Conversation with Ryan Wartena
Good day, and welcome to another edition of our Digital Industry Leadership series. Today I’m very pleased to welcome Ryan Wartena, Co-Founder and President of Geli, a company building the Internet of energy. Geli also happens to be one of our earliest investments. Ryan brings over 10 years of experience in computational and battery R&D, as well as energy storage business and control platform technologies, with several patents in energy storage and energy computing technologies. Ryan holds degrees in chemical engineering from UC Santiago, a Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a post-doc research at Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC and MIT. He loves long-lived energy networks and his goal in life is to see the world operated on a renewably energized Internet of Energy.
So, Ryan welcomes to our Digital Industry Leadership Podcast.
Ken, thank you so much for inviting me and having me on your podcast, and it’s just great to be at this point. You’ve been here with us for a long time and looking forward to this interview.
As well. It has been very hard to pin you down before, so as one of our earliest investments we should have done this long ago! But now with all the good news and certainly ending the year on a high for many different reasons, it’s probably a perfect time to do this right before the holidays. So, as we like to do, let’s start a little bit with your leadership journey, and as I always like to ask, what is your red thread and how has it formed your perspective of the future of energy?
Thanks, Ken. The red thread is a great question and I link it to vision. I feel very fortunate to have received the vision when I was young; we had a family business, high-precision machining, we prototyped and built the first couple of hundred thousand home satellite dish feedhorn. One of my jobs was cleaning machines, and I would dump the cutting oil into the creek, and I knew at a young age of somewhere around 10 years old that that wasn’t right. I quickly started thinking about this and I asked myself that question, how do humans continue to live on this planet in 200 years? So, I’ll call that - that was the time of the thread of my fate, looking and recognizing so early and all of a sudden, my whole life unfolded right there, I was to become an environmental engineer and a chemical engineer, and then we were all going to work together to return the planet back to a natural state but maintain all the technology and know-how. We did 100-150 years of pretty severe damage to the planet from the industrial revolution.
That really stuck with me all through my early academics as a chemical engineer, also doing computational chemistry. It was really in 1999 I remember walking on the Berkeley campus and really starting to think about what the plan was, on how to run the world on 100 percent renewable energy, and that’s when I started doing the calculations. All of a sudden that thread, seeing the thread, was 1,000 years long based on current solar-powered manufacturing, which was all from computer chips off-take at that time. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that Sunfab and Chinese and silicon manufacturing increased 10x. But even back then making some assumptions started to hone in on this date, somewhere around 2030 to 2050, and today I’ll say that I believe we’ll get to 100 percent renewable energy by July 2030-2034. I put a pin on that, I’ve held that number for a while, and now we’re getting there.
And now it’s really like, unpeel that red thread a little bit more and understanding it, why this vision for future energy is again asking the question of, how do we run 100 percent renewables, not having a real answer for that. But then seeing trees, and seeing the natural systems, and it was like, wait a second, nature figured it out how to build energy systems and everything that used energy very locally.
And, when you look even deeper into our bodies, we have trillions of cells operating in parallel all between 35 millibels and 350 millibels before water starts electrolysis. That’s very different from our residential 110 and high-voltage lines too. So, I saw the discrepancy between these two systems, but also the similarities and where we can go, and that’s where I really saw this Internet of Energy as a future, a place where everything that used energy, every home, refrigerator, commercial facility, had real energy, solar wind and batteries networked with their energy, or you can exchange it. Recognizing that to me was like, okay this is my line of entrepreneurship, at least until July 23rd, 2034, and so having a goal there.
I’d say having a goal there, and a pretty exact one, and in a few minutes, I am going to ask you to explain that exact date and why. I think is fascinating to me is you had this early inspiration for this space, and it seems that you really led even your early education and research work around this as well. I noted deep research space, energy storage, enabled research labs, and MIT. You told us a bit about your inspiration for entering the energy field, what were some of the key insights and discoveries you worked on along the way during that early research phase?
One of the stories from Feynman, his suggestion was do all the problems, do everything, and so I’ve worked to really build as much of a wide knowledgebase and as deep as possible to try to understand how the material world works, and then, of course, you get to how does the social world work, and how does the business world work. So, I spent a lot of time really wanting to understand the fundamentals as much as any human understood them. When I was 19 I started doing computational chemistry research for Professor John Weir and Nancy Muller in the Chemistry Department at UC Santiago, and it was right when OpenGL was released, it was 1993, it was a summer job when it was released, and my job was to take Fortran equations of states, and do data digitalization as large data sets with them. All of a sudden that was my first intro into big data computing, and then I was pulled over into engineering physics where I did a lot of work on thin-film, super-critical thin-film layering, and some other engineering physics type of work, and then I got a phone call to go to grad school at Georgia Tech in electrochemical engineering.
