‘The Future is Bleak, and the Future is Bright.’ What It’s Like to Be a Clean Energy CEO as Gas Prices Skyrocket

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Many climate activists believe that rising gas prices will lead to increased demand and lower costs for renewable energy. But Jason Few, chief executive of FuelCell Energy, doesn’t anticipate a rapid shift anytime soon.

Few runs one of America’s largest fuel-cell manufacturers, which operates 95 fuel-cell platforms that deliver more than 250 megawatts of clean energy across the U.S., Germany, and South Korea. With hydrogen as its chemical energy, fuel cells can convert it to electricity. The only byproducts are pure water or heat. According to U.S. Department of Energy, they are one of the most efficient ways of extracting energy from fuels. Fuel cells produce electricity 24/7, unlike wind or solar. “Take a place like Connecticut,’’ Few says, of the company’s home state. “Solar energy is only producing power about 15% of the time. So, 85% of the time, you’re getting power from the grid.”

Meanwhile, FuelCell’s tri-generation system, which Few calls “an ultimate clean energy source,” can deliver power, hydrogen, and water from a single platform. Toyota will shortly begin to use it in its California logistic facility, the Port at Long Beach. FuelCell is also developing technology that can capture carbon dioxide in industrial plants.

However, it generated just $69.6 millions in revenue during the fiscal year 2021 that ended October 31. Exxon Mobil Corp., on the other hand, reported 2021 revenues of $285.6 billion. Few, like many leaders in clean energy, is faced with the challenge of turning two global crises, oil dependency and climate change, into a profitable business. As a CEO, the 55-year old must deal with persistent issues affecting fuel cells, such as demand and affordability.

He’s well-equipped to face challenges. Few is the youngest member of his family who graduated college. He took over FuelCell’s management in 2019, during the financial crisis. This was after years of experience in various industries and at large and small companies. TIME spoke with Few in March about his role as a leader of transformation, the current challenges facing clean energy, and why he has three tankless water heaters.

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This interview has been edited to be more concise.

You have been successful in your career because of the transformational changes you made. For instance, you helped AT&T introduce broadband, which radically changed telecommunications. Reliant Energy was in serious financial trouble and you became its president. How did you do it?

Our previous loss was $90 millions. In the next year, we made $1 billion profit. The key to transformation was getting back at the basics, and being focused on those things that we could control. My goal was to build a culture of competitiveness. So, we stopped calling customers ‘rate payers’ because they did have a choice about doing business with Reliant.

What was your previous experience in transforming companies that helped you quickly steer FuelCell through its financial crisis?

I believe in the quote, ‘Never miss the opportunity to leverage a good crisis.’ When I joined the company as part of the management team, we were trading at $0.33 a share. The market cap was $40 million. We also had significant debt. There wasn’t much money in our bank. It was imperative that we quickly restructure the bank.

It was important to me that people understood the importance of change. I was able to do things differently because the alternative – filing for bankruptcy – was not a good one. As a leader in a crisis, you have to communicate two things: ‘The future is bleak, and the future is bright. Our actions are going to choose one of those two paths.’

Also, I envisioned what the future could look like. I remember telling the team that we’re going to be a billion-dollar market cap company. Today, we’re a $2 billion market cap company.

Believe me, we’re not done. We’re still on a transformation journey. There is a possibility to have an impact on how energy is distributed and the effects it has on climate. A lot of people can’t point to how they’re having an impact on the future of human life. This company can help you do it.

There is much work ahead. The transition from power is based on fuel cell technology taking more time than expected by you and your peers in the industry.

Adoption of fuel-cell technology has been slower than any of us in the industry would’ve liked. We are a decarbonizing company that produces hydrogen and power. These actions are crucial to meeting the climate targets that have been globally set.

Policy is driving this migration towards decarbonization. It’s been on again and off again. Both utilities and industrial firms have been able to choose how power generation is managed. If the policy wasn’t there to push toward decarbonization, oftentimes decisions were made to go with more traditional energy sources. You need to have adequate government policies and other support mechanisms. Also, we haven’t received the support needed to scale up technologies such as wind and solar.

