Babson Magazine

Spring 2017

Power for the People

Alumni discuss the various changes underway in the energy industry and how those developments will affect, and potentially expand, the way the world is powered.

Power for the People
Illustration: John Tomac

Consider the many ways energy powers your day. It charges your electronics, from the alarm clock that wakes you to the phone you can’t put down to the computer you use for work. It lights your nights, chills your food, heats your home, warms your shower, and pumps your drinking water. It operates traffic signals, hospital life-support systems, offices, factories—and so much more.

At the same time, people in some parts of the world have limited or no access to energy due to poor or nonexistent infrastructure. The International Energy Agency reports that 1.2 billion people around the world live without power.

Meeting the world’s energy demands is complicated at best, difficult or improbable at worst. Alumni working in the industry talk about how energy sources, from gas and nuclear to solar and wind, are powering the world today, and what the future may hold for these industries and the people who depend on them.

JIM JUDGE ’77, MBA’81

CEO, Eversource

Jim Judge is a 40-year veteran of the power company now known as Eversource, which delivers electricity and gas to 3.7 million customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. During his career, Judge has watched New England’s energy industry shift to a reliance on natural gas. In 2000, natural gas generators made up just 15 percent of the region’s power plants, he recalls. But the development of mining techniques such as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) has created an abundance of cheap natural gas, so gas-fired plants in New England now exceed 50 percent of the total energy supply, with virtually all generators built during the past 20 years running on natural gas. Because natural gas releases less carbon than other fossil fuels, it is a preferred fuel source from an environmental perspective, Judge explains.

Jim Judge ’77, MBA’81 CEO, Eversource

Photo: Pat Piasecki
Jim Judge ’77, MBA’81, CEO of Eversource, which delivers electricity and gas to customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire

Judge began his career as an associate rate analyst in 1977 at Boston Edison. Through the years, the company merged with other utilities to eventually become Eversource, and Judge rose through the ranks to become CEO last May. During those four decades, the world has developed a host of new uses for electricity, but energy demand has remained largely stable due to such factors as advances in the design of electronics and power plants. “New England’s generators are the newest and most efficient plants that we have on the system,” Judge says. The company also offers programs for improving energy efficiency to its customers. “We spend more than half a billion dollars a year on energy efficiency, so new buildings going up now use a fraction of the energy used, say, 30 years ago,” he explains.

Nonetheless, New England sometimes still struggles to get enough natural gas during peak periods, Judge says. To expand the region’s infrastructure, Eversource is part of a project known as Access Northeast, which seeks to update existing pipelines to bring more natural gas from the rich shale deposits in Pennsylvania into New England.

Judge notes that the energy industry also has grown “greener,” particularly in states such as Massachusetts where customers and policymakers continue to push for energy from renewables, including solar. “We are working closely with policymakers to help achieve aggressive carbon reduction goals,” he says.

Judge expects renewables to become increasingly important and believes Eversource is well positioned for that shift. The company currently is working on what he humorously describes as “a large extension cord up to Canada” to take advantage of excess energy produced by the country’s hydroelectric dams. Eversource also partnered with a Danish company that specializes in offshore wind power, and it has invested $200 million in a large-scale solar farm in Massachusetts. For now, renewables provide a relatively small part of the total supply needed, Judge acknowledges, due in part to a lack of affordable ways to store power once it’s generated. “As you know, the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine,” he says.

The big breakthrough will come when the industry develops batteries and other cost-effective methods to capture excess energy supply for later use. To that end, Eversource has launched a $100 million program to test energy storage technologies for five years, and it currently is considering projects located around Massachusetts. “It’s a significant investment, but we think this is the next major breakthrough for our industry,” Judge says, “and we’d like to lead the charge on it.”

