Doug Arent | Executive Director of the National Renewable Energy Labratory

The Zenergy Podcast interviews global climate leaders with prior guests including the founders of some of the world's largest renewable energy and electric vehicle companies including founders of SoftBank Energy, Azure Power, Ola Electric, and SunEdison. These conversations share industry developments, highlight clean tech investment opportunities, and shed light on how young professionals can increase their chances of employment in this fastly growing sector. We also discuss the energy transition across key emerging markets like India, and explore partnership opportunities for US companies.


00:02 Introduction
Are you looking to become a leader in Clean Energy and an expert in clean tech? Do you hope to get noticed in the crowd as you pursue a career in this fastly growing industry, you are in the right place. Join Karan Takhar as he invites clean energy leaders to share industry development, highlight clean tech investment opportunities, and shed light on how you can increase your chances of employment in this high-growth sector. We will also discuss the energy transition across key emerging markets like India and explore partnership opportunities for the US private and public sectors, after all. This is the Zenergy podcast.

00:51 Karan Takhar
Thank you, Doctor Arent, for taking the time. I've been really looking forward to speaking with you, and it's great to connect with you at the global Clean Energy Action Forum, and I'm really jealous that you're in Hawaii right now just to provide some context for listeners who may be unfamiliar with your work and also what the National Renewable Energy Laboratories is can you provide a brief introduction off Arent and what your role is at the organization.

01:27 Doug Arent 
Sure, MREL the National Renewable Energy Lab is a national lab of the Department of Energy It was started in the mid-70s as the Solar Energy Research Institute during the first oil crisis and was elevated to a National lab in 1990 and we're the only lab in the United States and for many years decades, the only one in the world that has focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy today we are 3000 plus strong and located in Golden Color with a main campus there and then a satellite campus up near Boulder called the Flatirons campus and our research focuses on innovating in that those spaces so think of energy efficiency, smart buildings, energy-efficient mobility classically, you could think of the renewable generation technologies like wind, solar, and geothermal, but also marine hydro, biofuels, and increasingly over the last numbers of years we have focused on other technologies and system integration, so this includes a significant amount of work in cybersecurity and resiliency and energy systems integration includes a lot in carbon utilization. So what does that mean? That means a kind of using carbon molecules that are either captured from a CO2 stream or maybe cut from biomass and using them into high-value products across that whole board, and we're super excited about what we do great young workforce we work in 40 countries around the world and are motivated to get up and go to work every day because we know what we do and we're there to help as our directors say, save the planet.

03:21 Karan Takhar
And so Doctor Arent, could you provide some insight into what your role is at Enbrel as well as what your day-to-day looks like for, you know, young listeners who might be interested in joining Arent and curious about, like, what a senior leadership role would look like?

03:42 Doug Arent 
Yeah, maybe a more interesting piece would be the journey of my roles at Enrail If you wouldn't mind a little there's an I actually started at Enbrel as a summer graduate student back in the mid-80s when I was doing my Ph.D., there was a researcher at Enbrel who was in the same field as what I was studying for my Ph.D. and he's now an emeritus fellow namart nosig and I came in as a summer student and then I returned to Princeton to finish my Ph.D. went to Europe for a couple of postdocs and returned to enroll then as Art, Nozick's postdoc and started as a postdoc and converted to a researcher full-time researcher and then I added an MBA because I wanted to get into more economics policy and analysis work and that took me to Washington DC I was on assignment, much like you were to the Department of Energy for a couple of years and was a an advisor to a senior adviser of the Secretary of Energy at that point in time and traveled to South Africa and India and all sorts of interesting countries in advance of TRIPS that she would take and that was stays a little leery that she there refers to I came back to Enbrel and I became more the senior researcher and then eventually evolved into leading the Strategic Analysis Center and did that with one hat or another for almost 20 years. Built about 300-person staff and energy analysis life cycle assessment, grid modeling, etc a lot of technology conomic analysis did that for about 20 years and then most recently became the executive director of Strategic, Public-Private Partnerships and in that role, I have this great opportunity to work with creative teams in the laboratory Topical areas that we feel are really important, so a couple of examples of those are one is called accelerating clean energy at scale, which really means bringing our analytic capabilities to communities around the country and countries around the world to help translate the ambitions that most everyone has set out now into really implementation plans and that we do through really rigorous engineering informed or engineering based energy models and they are able to kind of map out a set of no regrets decisions for the next 10 or 20 years while they look at achieving the long term decarbonization or clean energy goals of different places that's one example the other one is a great example of working with the team on sustainable aviation ecosystems and here the word ecosystem is really important because as we think about how aviation will evolve in the United States in particular, there's of course the long-haul aircraft that we all sit on when we travel back and forth from school to home or home to vacation and that's going to need sustainable aviation fuels and we do a lot of work in that space as well, but if you're in a smaller town you might fly on a smaller aircraft or into a small airport and those what are called short or medium-haul airplanes with smaller passenger loads are very much looking for an electrified future and so it's very possible that those small aircraft for shorter distances will be electrified in the not-too-distant future and that means that airports have to provide charging capabilities, and of course, the grid has to be clean to provide clean electrons for that, so we're looking across that whole space about how do we help support plan the whole ecosystem, including, of course, the airport operations as well, so that's a couple of examples of what I do and it's working with the Department of Energy and it's working with other Government agencies and it's working with lots of companies.