That’s what really tuned in for me, I saw that the future was heavily electrochemical, and not very many people really even understood batteries, and so I wanted to dedicate myself to the electrochemistry side. I ended up doing a number of micro battery and battery technologies, I did a postdoc at the Naval Research Lab in 2001 and was trained by the three-letter agencies on how to make very long-lived lithium-ion batteries. Also, in that time I did a postdoc MIT following up on that where I ended up working with Angela Belcher and her team doing a virus assembled battery, working on a number of cell state different battery architectures, built some of the original batteries for some of the original drones back then too, and I even did batteries for Cyberdyne’s exoskeleton. And so, a lot of these novel lithium-ion battery integrations is really what I started seeing in these applications.
I worked for Professor Yet-Ming Chang whilst he was starting up A123, which was like my rearing up until then except for our family business, I wanted to see how a scientist started a hi-tech company, so I worked for Professor Yet-Ming. He was really great because he did American Super-Conductor and then A123 which is when I entered, and now the A123 technology which is looking at lithium iron phosphate is now percolating all over the world and becoming dominant chemistry which is really nice. But the original A123 was based on the three-termed Hamaker Constant which allows self-assembly, and so we did the very first self-assembled device, electric-chemical junction. So, my background does get pretty deep into the academic side of things, and really, I started asking myself a question around how to get batteries live really long out in the commercial world, and so that’s when the basis of transitioning we saw back in 2001, but your cell phone only lasted a year, less than 300 cycles or so, and now we’re getting 3000, 5000, 10,000 cycles.
I can go on Ken - but I’ll pause!
Well, ‘The classic underachiever’ I love it. So, let’s deep-dive in on Geli, all of this work that you did, this research work, and really thought-leadership work all coalesced to come into the company called Geli, which you co-founded in 2008 with Crispell Wagner, I’ll call him an equally talented technologist, much more on the software side. So, what problem were you and Crispell trying to solve, and for whom?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Chris and I came together and originally, we came together to build an art project at Burning Man, a large-scale light-art installation that had about 5,000 LEDs on it in the middle of the desert, with 2kW of power, and we ran it on a gas generator. We burnt ethanol in that gasoline generator, but still, it was a gas generator, so we spent this time to build an absolutely beautiful thing and ran it on a dirty power system, and that’s really where we found each other and recognized that we were able to build a very complex electronic art piece in the middle of the desert and make it work, also with the help of a lot of our friends. When you find someone whom you can actually really make something work, and then we parlay that into a bigger vision from this art project, then the question is how every art project in every home has an energy system, and then Chris and I came together to do that.
I think a lot of people were kind of, think about that, and I think a lot of people can do it, but it’s also super-important to have a really good co-founder and partner that really complements you, and was also, in there for the long-term. We both knew that this was going to be a long 7 to 10-year road just to even get here to where we economically pencil. To your question, who were we making it for, originally it was for the art, but really it was for power to the people. We saw this vision, we shared this vision of a fully renewable Internet of Energy where every home and building have that it could be wonderful freedom and it extends on political and philosophical aspects to filling your own energy needs, and that’s the cornerstone of Buckminster Fuller’s world game which is also an inspiration here. But really it was around how do we build a cleaner resilient future and dedicated to that.
We had other people whom we were building for also. I borrowed $8,000 from my mom to build the original energy computer, and that energy computer was for my dad’s house, and so it was for people. But what we also realized is we’re doing this for all the different OEMs out there, everyone who is making batteries, making power converters, making components of the computer; remember back in the early computer days you’d buy a tower and get your hard drive, and put all of it together, and that’s basically where the stage was, we’re still in the latter part of that. So, there are people who are making the hard drives of energy, and the processors of energy – power convertors, they’re going to need software; so, we did it for them, and we built energy drivers there. That was so much help because those OEMs are so focused on making a good working battery or power convertor. What we also recognized is that there is a space where we needed a new SCADA, and Ken this is where you and I interfaced, this is it Internet of Energy? Is it Internet of Things? What is this new type of SCADA? But really the parameters of it is easy to deploy, it's low-cost to deploy, you can build financial optimizations on top of it. Getting that main piping in was really missing in the whole energy storage world, and so we needed to build that.
