Full Report: Clean Energy Trek to California

Following up on my last post, I have since returned from San Francisco. The experience that I had with my peers during the 2017 Nicholas Clean Energy Tech trip has been one of my favorite memories of grad school. From the companies we visited, to the informal meet-and-greets, and the unplanned laughs in between, this trek was emblematic of the kind of adventures that will last long after graduation.

On the first full day, we got to visit two very different companies: NextEra and Google. NextEra even shut down a turbine at their Birds Landing wind farms so that we could have an inside look. Our presentation was given by wind technicians who manage the operations of NextEra’s two sites. It was deeply educational to hear from the “boots-on-the-ground” perspective, seeing as how energy analysts and the field team must work collaboratively to make efficiency upgrades and troubleshoot constantly.

Photo from Birds Landing, California.

At Google, we were able to speak with a negotiator. He is in charge of conducting corporate PPAs on behalf of Google’s power procurement team, including one in Lenoir, North Carolina, for a data center! Google roughly consumes as much power as the city of San Francisco. By 2047, Google hopes to be completely carbon-free. As Amazon and Microsoft fill out their own portfolios to hit their 100% renewable energy mandates, it will be interesting to see if Google will remain the corporate pack leader.

On Thursday, we met with Stem, SunPower, and attended a networking session hosted by the Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC). Stem represented the emerging energy storage industry on our trek. We met with Duke undergrad alums who presented on the market opportunities for storage in California and beyond. Nowadays, it seems as though one cannot mention renewable energy integration without talking about storage. So naturally, it was fulfilling to see a company succeeding within an industry that we continuously have heard so much about. As California moves ahead with their state storage mandate, keep an eye out for regions elsewhere throughout the country where this established technology will begin to carve out a foothold, both in aggregated behind-the-meter solutions and on the utility-scale.

A Stem battery system, also known as PowerStore

SunPower’s Director of Sustainability presented on their six pillars of corporate sustainability: sourcing, materials, manufacturing, distribution, product use and recycling. In discussing her efforts to inject third-party validation of SunPower’s sustainability goals, she extolled the importance of building assets for commercial customers (such as LEED points for buildings that use their panels).

Mini-diorama of SunPower’s Oasis Power Plant

Lastly, our social event for the evening landed us on Berkeley’s beautiful and lush campus. We mingled with graduate and PhD students connected with BERC, as well as energy practitioners like Tim Sears (Grid Alternatives, Co-Founder), Judith Ikle (CPUC Branch Manager, Procurement, Renewables, and Climate Strategy) and Emilie Wangerman (PG&E, Manager of Pricing Products).

Friday, our last day, was packed with meetings. From PG&E in the morning, Navigant in the afternoon, and last, but not least, Grid Alternatives to end our trek. We had an extremely warm welcome at PG&E, where multiple Nic alums gave presentations on their individual teams within the utility. We heard about how PG&E conducts structured energy transactions, plans for grid improvement and manages their portfolio of investments.

Navigant represented the consulting side of the energy industry. Members from their Global Energy Practice gave several presentations on modeling, the water-energy nexus and the future of the hydrogen economy. The interplay between consultants and notable government agencies, such as the Department of Energy, was of particular note; especially on how Navigant’s Technology Management and Policy team works jointly with federal offices, dutifully watching the congressional rule-making processes.

Grid Alternatives represented the social impact side of the energy industry. Their mission-driven team explained how they pair low-income homes with solar installations, while providing their PV volunteers with crucial job-readiness skills. They emphasized how critical it was to have pro-solar legislature to back their projects, as well as reaching across the private sector to have corporate sponsorship.

Group picture in front of Grid Alternatives

I could say a lot more about the wonderful conversations and the bounty of out-of-class knowledge we were able to intake on this trip, but I would unfortunately run out of space. I highly encourage any incoming students (or current first-years that were unable to go) to apply for this amazing opportunity!

For any questions and comments, please email me at soli.shin@duke.edu.