of the experts from different companies around the world, actually, with regard to what their experience has been. And I’d like to get your take on a couple of a couple of quotes from previous guests that we’ve had on the Freeing Energy podcast. And one of them is Samir Ibrahim from SunCulture in Kenya, who’s providing a solar powered, and now battery supported, irrigation system for small holder farmers and that’s opened up a whole new world for those people. And here’s what he had to say and I’d like to get your take on this.

Samir Ibrahim:

So one of the biggest challenges that I have faced, and I know a lot of entrepreneurs face, a lot of my friends have faced, is looking at awards and media and what you see as the tip of the iceberg for so many other businesses and judging yourself based off of that. Man, that is hard. And intellectually you know that that’s just the tip of the iceberg because if those sorts of statistics came out about your own company you know that there’s so much going on beneath that no one would be able to understand, yet I’ve almost compared myself and SunCulture to just the tip of the iceberg of so many companies before, that you just, one, never know what’s going on beneath, and, two, I’ve seen time and time again companies and entrepreneurs that I have put on such high pedestals completely tumble.

Bill Nussey:

For people that haven’t been entrepreneurs, I think one of the things that surprises them is that as hard as it is to create a breakthrough product like Samir and his team have done, it is just as hard, in many ways even harder to navigate the people side of this, to get people to fight incredibly large odds, to take on convention and to challenges. And one of the things that Samir touched on, I have as an entrepreneur have faced all the time, is that you’re out there working your tail off creating a new products and you read in the media about some new something done by somebody, and I hear this from entrepreneurs all the time, and it’s just depressing. So, “Wow, those folks are just killing it. I mean they don’t seem to have any of the problems we have. And look how successful they are. Just did a huge fundraise,” or whatever the news is.

Bill Nussey:

And I think the message there, and he said it well, to me it’s just like not getting too caught up in social media. No one’s life is as good as it is and none of the photos that you see of the people on social media, they’re not really that attractive in real life, they’re probably using a filter or something. And the reality of the running a business is as long as you’re focused on what your customers need, you really can tone down and certainly have a lot of skepticism about the press releases and the news you see about the industry and your competitors.

Sam Easterby:

Well, that’s interesting. And one of our other guests, Stephanie Speirs from Solstice had some really sage advice, I think, for a person that might just be taking those first steps with an idea that they might have. And here’s what Stephanie had to say.

Stephanie Speirs:

So the four ikigai circles are what you love, what you can get paid for, what the world needs, and what you’re good at? And do this exercise, and look at all four circles with this Japanese concept and figure out what is your role in climate? Everyone has a role to play, and it’s in our carbon emissions are coming from agriculture and land use and the electricity system and buildings and industry and manufacturing. There’s so many ways that people can help and we need all of the ways. So I would ask everyone to do this exercise and figure out what’s their role.

Bill Nussey:

When Stephanie dropped ikigai, I loved it. I think that’s a really powerful idea. If people don’t know what it is, it’s worth looking at. A book I wrote a couple of years ago Called Your Mountain Is Waiting, I talk about this, and it’s one of several different models or philosophies to finding your North Star. And I think what’s implicit in what Samir and Steph and others have told you is the entrepreneur’s journey is so much less about the product, as important as that is, and it’s a journey of, it sounds very mythical and philosophical and I don’t mean it to, but it’s really the only way you can be a successful entrepreneur is if you’re also taking a journey of self, if you’re willing to look in the mirror. It is so hard to be an entrepreneur that if you don’t actually have passion towards your idea, you probably will be unsuccessful. If this is just a job, if you’re doing it to get rich or some very superficial motivation like that, you’ll almost certainly fail because what it takes, what you have to find within yourself, what you have to find within your team, the effort to get up and dust yourself off and go fight another day, the degree that you need to do that to be a successful entrepreneur, Samir and Steph and so many others are doing this every day.

Bill Nussey:

It’s that ability to know yourself, to find your North Star, to be doing it for reasons that are so much more important than making money. You’re doing it because you want to help people, because you want to make a difference, because you want to be putting your best energies towards something that matters. And that’s what’s so magical about the clean energy and the broader climate tech industry, is that they have so many of the benefits, business opportunities, exciting growth, making customers happy, but it adds to that wonderful motivation that you’re able to make a difference in the world.