We often built for developers too, solar development takes a long time, developers are only doing 5-10 projects a year, our question was how can we help those developers do 100 projects a year? Why are they spending so much time trying to design these systems, they should be out there selling these systems? So, we knew there’s an opportunity to build a lot of software that would really help accelerate that design deployment, and then a lifetime of operations, ‘Phew.’ And then our third take was I mentioned before, was everyone; we looked into the future, saw a natural sustainable state, and started working backward, we recognized that this was the technologies that we needed to put into place.
You must have done something right in this – I like that ‘New type of SCADA system’ – because Hanwha Q CELLS, a renowned total energy solutions provider announced plans to acquire you in August, which is public. How will this allow Geli to scale even more?
Great question Ken, thank you. We’d been waiting for this day, we knew that we had to grind out and build a lot of technologies, build software to control batteries, it’s not like putting data into databases, it needs to be robust, there’s a lot of pieces there. So, we built that, we executed that mission, but we also knew software was just a small percentage of the whole energy storage or solar battery system. So, to help us scale we needed a big partner, a big mothership let’s say. On the other side Hanwha Q CELLS, Hanwha acquired Q CELLS 10-12 years ago, German solar panel manufacturer, grew them, they are now one of the top, if not the top solar power manufacturer on the planet, they have the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in the Western hemisphere a 1.7 Gigawatt of plant in Georgia USA.
And now as one of the largest solar panel manufacturers, we are now entering a world of commoditized solar panels, and so the take there is, how do we build a business roadmap towards energy as a service across all the different sectors. We built a very flexible platform that’s good for commercial, it’s also good for residential, it’s also good for large scale systems, we’re really focused on commercial industrial microgrids but easily see a lot of electric vehicles coming, we see a lot of virtual power plants coming, and other aspects of even 100 percent capacity factor utility-scale solar battery plants. I’m hoping that Geli has the opportunity to work with Hanwha on all of these aspects.
It sounds like a great partner to really scale-up your vision overall. I got a kick out of your stated goal, your goal in life is ‘to see the world operate on renewably energized Internet of Energy.’ And of course, you’ve already thrown that date out there, July 23rd, 2034, so I guess how far along are we towards that goal, and specifically tell us a little bit more about why this date is so important.
Yeah, the date is important because we need a point to challenge; tell me why we can’t get there at that time, and then we can start engineering those answers. This is just from a pure production standpoint, we might have all of the solar panels, and all of the batteries at the lowest cost, but can you get them into all the tens of millions of buildings, just in the United States, and hundreds of millions of facilities around the world, in time? And what is that ‘in time’ point? We don’t know when carbon in the atmosphere gets too much, and we get radical population declines, or we have seas, waters, oceans rise, and we have to move massive numbers of people inland. I feel like we are going to encounter a lot of those in our lifetime. So, as a point of vision and future calculated that point, now that point comes from as I mentioned, it was 1000 years to do this based in the early 2000s, just based on solar power manufacturing. But then what happened was the introduction of finance solar came in 2007-2008, within that timeframe, and all of a sudden, a huge increase, it went from cash sales to finance sales.
So, it’s not just about the technology innovation, but it’s also about the business model innovations here, it was how do you lower those barriers. So once the finance solar came in and all of a sudden solar panel production increased by 10x, well then, we can decrease that 1000 years to 100 years. Then as we bring on electric vehicles coming in more, those are accelerating the case, as we’re bringing technologies like Geli to get solar and battery into a lot more places, all of a sudden maybe we cut that in half to 50 years. Then we add some other looks, if you really start looking deeply into solar panel manufacturing and the plans for the next couple of years, and for battery capacity, this is where we start heading. When Cris and I founded the company, we were buying bare lithium-ion cells at $1500 kWh, now in batteries at the bare cell level, anywhere from $150 - $250, basically in order of magnitude reduction in 10 years, and a bit more to go too, we haven’t even hit that point.
Our development partners for their cost, anywhere from 7 to 9 cents a kWh with solar storage wrapped with the investment tax credit – 7 to 9 cents a kWh for solar and storage together, that beats the delivered price of electricity almost everywhere! And so, what I want to point out, and I think to your question is how far along are we to this world renewable Internet of Energy, I want to just state I believe we are in a non-linear regime now, we’ve always been waiting for when is that hockey stick going to happen, and this and that, but if you look at the macro moods here, we are in a non-linear situation, that investment is going to be $80 trillion. Now, when does that happen? I hope it’s June 23rd, 2034, I think we are about 3 or 4 trillion in, but there’s trillions more about to go in just based on the amount of solar battery manufacturing capacity.
So, that’s on the technology and the build side, I’d say we’re in this non-linear regime on-time, and there are more and more renewable companies going public now, and specs are really pushing things too. So, I think we’re going to see just in this new era a lot of companies for people to invest in, who can help drive this too.
