Interview with Claire Broido Johnson, Fermata Energy​

Interview with Claire Broido Johnson, Fermata Energy

“Park it, plug it, profit.” Did you know sustainable-minded companies could earn upwards of $8k per summer just for parking just one EV at specified times? In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with Claire Broido Johnson, who was recently hired as COO at Fermata Energy, about all things V2G, or vehicle-to-grid. Claire is well known for having founded SunEdison alongside Jigar Shah, as well as for having deployed $11B of the stimulus package during the Obama Administration. Catherine also spoke with Claire about Fermata Energy’s projects with Revel & NineDot Energy, the first V2G system on NYC’s grid, as well as their projects with New Hampshire Electric Cooperative & also Verizon at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Fermata Energy was also the first company to have a V2G bidirectional charger approved by Nissan for use with the LEAf in the U.S. & we can’t wait to see what they are able to accomplish under Claire’s leadership.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me, Claire Broido Johnson, Chief Operating Officer at Fermata. I believe joining me from Baltimore? Just up the street. So first I wanted to say congratulations on your relatively new role as COO of Fermata. And so for those who have been living under a rock for the past sort of couple of decades. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about your current role?

Claire: Sure, absolutely. My name is Claire Broido Johnson, I’m the Chief Operating Officer for Fermata Energy. What we do at Fermata Energy is our V to X or vehicle-to-everything technology turns electric vehicles into energy storage assets that combat climate change, increase resilience and dramatically lower the cost of EV ownership and energy transition. So a lot of words, but essentially, we’re trying to make battery storage on wheels so that we can help with handling the several gigawatts of dispatchable capacity that need to come to the grid in the very near future. And prior to that, I’ve had a lot of startup roles. I’ve worked at Katerra Energy, Next Step Living, Serious Energy. I deployed about $11 billion of the stimulus package during the Obama administration and prior to that I founded SunEdison with Jigar Shah.

Catherine: Can you briefly describe exactly what Fermata Energy does, so he just touched on it a little bit, but what is it focused on within the EV space?

Claire: Sure. Fermata Energy was founded about 10 years ago by David Slutsky and John Wheeler. It was founded to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles on the road and the transmission of renewable energy on the grid. So basically, we’re the leading vehicle to home building and grid, or vehicle-to-everything solutions provider. So we’ve earned UL certification for a bi directional DC off board charger, which means that your electric vehicle can both get charged from the grid, but can discharge to the grid. We have no aspirations of being a hardware manufacturer long term. We are a software company because no one else was able to make bidirectional chargers, built by directional chargers, but what we’re trying to do is deal with a bunch of different macro investment problems that are happening. So the world wants to decentralize and decarbonize the grid. It’s $2.4 trillion to modernize our grid. We want to electrify transportation. 2 million EVs in 2022 will grow to 8 million by 2025 and 26 million by 2030. And we want to electrify buildings and transportation. So like decentralizing decarbonizing grid, electrifying transportation, electrifying buildings and transportation, all of that together, we’re trying to solve that problem with bidirectional electric vehicles, their chargers, their software platform, and really, that sort of segues into virtual power plants.

Catherine: So I just bought an EV. I was on a nine month waitlist, so I just got my EV last Wednesday. I’ve learned so much in a short period of time that I’ve had it. So I went to the grocery store, a brand new grocery store just opened, they have all these chargers and I thought oh, let me try it. And there was a guy there from Charger Help. And I was like, I know Charger Help. I know why these companies, I was so excited. Stemma Connect, I think was the charging. And it didn’t work. The guy said “Yeah, it doesn’t work because it’s underground.” And there’s no Wi Fi. So he’s like, we’re trying to convince them to get a booster because even though I had it all set to go, it couldn’t talk to each other because there wasn’t a strong enough Wi Fi signal. This is fascinating for me, because this is kind of a big reason why I wanted to get an EV to really kind of understand more like the challenges that we’re having. So my question is explain to me how, me as a consumer, now that I have an EV like, How can I benefit from Fermata? Like, is there an opportunity for me to?

Claire: Okay, yeah, so absolutely. So there is a lot of moving pieces and a lot of things that have to connect with each other. Right? So number one, the vehicle has to be bidirectional, so that you gotta buy a vehicle where it can both charge the grid and be discharged from the grid, right?

Catherine: How do you know that?