ABHIJIT GUPTA, MBA’13

Founder, ACI Clean Energy

Following the completion of his MBA, Abhijit Gupta returned home to Mumbai, India, to launch a new branch of his family’s business: After decades in the IT industry, the company diversified into renewable energy. “India is the fastest-growing large economy in the world,” Gupta says. “There’s been a worldwide push for much cleaner fuel and renewable technologies, especially in the developing world, so we felt the demand would be there. It’s also a good area to be in from a moral standpoint, because I think we’re adding value to society.”

ACI Clean Energy provides biofuel made from wood scraps. It collects wood waste and sawdust generated by saw mills and other wood-processing industries and compresses them into pellets that can be burned as heating fuel. Although somewhat new in India, wood biofuels have a longer history in Europe, Gupta notes, driven in part by the requirement that 20 percent of the European Union energy needs be fulfilled by renewables by 2020.

For some ACI clients, such as large commercial kitchens that typically cook with propane, the change to biofuels can save money. For other clients, such as PepsiCo India, biofuel is more expensive than conventional fuels, notes Gupta. But PepsiCo chooses to use the pricier pellets in certain processes to raise its sustainability profile.

Gupta recently expanded ACI Clean Energy into designing, constructing, and maintaining solar installations. The company’s first project, completed in late 2016, involved installing a 400-kilowatt solar plant on a client’s factory roof. By the end of 2017, Gupta aims to install at least 10 megawatts of rooftop solar power, and he sees huge potential for future growth, given that India’s leadership has set aggressive goals for clean energy. “There is a government target for the country to install 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2022,” Gupta explains. “We’re at nine gigawatts now. That’s obviously massive growth, and billions of dollars of possible business.”

The World Bank reports that about 300 million people in India lack access to electricity. Utility companies are slowly building power lines to connect rural communities, but Gupta sees solar as a key solution, particularly if energy-storage technology improves, because solar lets consumers provide their own power. “It’s a fantastic solution for a country like India that needs more grid transmission connectivity,” he says. Even in countries like the U.S., the ability to store solar power will increase its popularity, Gupta believes. “That will be feasible in the future for sure,” he says.

JOHN CHAIMANIS, MBA’07

Co-founder, Kendall Sustainable Infrastructure; adjunct instructor, Babson

After volunteering as a teacher in an inner-city school and co-founding a public charter school in Boston, John Chaimanis was about to begin his MBA at Babson when he read an article about renewable energy in National Geographic. It included a photo that showed more than 70 people standing shoulder to shoulder before a massive wind turbine blade. The image “just blew my mind,” says Chaimanis, who from that point determined he wanted to work in the industry. Major European banks were backing wind projects, he notes, which encouraged his decision. “Once banks start putting hundreds of millions and billions of dollars into an industry,” Chaimanis says, “you have to believe it’s real, and not something that’s going to fade away tomorrow.”

With his goal in mind, Chaimanis started classes and relaunched Babson’s Energy and Environment Club, which had languished but came back to hold its first annual conference on energy topics that year. (Chaimanis remains involved in the club today as an alumni member.) After graduation, he joined Edison Mission Energy, an independent power producer, where he was part of a group that developed roughly 1,500 megawatts of wind projects in four years.

Chaimanis sees renewables as a savvy investment, but historically investors have had few ways to benefit directly. So Chaimanis partnered with Ken Lehman at Kendall Investments to create an offshoot company, Kendall Sustainable Infrastructure (KSI), which offers investments in closed-end funds focused on renewable energy projects. Chaimanis explains: “In a typical investment, our fund would spend about $1 million to build a solar asset, similar to a commercial real estate building, and then sell the power we produce, distributing that cash to investors.”

Through its funds, KSI owns interests in more than 30 projects around the country, mainly in solar power, although the company also considers investments in other renewables such as wind and hydropower. Chaimanis made the switch to solar around 2012, when wind power was well-established and he saw more potential for growth in distributed solar projects, the medium-sized installations that are bigger than rooftop panels but much smaller than utility-scale solar farms. The solar market has exploded; according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar experienced a compound annual growth rate of more than 60 percent during the past decade. Part of the appeal is that the installation cost has dropped, from $4 to $6 per installed watt five years ago to less than $2 a watt today, Chaimanis claims. “And it’s continuing to get cheaper and more competitive.”