Yes, it’s an interesting one, especially the latter comments around stacks. We’ve been watching this as well and I think they’re going to be a great accelerator for a number of later-stage companies in that regard. I like your comment around non-linear, and obviously, we’ve lived through a pretty strange time over the last 9 months, a black swan many may call it, with COVID-19. We’ve actually seen it have a positive effect at least on the use of digital technologies, and thus we refer to it as a digital accelerator in part. What impact do you think this has had on your vision of the Internet of Energy, and I don’t want to make this political but obviously there’s been a regime change in the US as well, and I’m curious for your thoughts around how that might help as well.
The impact of COVID has been significant to a lot of industries and a lot of businesses, but for renewable energy and resiliency it’s helped it, it has done the digital accelerator as you were referring to. There’s a combination of the technologies getting to the right price-point, so it’s just not really economic to build gas and coal plants anymore, and that just so happened at the early points of COVID-19. I think a lot of people are now really thinking about the resiliency aspect of their lives and businesses because it’s not just COVID-19 as in California we had power shut-offs and grid risk ability issues.
The regime change is going to be helpful because I think we’ve been wanting a green new deal for a long time, and then at the same time, the energy business is blind to politics, because everyone uses it, and so I think the most important thing is, we’re at that right price point and it means business, it means business in the United States, it means jobs, more and more people are being hired into renewable jobs. So, either way, we look at it I think it’s really positive, and we are really looking forward to what the Biden administration is going to perform, especially all the electric vehicle charging, it’s going to need a lot more batteries and renewable infrastructure behind that too.
Another aspect here, I want to share a little story; I’m on the Board of Directors of Blackrock Labs, and Blackrock Labs is the new extension of Black Rock Solar, which is Burning Man’s non-profit solar development company. They founded Black Rock Solar in 2007, in 2007 there were no solar developers, it was the very beginning of solar development. In 2017 when we converted Black Rock Solar into Black Rock Labs, the innovation arm for Burning Man, they’d done over 100 projects and they were the 249th largest solar developer in the United States. That means the whole industry grew up around them. This is one of the reasons Cris and I are longtime burners, we probably stopped going just for the party a long time ago, we now help run a 200-person village all solar battery, deploy solar battery systems with art projects all over, and really there’s a lot of innovation that happens at Burning Man but we’re there to help scale these innovations. We’ve been helping deploy biofilter toilets and working on carbon capture to create liquid fuels and food. And so, Burning Man as this temporary mobile 80,000-person city is really a great model of what would we have to do if we had to move a 100,000-person city somewhere? What type of structures?
The other aspect that we’re seeing tied into this is what is the future of architecture and infrastructure, in these worlds where a new hospital is built, how many rooms and wings are going to have multiple capabilities in case they need them, and we’re seeing a lot more of that type of mobile infrastructure which then backs into the needing energy systems and resiliency.
You’ve been a pioneer, a thought leader, a burner, and a successful start-up founder with your first exit imminent. What’s next for you?
VPS strategy for unlocking Q CELLS Geli. We’re just starting now, we’re in the big build, we’re looking at what we’re going to be doing, which is not just making software available, but also selling packages of energy computers, of energy storage-plus software, and then we can also provide solar panels, and we provide the ongoing software for those and help. So, we’re really bringing a whole new next level package to make developers and facilities lives easier to deploy. We’re also going to be looking at how utilities change their energy efficiency programs to DER programs, as we’re seeing more and more places phasing outgas, and having electric vehicles inside homes, we’re seeing 3x times of electricity use at the home edge. So, we’re going to be helping on that residential side, Hanwha Q CELLS has a really great Q HOME residential package. There’s a whole world of digital energy retail, there’s a number of deregulator states and retailers are happening, but now we’re really doing solar battery with retail together, they really meet our company, so I think there’s a big opening there along with EV charging depots, for both cars, trucks, even working with an aeroplane company on charging.
So these are big future developments, but ones that we’re really aiming at, and working with NEXTracker on a very interesting product. NEXTracker has deployed – I’ll probably get it wrong – let’s say 30 Gigawatt of trackers out there and working with Alex Au the CTO of NEXTracker on a DC bus, a system that really allows us to design 100 percent capacity factor solar battery plants. This is significant. We’re in the early times of this right now, and really supporting NEXTracker on this it’s been really wonderful to do designs and calculations to really bring up the capacity factor of the solar battery plant, to be really competitive with a thermal plant, and a senior pencil. So, super-excited about that, which also just means we’re going to see larger and larger solar battery systems deployed, which again can put a little curve on our 2034 date too.