Claire: You look it up. The first vehicle that was made bidirectional was a Nissan Leaf, as an example. You also need to make sure that you have a charger that is bidirectional. So there’s level one chargers which are the slowest there’s level two which are a little faster. There’s all sorts of different types of chargers. The charger that you need, has to be bidirectional as well. So it has to be able to charge and discharge. But to answer your question about how does this benefit a customer: essentially 95% of the time our vehicles are sitting idle, in that 95% of the time, why not park it, plug it profit, which is a little tagline, right? So for the 95% of the time, you’re not using your vehicle, why not enable it, so it can discharge to the grid when the grid really needs the power? And of course, as you know and your listeners know, you know power is in highest demand typically the like four to 7pm, five to 8pm summer hours in July and August. So essentially what we do at Fermata Energy is we say Hey, Mr. Customer, there’s this demand response event coming up, right? Or there’s a demand charge management event coming up that we’re anticipating right so if you agree to park your car from four to 7pm, tomorrow, July 22, we think you’re going to make X dollars, right?
And so, with a standard Nissan LEAF we can make anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 a summer just on one Nissan Leaf. That is the customer. The customer who owns the charger can make that that much money off of it. And that is a check from a national grid or an Eversource or an Xcel Energy. So it really is a fantastic operating tool and it really is completely dependent on what the demand response rates are. So the states with the highest demand response demand charge management rates. These are Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island for East Coast states and New Hampshire a little bit. Then go west to Colorado and then continue to go west to California. Alright those are the states with the highest rates where you can make the most money for electric vehicles. And so essentially like that, that changes the game right because so many people are saying electric vehicles are too expensive, regular people can’t buy an electric vehicle. Well if you’re leasing a vehicle and you’re spending $700 a month to lease that vehicle. Yeah, you’re making $6,000 a summer and it’s really over six weeks. That helps pay for most of the cost of vehicle lease. Yeah, that’s that that is the fee that is coming to the customer that has bought the charger and the software and owns the vehicle.

Catherine: Can you make a car bi directional? Can you retrofit it? Like could I now take my car if it’s not bidirectional?

Claire: You can’t. We have to work with the OEMs directly. Though, I’m really happy to say that almost all of the big OEMs and a lot of the smaller ones have committed to becoming bi directional, if not in 2023 than either 2024 or 2025. There’s a groundswell.

Catherine: Right, right. I assumed that I get another one in two to three years because the technology is going to be exponentially better.

Claire: Exactly. It’s gonna get better. And there’s going to be more infrastructure, right. So I mean one of the questions is why should you invest in Fermata Energy now, right as an example, and the answer to that to any investors listening is the Inflation Reduction Act is pouring tons of money into EV infrastructure. And utilities all across the country are very anxious about electric vehicles because they’re increasing demand precipitously. But the great way to think about this and there was a good Axios article about it is that EVs might not just be causing the problem they could be the solution to the problem. I think battery storage on wheels, my electric vehicle Baltimore Gas Electric, where I live, can drive X number of vehicles to a substation, that super transmission constraint. And start solving those problems. It’s a different way for utilities to think they’re used to rate basing new power plants and then getting their customers to pay higher rates for more things. It’s a very different way. And it really is sort of the concept of virtual power plants. You’re putting in smart thermostats, hot water heaters, solar stationary storage, vehicle to grid, vehicle to everything. You’re putting that all together. Which is gonna require some regulatory changes in order for the utilities to be able to make money on that.

Catherine: Can you talk about some of the examples of Fermata projects you’re excited about? I read about your project with Revel as well as your project, my New Hampshire Electric Cooperative, which both sound really interesting.

Claire: So let me give you a couple different examples. A Rhode Island municipal deployment earned $8,000 In two summers, so it was a demand response program using our bidirectional charging platform. The one electric vehicle and one charger with our platform earned almost $9,000 actually at a municipal wastewater treatment facility versus the Rhode Island energy connected Solutions Program. So you’re discharging energy in an EV battery pack to the grid at times of peak grid demand during two to three hour long events. And one thing that I want to be really crystal clear on is duty cycle which is when you want to drive your vehicle is literally just another data point in our AI driven data science, right? So just like you’re using weather as one data science point, you’re using duty cycle so if you tell us if you Mr. Customer tell us I want to drive my vehicle from one to 4pm every day. Great. We will say okay, that is one data point in trying to predict and project how much money you’re going to save over time. So that’s one example.
There is a car share program at the Alliance Center in Denver, Colorado, which is the first all electric building in Denver. We reduce demand charged on electricity bills by discharging electricity in an EV battery used by the building during times of high electricity consumption. And then also we have a project with Verizon Ventures new lab at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which started in June of 2021. Created over $3,000 of savings with one EV and one charger with peak shaving reduced demand charges on Canada’s electricity bill. So we’ve got a whole lot of different examples and that’s one of the things if you if your listeners hear anything from this is it these are not just pilots anymore. These are not science experiments anymore. These are places where we’ve activated charters and been making money from utilities for several years. And so I’d love for people, I understand utilities love pilots, and we love working with utilities, but the idea is we’ve got lots of installations completed all over the country. And so this isn’t a science experiment, and we’d love for people to start. We’d love to start seeing the arc of commercializing this at more scale.

