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US wind sector needs to 'stop acting like a teenager and grow up'

Also, US utilities are behaving like 'entitled frat boys', and there is a kind of collective insanity when it comes to batteries, writes Jereme Kent, CEO of US wind developer/installer One Energy

As I understand it, the proper outlet for a modern CEO, politician, or any kind of “disruptive leader” when they are frustrated is a series of 280-character Twitter rants. I refuse to be that trivial. And as a frustrated CEO in the energy industry, I have a few things to say.

I am tired of the utility-scale wind industry in the US. Please, stop angering communities because you lack basic communication skills. Stop begging for more money from the government. Stop selling the fact that your power is “green”. Stop acting like a teenager and grow up already.

The utility-scale wind industry has, in the past 15 years, fundamentally transformed the power grid. It relies on a free and infinite fuel source and it is the safest form of large-scale power generation available. My advice to the teenage utility-scale wind industry: instead of pissing everyone off with your project development practices, just tell the world what you have accomplished. Show the world how much cleaner you have made it.

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And, for the love of God, please tell everyone how much cheaper than natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy you are. It might also be good to mention that your fuel price isn’t tied to OPEC’s mood. It’s time to grow up — by communicating, paying your own way, and acknowledging the importance of talking about money.

I am tired of hearing about batteries being the future of the power gird. I never thought I’d say this, but batteries are sexy. They’re great for small amounts of power, like for cars or my cellphone. What batteries are not, is a solution to flattening the power grid. Only in the modern world of venture-capital hype could it be possible for this much error to perpetuate.

The math is completely upside down. The power grid is huge. The amount of electricity that must be stored to provide one hour of power for the US grid is astronomical. The biggest battery in the world right now can’t power one of my customer’s factories for an afternoon, let alone help them flatten their load.

"The biggest battery in the world right now can’t power one of my customer’s factories for an afternoon, let alone help them flatten their load."

Batteries are cute little (sexy) toys that belong in cars and are good at solving short-term grid problems like frequency. I personally think the only viable path to storage on a scale that actually matters is physical storage. Something big that takes a lot of energy to transform and that can then release that energy — and there are some very promising thermal and liquid-air storage technologies now being commercialized.

Unfortunately, physical storage isn’t sexy. Newsflash: the power grid is not sexy. Its job is to work 365 days a year and last for the next hundred years. Instead of investing in batteries, let’s start having real conversations about investing in simple physical systems that are not sexy.

I am tired of watching US utilities endlessly take advantage of customers. They manipulate politicians and regulators for their own benefit and to the detriment of their customers. Utilities around the US have come to the simple (and well-founded) conclusion that it is easier to make money by lobbying, than by actually running their businesses.

They spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to pass absurd legislation or enact tariffs so they can create short-term “shareholder value.” Meanwhile, the regulations and policies hurt their customers, while the utilities pretend their entire business model isn’t dying.

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Utilities are living a make-believe existence. They think they are the only solution — that they can continue to take money from their customers without modernizing or adapting. Without actually giving a damn about what’s in their customer’s best interests.

Electric utilities are no longer the steadfast stewards of public good. They are the terminal patient who is still in denial about their diagnosis. They are the entitled frat boy who has never been told “no.” It’s time for a change in the power grid.

Just like all great industry transformations stemming from the information age, the power grid of the future is going to be customer-centric, and it is going to be competitive. I intend to continue installing on-site industrial power projects, doing my small part to help end electric utilities in their current form as soon as humanly possible. It would just be nice if politicians and regulators would stop making it so easy for utilities to prolong the inevitable.I am tired of hearing private equity talk about how they have recently discovered social investing, impact investing, ESG, whatever token phrase they’re using this week. Investing in companies that aren’t self-destructive is suddenly hip? I find it hard to believe these firms have just figured out that maybe a successful business model isn’t self-destructing.

Investing in a company with a promising product or a revolutionary app seems like a good idea, but if that company has a misogynist culture, is causing harm to the world, or is willing to break the law to win, then maybe that isn’t a good investment. Groundbreaking.

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Social investing should just be called common-sense investing. Private-equity groups have to actually do hands-on due diligence, ask tough conversations, and decide if the company is a ticking time bomb.

I came from the world of running big wind projects. It was 95% male and it, like most of the energy industry, was self-destructive. The company I have built is more than half women. More than two thirds of leadership positions are held by women.

We have built a radically open and honest culture. My team regularly calls me out on my bullshit, often actually using the word “bullshit”. We have built an authentic safety culture. We’ve never had a lost-time injury, and just in case we ever do have an accident, we are the only fully licensed advanced life-support-capable company in Ohio that isn’t a hospital or EMS [emergency medical services] agency. I have assembled, enabled, and protected a brilliant team (a team I want behind me when I go to war with the utilities). I didn’t do it for social investment or ESG points; I did it because I want to build a company that lasts. I want a company that doesn’t self-destruct.

I am tired and I am frustrated but I am hopeful. The energy industry needs to change, and we have a lot of work to do. So let’s act like adults and get to work.

Jereme Kent is CEO of One Energy, a US wind developer/installer/owner based in Ohio

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