Some other pieces I think we’re going to see, more renewable utilities emerge, and how does a renewables company really run a utility. Then on the technology side, we’re hearing a lot about starting to see solid-state batteries, and I think we’ll see more and more around that. So, we’re not done with our battery technology, we have a goal, I personally have a goal to see batteries live 50 to 100 years. We’re starting to see the very first 50-year solar panels hitting the market, and we need to be able to match those, and really, we need to build a 40-year lifetime to fit into the utility paradigm.
So, not the ending, just the beginning, more to come! Let me ask, it’s been almost 13 years since you and Cris started Geli, if you could go back and coach both of you as nascent founders at that point, what advice would you give yourself?
It may be coming through on this interview or not, I’m a very passionate person, passion runs in a couple of different ways and so working to control my emotions in the business sense I think has been one of my biggest evolutions over this time, and I wish it happened sooner, but that’s A-OK. I think going from scientist to entrepreneur, to growing a company of 26 people is just so much learning, it’s almost like you have to go through it, it’s like could I tell myself that? Or would I have to go through it? So, it’s a great question Ken, but as I said in our pre-meeting we are on track, we’ve grown, I think the world is on track for this, so that gives me a lot of confidence. I set up a company, I helped form a company called Banyan Infrastructure a couple of years ago, to address one of the other pain points which is contract management. Once we go beyond just a power purchase agreement with solar and add other value streams of demand, demand response, and day-ahead energy values, all of a sudden it becomes very complicated to go ahead and set up the revenue stream. So, Banyan Infrastructure is applying blockchain smart contracts to solar contracts and connecting bank accounts and data to go ahead and automatically transfer and clear and have a continuous confirmation of financial performance. There’s still a lot of innovations on the business model side, on how to deal with millions of distributed energy systems. So, as you said, we’re just getting going.
Well, your passion and your professionalism go hand-in-hand, so I’m not sure I would have coached you the same way back when because I think that is one of your outstanding traits. When you’re not out inspiring others I’m curious about what inspires you in terms of people, books, or other resources?
I absorb a lot of information; I love the news and all of these reports coming out on how we get to 100 percent renewables. We didn’t talk about it 10 years ago, it was kind of not talked about because we would sound crazy, but now people are coming out with that, so I love reading these reports and seeing how they’re approaching it, and it’s just like the more and more models is going to allow us to get there. For the listeners out there interested in batteries, people are always asking me, ‘How do I learn more about batteries?’ Batteryuniversity.com online, it’s a lovely starting place and has a depth of information for really understanding batteries. For the listeners here and solar developers who are getting into batteries and need to know a little bit about how it’s working, that is a great source.
One of the books that really gave me a perspective of what we’re doing now was Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes, it’s a story of the rapid growth of our first early electrical grid. Whilst reading it and seeing the business evolutions and the politics that evolved there, it all happened over a very short period of time, and I can’t help but map that growth, both mechanics into what’s happening right now. There’s definitely a lot more players, so if anyone wants to understand how the grid works and how it evolved, and maybe have a good historical foil, then that’s a great one. And then finally just wrapping up, the trilogy that starts with the three-body problem, a science fiction book by a Chinese science fiction author, and I have to say it’s one of the best science fiction books I’ve read since Diamond Age, which is all about nanotechnology, and then The Nexus Series by Ramez Naam is also wonderful science fiction. I think science fiction is a great place for us to dream and work out those models. Internet of Energy is a science fiction that we’re making science a reality. So, I’ll work on that book one day too.
Science fiction decides fact. So, Batteryuniversity.com, Empires of Light, Three-Body Problem, the trilogy, and a couple of others that I couldn’t get in time, but we include links to all of these on the transcript that we have with the podcast as well.
Ryan, thank you for providing this insightful interview, I’m really glad that we finally got a chance to get you cornered for long enough to do a podcast now.
I’m happy to do so and you were such a great help and inspiration. Put it out there, you helped me really think through connecting the design time to run time for our product, and to be able to do that, that is where we get to scale. We’ve gone on to design 1000 facilities at once through a bulk analysis now. So, thank you Ken for being a great mentor, thank you to Momenta, and thanks for having me on your podcast.
Well, thank you for the very kind words. I must say this was an effort of passion because I think you inspired me very early on about the opportunities in this Internet of Energy, including coining the term, so the pleasure has been all mine, let’s put it that way.
Thank you, sir.
This has been Ryan Wartena, the co-founder and President of Geli, and a resident burner as I think he likes to call himself. So, thank you for listening, and please join us next week for the next episode of our digital industry leadership series. Thank you and have a great day.