Ram Ramanan | Vice President at Bloom Energy

In this episode we will be speaking with Ram Ramanan, who is a Vice President and former Head of Engineering at Bloom Energy, which is a public company headquartered in California that is one of the leaders in developing Hydrogen Technology and Hydrogen Electrolyzers. In this conversation we discuss Ram’s career pathway, his perspective on hiring engineers, and the economics of hydrogen technology. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Ram Ramanan!


00:02 Introduction
Are you looking to become a leader in clean energy and an expert in cleantech? 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 to join Karan Takhar as he invites clean energy leaders to share industry development. I like cleantech investment opportunities and shed light on how you can increase their 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
In this episode, we will be speaking with Ram Ramanan, who's a Vice president at Bloom Energy, which is a public company headquartered in California and is one of the leaders in developing hydrogen technology and hydrogen electrolyzers. In this conversation, we discuss Ram's career pathway his perspective on hiring engineers in the economics of hydrogen technology. I hope you enjoy my conversation With Ram Ramanan. Thank you, Mr. Ramanan, for taking the time. I've been really excited to speak with you, and I'm excited to learn about your career journey, the work you're doing in this space and for listeners who may be unfamiliar, can you provide a brief background on Bloom Energy and walk us through how the opportunity to join bloom came about?

01:53 Ram Ramanan
Thank you, Karan It's a pleasure doing this podcast with you so Bloom Energy is a big energy company that is trying to change the way energy is distributed in the world and also how it's produced our current baseline is that we have these large utility companies which are providing electricity for us and just like the way what happened with computers, and telecommunications, everything went from a centralized location to becoming more distributed that's what made all these different technologies scale Globalising is doing the same thing for energy to help you produce it locally and so you are in charge of your own energy so that makes it cleaner It makes it safer and also it is the it's a way in which the whole load is moving towards my background and my job responsibility at Bloom Energy Relies on basically helping Bloom Energy become a leader by doing some cutting-edge research and development data sciences modeling and simulations so we can, you know, make this technology really affordable, cost-effective, and also perform at the highest levels of efficiency I have a PHD in mechanical engineering and came into this field about 15 to 16 years ago into the energy space before that I was an executive in the semiconductor equipment area, worked for large companies like Applied Materials, making semiconductor equipment and before that, I was in the engineering software industry writing heavy-duty scientific computing softwares.

03:52 Karan Takhar
Got it. Thank you for expanding on that. How exactly did the opportunity to join Bloom energy come about?

03:59 Ram Ramanan
So that's actually an interesting question because before coming to Bloom Energy, I actually was in Texas working for a semiconductor company and I was also doing some consulting work and I happened to come here to Applied Materials for a consulting work In the Bay Area and they offered me a job and I was pretty excited because Applied Materials is as you know Is one of the semiconductor equipment makers agreeing may the whole semiconductor industry move into a much more profitable business they show the whole world how we can make High-precision equipment but still make money with it I joined Applied Materials and I was very happy there because I was leading a very large team working with a Japanese joint venture and used to go to Japan quite often so it was exciting but one day, one of my colleagues at Applied Materials forwarded a job description to me from a local start-up and he said that this job description looks like It's a perfect fit for you so I was curious, I just read through the job description because I said I sat down and I wrote my ideal job that I would like to do I was intrigued by it, so I decided to give you know they recruited a call and the next thing that I know I was there at Bloom Energy talking over lunch I don't know over the next five or six working days lunch meetings meeting with everybody from the Sivota, the city world most of the engineers and I was hooked by the mission, the mission of really making technology provide affordable electricity for everybody in the world and as you know, in Bay Area it is the full you know the birthplace of all the venture capitalists and start-ups, and so you just get caught up in that fever of doing something exciting and fun and making a difference in the world so that's our joint bloom image.

06:12 Karan Takhar
That's amazing, so at the time, how big was the Bloom Energy team? I mean, because it was a start-up, I think that the hiring decisions had a pretty high level of importance, given that you know they were just starting out, Probably very careful about who they wanted to bring into the team, and given that I'm curious as to what those conversations look like and why you think ultimately they did decide to extend you an offer.