08:08 Karan Takhar
That's incredible thank you for shedding insight into your career trajectory as well as some of the important work that you're doing today, and I have two follow-up questions. I'm attacking both of those different thematic areas, so in terms of when Enbrel and your team is building out and developing these implementation plans to help communities and also countries around the world transition their economies to more decarbonized systems can you provide insight into one how receptive like these communities and countries generally are If we could focus on countries, in this case, I think that would be intriguing and too like does Enbrel work actively with the counterparts in terms of developing plans that are specific to that locality, I'm just to get a sense of how integrated the work is when these plans are being developed.

09:10 Doug Arent 
It's insightful set of questions, and they're very tightly coupled so every engagement, whether or not it's at a local community level or at a national level starts with engaging with stakeholders and having a whole series of dialogues about what are their goals, what are their questions of course what is their energy system be that electric or broader economy-wide energy system look like today and what are their resources and interests and goals for transforming that town classically, the concerns are stabilization and job creation, economic prosperity, resiliency and reliability, and particularly of the power system but of the whole energy system and, of course, affordability so for example, in India a number of years ago we worked on a program called Greening the Grid, which was the first national goal that the Government had set out for integrating 175 Gigawatts of removal electricity and in that, a colleague of ours spent six months in India working with the stakeholders, creating a technical kind of advisory committee, collecting data that would be needed for doing the engineering, economic modeling, and in that process gained the support of and the real interest from a very broad group of stakeholders who at that point in time had lots of questions but didn't really know the methods or the answers and through that process were incredibly confident of then the results of the study because they were intimate with the methods and the data and the conversations that had gone into it and the study was promoted and released by the Ministry of Power and embraced by postal code, which is kind of the National Grid operating company and other key stakeholders within the national government that they have now taken that and said Oh well, we know how to integrate that much and we have greater ambitions so they now have a goal of455 hundered Gigawatts of mixing level of ambition and they are both running the models themselves, but also engaging with ourselves and others in terms of improving and their methods and their approach and solution set shall we call it in terms of what do they do to be able to achieve that goal?

11:48 Karan Takhar
Understood that experience, I will appreciate you providing detailed breakdown on a specific project another question that comes to mind as it pertains to greening the grid or integration which you previously touched upon earlier so in one of My classes a professor mentioned that currently, roughly about 50% of electric bills stem from the generation costs, whereas the other 50% roughly stem from the transmission and distribution costs, however, my professor forecasts that this 50% dynamic is likely to shift over the next 20 or 30 years where transmission and distribution will slowly make up an increasing share of the electric bill and as a result, integration and Green Grid likely will become a even more pressing issue, and would love to hear your thoughts on what you feel is some of the larger challenges and also like technologies that can help address those challenges as it pertains to you lowering distribution and transmission cost over time, making that process more seamless specialist more renewables get integrated.