He sees significant growth of renewables in other countries, including China and Mexico, which are aggressively investing in solar and wind power. “The recipe for successful renewable energy,” Chaimanis says, “is a stable regulatory climate with political certainty, and then the capital will come.”

Chaimanis acknowledges that renewable energy alone cannot yet supply all of the power needs in the U.S. “There’s more than enough wind energy and solar energy and land in the United States to generate the power we need,” Chaimanis says, “but the cost of storage today would make it an expensive proposition.”

However, Chaimanis sees a lot of work happening to increase the amount of renewables that the power grid can handle and to make the grid smarter and more efficient. Given the research by companies such as Tesla to develop cheaper battery technologies, he predicts the price of energy storage will become more affordable over the next decade. In the next 50 to 100 years, Chaimanis says, an all-renewable energy grid is “extremely possible.”

HUNTER HILL ’02

CFO, LPR Energy

Hunter Hill was born into an oil and gas family. Starting in the fifth grade, he spent summers working for his grandfather’s company, Hill Energy, helping map its oil and gas wells in Texas and Oklahoma. Later, when he graduated from Babson, Hill didn’t intend to join the family business. “But we were entering another energy boom, and my grandfather was getting up there in years and had failing health,” he says, “so I helped him run the company and wind down his affairs.”

After his grandfather’s death, Hill established PAS Capital, which invested in gas and oil projects. Later, he teamed up with his father and brothers to launch LPR Energy, a small, private oil and gas firm where he serves as CFO. The company drills for natural gas in central Pennsylvania; its customers include South Jersey Industries, one of the largest natural gas marketers in the Northeast.

Hill has had a front-row seat for the dramatic emergence of natural gas. In the early 2000s, companies working in the north-central Texas area perfected the then-new techniques of horizontal drilling and fracking to extract natural gas from a rock formation known as the Barnett Shale. The process involves drilling down at least a mile, and then drilling horizontally for several thousand feet through the shale. Once the well is drilled, water is pumped in, along with sand and additives, to create tiny fractures in the rock, permitting gas to escape. “One horizontal well can produce as much gas as probably 50 vertical wells,” Hill says, “but the cost of the horizontal well is only about three times that of one vertical well.”

Around 2008, companies including LPR began drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which includes areas in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia, and found an abundance of natural gas. “In 2004, no one thought you’d be able to produce anything cost effectively from the Marcellus Shale, and today the Marcellus alone is producing 18 BCF [billion cubic feet] per day,” Hill says. “Overall production in the U.S. is around 70 BCF. The Marcellus is about 25 percent of production, and no one would have predicted that.” Hill says this has created jobs in the region, including at his own company, which employs more than 20 people to run its operations in central Pennsylvania.

The sudden abundance of natural gas triggered a dramatic drop in prices. “The oil and gas markets are very efficient, and the moment you have one molecule of excess supply, prices drop,” Hill explains. Still, given the current popularity of natural gas, he expects its price to increase in the near future. In addition to LPR Energy, Hill launched another company to purchase mineral rights from property owners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. The company buys the minerals located under a person’s property, which gives Hill the right to lease the minerals for drilling, either by his company or a third party. If natural gas prices do rise, Hill’s company will drill new wells in search of additional gas.

Hill says one of the biggest challenges in natural gas is the question of what to do with the large quantities of wastewater produced by fracking; transporting the used water to disposal sites is one of LPR’s largest expenses. The challenge—and opportunity—lies in figuring out a portable, small-scale process to handle the water produced at the shale wells, cleaning it on-site for other uses, he says. Hill notes that people are working on this question; for the past five years, he has served as a judge for the Ben Franklin Technology Partners Shale Gas Innovation Contest, in which contestants pitch new ways to deal with mining challenges, including wastewater.