07:02 Ram Ramanan
typically when the start-ups like Bloom Energy started, they really want to get people with a lot of experience who have worked in other industries who have proven experience so they can walk in and be able to, you know, drive the project from beginning to end, and you have to be able to wear multiple hats you have to be able to think creatively, and you have to be able to go and hire the right team of people under you so you can make the project set and because of the experience that I had before invoking two different industries engineering software and also semiconductor industry they felt that I could come here and create some global teams and we had about at that time will be 100 to 150 people. We had just gotten our. I believe the Series B or C money, so we were ready to start building the teams, and so it was really a perfect opportunity for me to comment, and I started to look for them in my network of people, you know, some with similar experience as me, but who could compliment me and also some younger people who have the energy and the drive that you could train so we can just set up the next phase of the company.

08:17 Karan Takhar
Yeah, I think what I was trying to get at with that question was because, currently, there are a lot of New energy start-ups with a lot of venture capital flowing Into the space, and I know that a lot of listeners are currently people who are interested in entering the field, so I was trying to understand a little bit about the psychology of the people who are running the start-up and what you felt as someone who wanted to join that company helped differentiate you from other candidates and what I'm hearing is your experience align really well with the job opportunity, are there any other soft skills that you think stood out in that process?

09:11 Ram Ramanan
I think so, yeah, I think that's a good question I think many people have technical skills to be able to do well and survive in this start-up It requires you to be willing to take risks you need to be fearless so you can try out new ideas you have to be creative and you will constantly face a lot of obstacles because you're trying to do something new that nobody has done before so the willingness to accept failures and the willingness to wake up next day and think of five more new ideas to try and keep trying because failure is not an option when you're a start-up, you typically have only one product if you are a large company like General Electric or General Motors even if that one project fails the company will move on It'll still make its revenue, but in a start-up, that one product that you're working on has to make it work and you have to figure out how to make it work starting that is the key scale, I think that people will be looking for the perseverance, the creativity, the willingness to take us and also passionate about the vision of the company, because if you have the passion and the energy and I think everything else comes with it.

10:35 Karan Takhar
Given that you had a pretty well-established job at the time with an established company, what was your mindset as you were engaging in those conversations with bloom energy? Were there any fears?

10:53 Ram Ramanan
In fact, when I had worked from Texas to California was, of course, California is an expensive place to live in right and I was a sole breadwinner for the family my wife had quit her jaw so it was like you do this you know I was quite afraid of going from this very well-established company and I had just recently gotten the biggest bonus that I have ever seen in my life so it was a huge risk, but I've always believed that if you want to do the right thing and irrespective of what the risks are if you're willing to jump in, trust yourself, and going good things will come out Because if you don't take Chris, you're not going to grow and anytime you feel the discomfort, I think that's the place of growth so I didn't have that fear, but then I said In case the start-up doesn't work out, I still have a technical source to go up and find another job within the Bay Area and if I didn't take that risk now, I might come back to regret later and I'm glad that I took that risk, right otherwise, if I'd stayed of Applied Materials and I look at myself in 15 years later, Oh my God, I wish I had been In your marriage, I wish I had gone to make a difference at all not to take away anything from Applied Materials It's a great company.

12:16 Karan Takhar
That makes so much sense. Thank you so much for expanding on that. I think now it would be a great time to dive into some of the bloom energies' Incredible work leading the clean technology and emerging technology front in the climate space, and for those who may be unfamiliar, can you please provide some insight into blooms work in hydrogen and why this technology is important for facilitating a low carbon future new manager actually started off.