However, the momentum for energy transition has never been greater. Younger customers are demanding companies decarbonize. Our company continues to make efforts to decrease costs, as do other fuel-cell companies. We will increase the production volume as we offer more applications than just power. This will help reduce costs. We’re going to continue to get more competitive.

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Are you concerned that rising gasoline prices might encourage more businesses to switch to carbon-free fuels?

The price of pumps has very little to do the transition to renewable energy sources. To support vehicle electrification, for example, more power is needed. Eight trillion batteries would be required to power the roughly 1.3 billion light-duty trucks and cars in the world. A reliable grid is also essential. But rising prices for oil, gasoline, and natural gas will absolutely drive a lot more momentum toward more renewable energy sources – and in some corners, accelerate the rush.

Will the embargo on Russian oil and gas slow America’s transition to cleaner energy because Russia is a major supplier of certain rare metals used in electric-vehicle batteries?

Russian nickel is being removed from the marketplace is a problem. The catalyst to move faster to more renewable energy sources is more around how people view what’s happening geopolitically. This opportunity is available to Americans who desire to see more rapid progress in renewable energy.

The new U.S. infrastructure law, worth $1 trillion, could help fuel cell industry.

There’s $9 billion dedicated to expanding the hydrogen infrastructure. At least four hydrogen hubs will be created by the Department of Energy in the United States. These hubs will be made possible using fuel cell technology. That creates a tremendous opportunity for our industry to demonstrate our capabilities to convert excess energy into hydrogen—and use hydrogen as a replacement for hydrocarbon in many cases.

FuelCell’s technology protects the environment via carbon capture, reuse and recycling. According to climate analysts, such carbon-renewable processes are essential for industries that emit high levels of greenhouse gases in order to achieve their climate goals. However, skeptics contend it’s too expensive. What’s your view?

Carbon capture must be part of any solution to reach global climate goals. We don’t support critics’ notion that it’s not going to work or is too expensive. We’re the only known company in the world whose technology has the ability to capture carbon from an external source like a chemical plant and allow that carbon to be stored. It will be very cost-effective to capture carbon from external sources and help solve the issue of difficult-to-decarbonize industrial sectors.

Carbon capture is happening today. However, to capture more carbon at a large scale you must have an economic structure that is better coordinated and consistent across the globe.

FuelCell could provide low-carbon emission technology for areas of the globe without any energy infrastructure in as little time as possible.

The increased ability to distribute liquified natural gas around the world is going to enable technologies like ours to be deployed in places where you don’t have infrastructure, but you need power. You’re going to see this take place over the next couple of years.

Is it possible to have completely renewable electricity in the future?

The notion of renewable electricity is being adopted by most people around the world today. However, it won’t be until at least 2050 that you will have worldwide energy grids supported largely by renewable energy sources as well long-duration storage.

FuelCell is committed to “enabling the world to live a life empowered by clean energy,” you told investors during a recent earnings call. In your private life, what clean energy decisions have you made?

An electric vehicle is now ours, which we bought shortly after my appointment as CEO. However, that wasn’t the motivation. We’ve made investments in our suburban Connecticut home around tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances, and extra insulation. However, Connecticut has a higher carbon footprint than Houston due to a dearth of natural gas infrastructure. Heating is provided by fuel oil.

Why don’t you instead heat your house by installing solar panels?

It’s intermittent. I want to make sure we have heat at 2 o’clock in the morning when it’s below freezing outside. I don’t think I should be forced to accept not having power in my effort to decarbonize.

Each of us can have a part in improving our environment. But it’s going to take collective action to have a real impact. We have to also not create more pressure on parts of society that can’t spend money on an electric vehicle, solar panels, or all energy-efficient appliances. It is crucial to promote environmental justice. It is important to ensure that the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is safe, reliable, and accessible for everyone.

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