13:17 Doug Arent 
It's kind of a complicated subject, so your professor painted, I guess 1 pathway and one potential out which is I would call it the evolutionary pathway of a greening of a power grid, which is that the system eventually incorporates more and more variable renewables plus you know, potentially storage long-term storage, long-duration storage, and elements like that which have a capital cost but no fuel cost and so the overall operating cost for electricity generation actually decreases and in an ideal situation to be economically optimal, you would actually build out our transmission in order to tap shall we call it the low-cost or the high-potential generation sites which might be far away from, let's say, a city where you where you're located and that under that paradigm transmission would increase, distribution would stay the same or potentially increase and the generation cost would go down but there are alternative paradigms and scenarios where, for example, in New York State Richard Kaufman, when he was the head of the Energy Department there and the chair of Acerta, the State Energy Research and Development Agency the state itself went down a pathway to initiate what was called the Rev, the revolutionizing the energy future for New York City and underneath that was a program very explicitly targeted on what's called non-wires alternatives, and what that means is to look spatially temporally, of course, so it at the right locations and for resources that produce power at the right time of day how to bolster the greening of the grid throughout the network and avoid the need for greater wholesale generation and transmission, and under that particular paradigm you actually might not see such a strong increase in transmission costs over time as well, and likewise, there's a lot of discussion as to whether or not a large build-out of a transmission grid is should we call it a socially viable pathway what that means is that It takes a really long time and a lot of money to put in a large transmission line and maybe too many years of process too much regulatory challenge to be able to do that in the time that we need to build out the renewable energy resources to green the grid and so there are alternatives where you build out more distributed generation or more localized generation and you actually don't invest in the transmission so both paradigms are possible, so it's not just one and I think it really depends on the situation in the location and where the country.

16:25 Karan Takhar
Got it. That makes sense. I was recently reading the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook, given that you've worked in the solar and renewable space for so many years, and I remember you mentioning when we met at the global Clean Energy Action Forum, how in high school you wrote a paper on solar technology one I just find that really fascinating as also someone who relatively entered this space at a young age, but two love to hear your thoughts on from that time until now, and referencing this World Energy Outlook, which mentioned that for the first time they predict fossil fuels to exhibit a peak or a plateau with coal use falling back in the next few years, for example, natural gas reaching a plateau by the end of the decade, and oil demand, ultimately leveling off in the mid twenty 30s another two-part question would love to hear your perspective. In terms of, you know, someone who's worked in space for so long, does this, you know, excite you? Are you surprised that we're where we are today, and to what do you feel the keys to enable this to actually play out in reality?

17:48 Doug Arent 
It's a fascinating journey yeah, I did mention that at the global Clean Energy Action Forum that as a teenager I was super excited about solar energy and I wrote a thesis paper in high school about the prospects of it It's been an incredible journey for those 45 years, and seeing that particular technology go from a very kind of science-based niche markets of space to hundreds of Gigawatts per year installed each year today and maybe on a trajectory to growing to a Terawatt annually in the next, you know 5 to 10 years that's pretty phenomenal but to the reflection on the on the IEA's report you know the scenario that you paint the picture of is the existing policies scenario coordinator world what that reflects is in fact a fairly what you might think of from a inside the fence conservative view of how the system will evolve toward this renewable or low carbon electrified future, the oil peaking, of course, comes because of the commitments to electric vehicles in combination, of course, with the green grids, which lowers the greenhouse gas footprint of the light-duty vehicle fleet and that's expanding into medium and heavy-duty fleets as well so I think of vans and trucks and then the grids being going green around the world, which is pretty phenomenal so I'm super excited I will give a little plug for a book that I'm writing called the fourth phase, which is kind of my reflections of the renewable trajectory since I was a kid, you know the first phase was essentially a science days of scientists being excited about the potential clean air future the second phase was, I'll call it the very early niche markets and very limited policy support the third phase is really what we've lived through the last 15 or 20 years where policies have grown technologies have expanded tremendously and what we're seeing today and what the IA reflexes that renewables are the least cost solution in nearly every country and one of the critical foundational building blocks of decarbonizing our energy smart plan and going forward, it's really a renewable, energy-based future and there will be other technologies there that are low carbon as well so I'm super excited about it It's been a long journey for me and it's a great future for those interested in this space, there's so much opportunity for creativity, continued innovation on the technical side but also an incredible innovation space for business, creativity, combining, digitization, advanced communications and controls, and renewable technologies not just for power but thinking about power combined to hydrogen and clean fuels and clean chemicals, it's really an open landscape to be super creative and use all the tools that are in the toolbox today which are so numerous and I hope that you and all of the listeners are are as excited as I was back when I was a teenager and take full advantage of the opportunity and the state of technology to make it real.

21:17 Karan Takhar
Thank you so much, Doug Arent. I really appreciate you taking the time; I'm definitely gonna read your book when it comes out, and I'm looking forward to that, and thank you again for taking the time. Really appreciate it.

21:33 Doug Arent 
Thank you appreciate it. You have a great day.

21:39 Conclusion
Thanks for listening to our we hope you enjoyed the episode. Check out the episode description or show notes for more information on our guests. See you next time.

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