13:00 Ram Ramanan
By making hydrogen as a fuel to be able to run fuel cells and produce electricity, and for those of people who know about the fuel cell background, hydrogen is the main fuel that was used. If you look at any of the textbooks because it's a clean way to produce electricity, and the electrochemical reaction basically converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, so it's one of the cleanest ways to produce electricity. But at the time when bloom started more than 17-18 years back, there was very little hydrogen available so we had to make our own hydrogen, and the only fuel that was available where the hydrocarbons are fossil fuels and of the fossil fuels, the one that's the cleanest of all of them is methane so it's got one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms so we could take the methane and we were able to do what's called a steam, reforming where you add steam to it you can break that up into hydrogen and carbon monoxide so it's a chemical reaction that we created within our fuel cell so that then we can take that product and create electricity with it and the result of that was one of the most highest efficiencies of converting natural gas into electricity so today our systems run on the order of 61 to 62% electrical efficiency based on what's called lower heating value of the natural gas but the whole technology started from hydrogen but now that the world is moving from low carbon to zero carbon we basically, you know, took the wrappers off and we have also have a hydrogen basal cell that's actually running in Korea right now we have started selling those as well and we also got into the business of doing the other side which is taking water and using the same technology, break the water into hydrogen and oxygen so that is the so-called the electrolyzer product and interestingly, the components and the machinery and everything that's that we have built over the last 15 to 20 years is applicable for making electricity, making hydrogen as well as making electricity. It's a very simple chemical reaction, right, hydrogen? This oxygen gives you water if you go the other way around to provide energy. It can break the water into hydrogen and oxygen, so right now, we are in both of those areas. We can produce water we can, we can produce electricity, or we can produce veg either one of those is possible, or you can even have an installation where you do both as well.

16:14 Karan Takhar
Very interesting just building off that. What differentiates bloom's hydrogen technology from that of other companies working in this area?

16:25 Ram Ramanan
Yeah, good question I mean, if we really look at the field, the outline-based technologies that have been around for a long period of time now we also have two new technologies one is the PEM orPROTON-ELECTRON membrane electrolyzer as well as the solid oxide electrolyzer like the type that bloom energy is making the difference between these technologies comes to the operational efficiency for the amount of energy that you want to put into the system and how much hydrogen that you can make, there is a unit what's called how many kilograms of hydrogen we produce for each unit of electricity that you put in each kWh in fridge so if we look at it in that context Bloom Energy has some of the highest Operational efficiencies, so when you buy and electrolyzer and start operating it your main cost is going to be the energy that you're going to be putting Into it and how much hydrogen they're going to produce so in the long run if we have the lowest maintenance cost, and lowest operational cost, that's what gives you the best economics so that is the main advantage.

17:46 Karan Takhar
Understood, given that I'm still learning about hydrogen technology and assume that a lot of listeners might have heard the term and have heard that It will be vital to help decarbonize those hard turbot sectors in the future, such as steel production and concrete production and other hard debate areas which renewable energy by itself may not be able to help lower the carbon output or but still not fully understanding exactly the different use cases between electrolyzer the electrolyzers that you mentioned and then hydrogen as its own fuel source, I guess. But can you provide a little bit more insight into the different applications of hydrogen and the differentiation between those?

18:48 Ram Ramanan
Absolutely a good reference for many of your listeners could be the recent book by John Doerr, Speed, and Scale, where he totally lays out how much of CO2 is there in the world and how we are going to reduce it. But if I were to break this down, one of the biggest components is transportation as you know there are a lot of battery-electric vehicles now in the market which is helping us to reduce the pollution there is one source there are also hydrogen-based transportation systems you know some of these large buses and trucks If we can convert many of those to run on hydrogen then what comes out in the exhaust is going to be just steam not carbon dioxide, so that is one big application area, so these hydrogen that we are producing at these different locations just like the way you go to a gas pump, you will have a hydrogen pump that will have pressurized hydrogen that will put into your system so you could run the whole transportation industry using hydrogen, so that will be one of the things that will be coming the way in which the industry is moving first is by looking at the larger transportation systems like buses and trucks and things like that then we will move slowly Into cars maybe we'll have a combination of both battery-electric vehicles as well as hydrogen-based you know, I just recently read that and Tesla is thinking about hydrogen-based cars, Toyota already has one, you know Trade-off that It is a hydrogen-based car so that is 1 application area and another big application areas he said is the whole process industry steelmaking any type of process industry which is using a lot of fuel you know to either for heating or creating those high temperatures that you need for making this stuff you could use hydrogen as a fuel instead of oil or natural gas, so there will be a second industry the other industry, which not many people know about, which also consumes produces a lot of CO2. Is the agriculture industry agriculture is you know, for example, ammonia is needed for fertilization and if you could get green hydrogen, you can combine it with nitrogen It can create a green amount, so that's a huge area as well, and all of these combined will be able to get us towards zero carbon, but in addition to that, there is also move towards taking the CO2 that's in the atmosphere and then capturing it and putting it into the ground. This is one of the things that John talks about. There are many companies that are coming out that just pull the air towards the CO2, so we want to get A 0 carbon totally. You really also have to move more people out there.