“There’s never a dull moment in this field,” Hill says. “You have to constantly be out there trying to figure out the next trend, the next game changer, and thinking, how is that going to impact my costs?”

ILENE MASON, MBA’08

Founder, Rethinking Power Management

Ilene Mason’s company, Rethinking Power Management (RPM), gives her insights into how municipalities and other organizations in New England are striving to become more sustainable, including their efforts to reduce power consumption.

Mason, who founded RPM to help organizations tackle sustainablity issues and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notes that New England is an especially exciting place to work on changing the local energy landscape. She cites former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick as a leader in this area for setting aggressive targets for carbon reductions and establishing a legislative framework to support those goals. Her small company has guided municipalities and businesses as they change their energy habits, from converting to LED streetlights to revamping the mechanical and ventilation systems in buildings. But meeting aggressive energy goals requires more than incremental changes, Mason adds. “If we’re going to achieve those carbon reductions, we need to go beyond changing lightbulbs and think more systemically, much more holistically, in terms of how we operate,” she says.

Mason admires innovative efforts by cities and towns to reduce their carbon emissions. “Boston and Cambridge have been very forward thinking in trying to reach those targets,” Mason says. She points to a “green steam” project, which involves a gas-fired power plant in Cambridge: The steam given off by the plant is captured and then routed by pipes to heat 250 buildings in Cambridge and Boston. Mason predicts that the energy infrastructure of the future will include more of these novel projects.

A metallurgical engineer by training, Mason took a break from that career when her children were young, volunteering for the Sierra Club and chairing her town’s recycling efforts. She eventually took a job with the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, which gave her insight into energy efficiency policies in the U.S. and Canada. But, as she finished her MBA at Babson, Mason realized she craved a role that would have a direct impact on energy use and greenhouse gas mitigation, and in 2009 she founded RPM.

Mason is concerned about what the current political climate could mean for energy efficiency and carbon-reduction efforts. “But I’m hopeful that local governments will be able to continue to push forward these kinds of policies and initiatives and continue to support them,” she says. “For me, the main driver is environmental stewardship, but the second piece of that is financial. As you become more efficient, you also can bring down costs, and for cities or towns or companies, that’s critical.”

CARL PEREZ ’15

Co-founder and CEO of Elysium Industries

Carl Perez and his co-founders at Elysium Industries want to build a better nuclear reactor. Their design is based on 1950s technology that was originally developed to power U.S. military planes, says Perez. The project was ultimately abandoned, due in part to budget cuts, and plans for this once-classified technology eventually were released into the public domain. Elysium obtained the plans, hired a staff of veteran nuclear designers, and is working to build a next-generation nuclear reactor that its founders view as a cheaper, carbon-free alternative to gas- and coal-fired power plants.

The Elysium team knows that the words “nuclear power” trigger fear of accidents like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima. But Perez says Elysium’s technology is safer and more stable than existing nuclear reactors because it uses a molten salt reactor, which doesn’t require human intervention to shut down in emergencies, such as a rise in temperature or an earthquake. And while older reactors burn roughly 4 percent of their uranium, the molten salt reactor burns 99.99 percent, eliminating the problems created by spent nuclear fuel, Perez explains. In fact, he claims this technology can run on the spent nuclear fuel generated by older nuclear plants.

Nuclear provides plentiful, carbon-free energy, says Perez, who believes that renewables such as wind and solar alone can’t meet the world’s voracious energy demands. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that renewable energy provided only 13 percent of U.S. electricity in 2015. The Elysium reactor would produce about 1,000 megawatts of power, enough for 500,000 households in an industrialized country or more than 1 million households in less developed nations.

On a more personal level, one of Perez’s primary concerns is “energy poverty,” a lack of access to consistent power in Africa and elsewhere. The problem resonates for Perez, whose father was born in Algeria. During college, Perez studied such topics as the international energy infrastructure and the sub-Saharan energy sector. He found that though African countries are fertile for entrepreneurship, frequent power failures mean business owners must devote significant resources to purchasing backup power generators. Even developed areas in South Africa experience regular power outages, which limit the ability to conduct business. Perez wants to help and sees nuclear power as a solution.