Bill Nussey:

In the case of Samir and Steph, they’re helping people that often don’t have anyone helping them, but others are bringing new technologies and products to market that are going to make the world a better place. And that’s, I think, both a necessary hard part of being a clean energy entrepreneur and the greatest reward at the same time.

Sam Easterby:

Ikigai is a fascinating concept and one of our other guests, Dr. Jemma Green from Power Ledger in Australia, actually expanded on that a little bit by making sure that we understand a slightly different facet of her journey.

Dr. Jemma Green:

Being an entrepreneur is like a very immersive and intense experience in the sense of you have to really understand not only your viewpoint that you’re trying to put forth, but the incumbents viewpoint deeply. You can’t overestimate the amount of knowledge that’s required to actually solve the problems.

Bill Nussey:

I really enjoyed talking to Jemma. And when she made this comment it really hearkened back to one of the very first interviews I had in this journey of writing the Freeing Energy book. It was out in Colorado with the founder, the iconic founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory Lovins. And I was getting his advice on the thesis for a book. And he took a moment and he said, “The problem is so many entrepreneurs jump into, for all the best of reasons, jump into the clean energy industry. But folks that have come from software and traditional tech don’t understand the assets and the capital required and particularly the policies.” And he said, “I think you’re making a great decision to write a book and really learn about it first.”

Bill Nussey:

And I think that’s something that Jemma was echoing is that being in the clean energy industry is very different than traditional software tech, traditional tech, and it’s full of policy, it’s full of incredibly strong incumbents who are both friend and foe. You need to work with them, but you also need to arm wrestle with them as well. This is all brand new concepts to folks who have come from outside of energy. And I think a lot of the best ideas have failed because the founders of those companies and the executives and investors didn’t understand thoroughly enough the rules of this particular game.

Sam Easterby:

All right. Well, Bill, we’re just about out of time today. Give us a quick update on the book.

Bill Nussey:

Yeah. Thanks for asking. I’ve been working on it for three, almost four years now. I’ve interviewed 320 people. I’ve been to factories in China and Africa and Puerto Rico and it’s been an amazing journey and it is finally coming together. So the book is in first draft, at the moment. By the time this podcast airs, it’ll be in it’s second draft, and we’re hopefully just a few weeks away from giving the final draft to the production teams, which is a surprisingly long process, I’ve learned from my other book efforts. This will take a few months, but the book will come out in late October, early November, and I’m pretty excited that I’ll be doing an early introduction to the book at the biggest solar conference in the industry, Solar Power International Energy Week in New Orleans in late September. So I’ve got a slot there to share some of the early stories and insights from the book with some of the audiences there at the trade show. And that’s going to be the first of what I hope will be many opportunities to share and share copies and excerpts of the book with people and get the word out there that there’s a fantastic group of people with amazing stories that anyone who’s in the clean energy industry can learn from, and I’m excited to be a small purveyor of their stories and to get it out there.

Bill Nussey:

So we’re hopefully only a few more months away before we can make the book broadly available. And I’m excited to share all the stories and insights from these brilliant people that have shared their time with us on the podcast, many of whom are in the book. It’s quite an effort, and I think the results are, I certainly learned a lot and I hope everybody else will too.

Sam Easterby:

Great insights. And it’s so wonderful to be able to flip the roles here a little bit and share some time with you. And I really appreciate you making the time today to talk to us on the Freeing Energy podcast.

Bill Nussey:

Thank you, Sam. I appreciate you setting up these wonderful questions and listening through my answers. I have such a privilege to do this with you and you and I have met and worked with so many awesome people, and when we’re talking about the team, big shout out to Sean, who’s working with us today, and Peter who’s worked with us. We’ve got some great folks who have helped make this whose voices you don’t hear but are part of this and to whom we are grateful. And I think we’re just getting started.

Sam Easterby:

Thank you for joining us today. You have been listening to the Freeing Energy podcast, personal stories from the clean energy movement. To learn more about the Freeing Energy Project, visit our website, freeingenergy.com. Subscribe to the Freeing Energy podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. Make sure more people learn about clean local energy by rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts.

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