22:09 Karan Takhar
Honing in on hydrogen versus green hydrogen, can you provide a little insight into what the difference between regular hydrogen is and what may be blue hydrogen is, and what green hydrogen is?

22:25 Ram Ramanan
It's kind of interesting if you go look at it there's so many different colors about it so if you take this, uh, fossil fuel hydrocarbons and you just break them down and remove the carbon out of it, you can create what's called grey hydrogen so the petrochemical industry does this even at the time when you get the oil and gas out of the ground they have ways in which where the hydrogen comes as a byproduct, and you can also do some additional work to break the hydrocarbon into average or you could even Take biogas you know from the whole base water are from the whole agricultural industry where they take comma, new or create biogas you can break that Into hydrogen as well and remove the carbon atom so there's lots of great hydrogen green hydrogen is when you break the water into hydrogen and oxygen and to do that you need some energy, and typically the energy that everybody is looking into is the excess renewable energy that we have today some of your listeners may have heard that during the day we get a lot of sun and sometimes there is some excess energy during the day we could take that excess solar energy or when the wind is blowing hard, take that extra wind energy use that to be able to split the water into green hydrogen.

23:56 Karan Takhar
So what I'm hearing is the way hydrogen has been produced over the last many years has been through a byproduct of oil extraction and gas extraction, which then oil and gas companies have been providing for its various applications and has been feeding those companies who need hydrogen, for example, you know, producing steel or cement production however now there's a new potential way to create hydrogen to fill those applications just called green hydrogen and the way to do that is to Breakwater molecules using renewable electricity to produce hydrogen In bloom energy work across all of those areas.

24:51 Ram Ramanan
A blue merge works across producing green hydrogen, but when it comes to producing electricity we can use any fuel that's available today if you look at the world today, almost 95% of the world's energy comes from fossil fuel so if you want to go towards 0 carbon we need a ramp towards from 95% zero and that's not going to happen overnight so the Charter of companies like Blue Manager when we started 15 years ago was to get companies to adopt and reduce that the amount of CO2 that goes out into the air reduce it by almost half by creating electricity in a more efficient way. So we use natural gas now. We are recognizing that people want to move faster towards 0 carbon, so we are also producing the hydrogen. No, once we are able to capitalize on both of that, we can make this transition really quicker and faster, so whether it's 2030 or 24 years 2050, depending on whose world market look at, we really need all of these different technologies to get there so is bloom.

26:09 Karan Takhar
The energy was the first company to develop this new method for producing hydrogen.

26:15 Ram Ramanan
I think the SoC technology there are many companies now in the world that are putting it together. I think the difference that bloom Energy brings to the market is that we have installed almost one gigawatt of solid oxide fuel cells, and it takes the same technology to reverse it and create hydrogen, so because of the large installed capacity and the experience in both the technology and the supply chain bloom energy right now has got almost in the order of 1 1/2 to 2 gigawatts of manufacturing capacity of these electrolytes, so you know, we're pretty excited In fact, last year we won one of the awards that was given out by I forget who for the most promising technology for our electrolyzing so it's pretty exciting there are many players in this, and I'm hopeful that we will come out to be one of the leaders because of our experience in this area.