For now, Elysium’s design team is about to begin materials testing on its first reactor. Although the company is pursuing the U.S. market, obtaining U.S. licenses is likely to take more than a decade. In the meantime, Perez and his colleagues are working with regulators in Canada, which has a vendor design review program that will take about three years. Elysium hopes interested utilities will sign on and then oversee licensing procedures and costs themselves. The company also hopes to attract interest in Japan. Perez says that in the aftermath of Fukushima, the country is dismantling its aging nuclear power plants, thus increasing its reliance on imported fossil fuels, so it is eager for safer nuclear options.

Given that renewable energy is unlikely to meet all of the world’s power needs in the foreseeable future, Elysium hopes to shift society’s thinking about nuclear power. “If the desired outcome is to generate electricity safely and without any carbon emissions,” Perez says, “then nuclear needs to be part of that discussion.”

SAVITHA SRIDHARAN, MBA’14

Founder and CEO, Orora Global

Savitha Sridharan, MBA’14

Photo: Jillian Clark
Savitha Sridharan, MBA’14, founder and CEO of Orora Global, provider of clean-energy solutions for rural and semi-urban communities

Savitha Sridharan believes that solar energy has the power to change women’s lives. Her company provides reliable and affordable renewable energy to rural communities in India that lack access to electricity; recent statistics from the World Bank reveal that about 300 million people in India don’t have power. She chose to focus on solar because it’s easily scalable and people in India seem open to this technology. “One of Orora’s chief missions is to empower more women to become part of the clean energy industry,” Sridharan says. “We hire and train women to become part of our network, and they go and light up the communities where they live in rural India.”

Born in Bangalore, Sridharan came to the U.S. to advance her studies, eventually working here for nine years as a designer of integrated circuits. “As much as life as an engineer was fun and I was doing what I wanted to do, I also had a strong passion for social change, for giving back to my country,” Sridharan says. Living in the U.S. with her husband, she raised thousands of dollars for nonprofits in India by running races, from 10ks to ultramarathons. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Sridharan felt especially committed to making life better for women.

At Babson, she focused on renewable energy, joining the Energy and Environment Club. “It gave me that confidence to go explore New England-based renewable companies, to learn about the industry and think about ways to replicate it or try something new,” she says. The concept for Orora took shape around two main products: solar-powered lanterns that hold a charge for up to eight hours after sitting in the sun for four to six hours, and solar-powered home-lighting systems. The company now also offers custom-built, solar-based systems for community buildings such as schools and hospitals.

Rural women tell Sridharan that her lanterns have been game changers. “If women don’t have sanitation, they have to walk into the wild to use the restroom at night,” Sridharan says. “They get attacked every day. My first customer made me cry. She said, ‘By giving me your solar lantern, I have not had a man touch me in three months, and I can walk around in the night safely.’ It’s returning their dignity, and that’s important to me.”

Orora is a for-profit company, and its main customers are local nonprofit agencies that connect Orora with communities. Orora helps the nonprofits raise funds to purchase lanterns and lighting systems for women to sell, and it trains women in salesmanship and business skills. “The women are involved in many ways, from business development to training other women to installing and servicing products to talking to the government,” Sridharan says. She recently teamed up with Womentum, a crowdfunding company founded by Babson undergraduate Prabha Dublish ’18, to run a yearlong campaign for Orora. They hope to raise enough in 2017 to give 200 women $150 each to start selling solar lanterns.

One of the beauties of solar power in rural India is its simplicity, Sridharan says. “Solar is one of the easiest solutions, because apart from the solar panels, all you need is the sun,” she says. “There’s no question of availability. In India, the sun is always there.”

Erin O’Donnell is a writer in Milwaukee.