27:27 Karan Takhar
For sure, I'm curious to hear your perspective on what you feel are the major hurdles for renewable hydrogen or green hydrogen to scale and how long you feel it will take for that technology to ultimately become the leading technology as opposed to natural gas-produced hydrogen.

27:54 Ram Ramanan
That's an interesting question I think the obstacles wise the technology is here It simply comes down to how quickly we have the adoption how quickly can we get people to switch from the fossil fuels into hydrogen, Europe is already pulling very fast in this regard Korea is another country that's moving very rapidly in this area Korea has had some very severe pollution issues, so we are very motivated to do this It's a small island I think it just comes down to people like Dewey and the government making strides towards faster adoption of this the technology is here and there is a higher recognition of the impact of the cloud and it and people like John Doe making Stanford as a hub here in the Bay Area for sustainable and clean energy with this new grant, today's program, I think all of these things will really drive us towards it and the whole VC community too because you know, I just heard the statistics that VC community is probably puts in less than half a percent of the GDP and they are responsible for 20 to 25% of the jobs created in the US, so I I think those are pretty exciting there are so many VC companies investing in low-carbon and 0 carbon so I think that we will get there quickly I think there's a tremendous amount of momentum behind it, and I think that in the last couple of years, the amount of VC money has increased by a factor of four to five so it's like a hockey stick.

29:38 Karan Takhar
Understood taking a step back and reflecting on your own career journey, we did briefly talk prior to this conversation about the importance of meditation and how that early in your career really helped you navigate the later stages of your career and also made you a more effective manager and what I would love to learn, whether you have any advice for your younger self, any professional advice specifically?

30:15 Ram Ramanan
There's, I think, really good question current, because if I were to look at my 24-year-old self OK, I told myself, you know, in hindsight, and This is why you know when I went to young engineers this is what I tell we spend a lot of time on technical skills and very little time on subscripts and also learning the skills on how to increase your EQ the emotional quotient when you work in some of these difficult environments like where we are living in today, where you've got all kinds of pressures coming from multiple directions you need to be able to know how to calm yourself down so you can think clearly so I was lucky that when I was in Texas I ran into a meditation or mindfulness and a breathwork program called the Art of Living Foundation I just kind of happened to get into it because I was quite stressed out at work and there was an individual contributor wanting to become a manager I had all the technical skills, but I absolutely didn't have the skill sets to manage my own mind and also know how to interact with people so they both work in the meditation really helped me come out of my shell and in a sense establish better relationships both at work and at home so I've relied on that very heavily and when I made the transition come from Texas into Bay Area and I notice that It was a totally different place the stress levels in the Bay Area and the word pressures are significantly higher than what it wants in Texas If I didn't have the meditation in the work world, I don't know how long I would have survived Honestly, and my willingness to take the risk to move from a comfortable position to the startup also came because I felt that I had support both from my family and also from inside of me to tackle these six so I would advise any young engineer two take some time for lifelong learning skills and one of the life skills that everybody can learn is meditation and breathwork and just taking a little bit of time every day It's kind of like the analogy that my teacher tells me is like if you want to shoot an idol fast far you have to pull it back first It's in the same way for do you want your mind to give you the most then you really need to go in vote to be able to get that energy so you can go drink as much Starbucks coffee as you want, but it keeps getting more expensive. It's like $6 a cup today, but it's a lot cheaper. If you learn how to meditate and take a little bit of that time, 10 or 15 minutes a day, to reflect inward, to be able to meditate, you will find that it will be a lot more productive, and that's been my key even now I'm actually I'm doing multiple things I'm learning to play the guitar I teach both in the companies and also in the communities both work I have my day job had bloom energy sometimes we can still, but I have energy for all of that because of what I do.

33:52 Karan Takhar
Amazing, thank you so much. This has been extremely interesting and also educational so thank you.

34:04 Conclusion
Thanks for listening to the 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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