Catherine: You had mentioned earlier about Leaf. So Nissan was the first EV manufacturer to announce its approval for the Fermata Energy FE-15 charger, the bi directional charger you were talking about? How much money would you say one Nissan LEAF could earn per year for owners by plugging in and returning electricity to the grid during peak hours.

Claire: So anywhere it depends on where you are, which state you’re in, but anywhere from $2,000 to six to $8,000 per summer, really dependent upon what the demand response rates are, and those keep increasing. So in Rhode Island, for example, they went from $300 per kilowatt to $400 per kilowatt for certain customer types just this summer. We’re going to increase by you know, 30 whatever percent. Yeah.

Catherine: What would you say is the largest challenge that the EV industry faces and Fermata in particular, is it education? Is it adoption rates? Is it manufacturing?

Claire: So certainly manufacturing the fact that lots of people have been on wait lists for a really long time was historically-

Catherine: nine months. Yeah. Then being that my car got to Baltimore, and it got recalled. So it sat in Baltimore for a month.

Claire: Yeah. So that certainly was a problem, but I think we’ve kind of gone over that arc. I think education is a big part. I think infrastructure is a big part. So I was driving with my girlfriend from upstate New York down to Philadelphia, and we did have to stop and charge right which is okay but you have to schedule and think through. Okay, I have to stop and I have to make sure that the electric vehicle charger works and I have to make sure that it’s compatible with my car. So there needs to be a lot of standardization to answer your question about electric vehicles broadly. To talk about Fermata Energy, specifically, there’s 10 times more storage capacity in electric vehicles on the road today, there’s 10 times more then there is stationary storage. And it’s two thirds of the cost of stationary storage. So really, if we can all sort of change our mindset, and that’s why I’m talking to you and why we’re doing so much education, it is like EVs are really underutilized battery storage on wheels, right? It’s an underutilized asset. Can’t we use it to help serve the grid? Instead of just pull from the grid?

Catherine: I really find this so interesting, because I never I never looked at it that way. And I feel kind of silly for not having looked at it that way. Because I work a lot with storage companies. I work a lot with EV companies and I never sort of put the two together and it’s just really, really exciting.

Claire: It is and there’s definitely a groundswell not only because of the Inflation Reduction Act, but also because the OEMs are realizing Wow, this is the future, right? GM made an announcement that they’re an energy company that’s like mind blowing. And the market size projections for V1G, which is just managed charging and virtual power plants and storage, and V2G commercial and residential, that’s going to be a $30 billion total addressable market just this year. In the US. And then there’s dozens of OEMs who are adding bi directional EVs to their fleets, right? We’ve got Bluebird, Lion, Phoenix, BYD, GMC Hummer, Audi, Porsche, BMW, Stalantis, Daimler, Honda ionic . They’ve all made announcements to go bi directional by 2024, 2025 at the very latest. It remains to be seen if that actually happens, but the groundswells are very, very clear EVs are here to stay. The federal government wants to pay for the infrastructure for EVs and bidirectionality is going to be a part of that.

Catherine: Yeah, it’s so true. Because I was so committed to my next EV and I had my eye on a couple of makes and models and I was like, Oh, they don’t have EVs yet. So I’m just gonna go somewhere else that does because I’m not going to buy another car. That is not easy. I just like drew a line in the sand but these companies have to be careful because a lot of these brands especially like we’re talking we mentioned earlier BMW, for example, like they do everything they absolutely can to get you a loyalist for life. Which I did not realize and so I think based on what I’ve seen so far with them, it would take a lot for me to probably get another car that wasn’t the car I have now you know what I mean? Like stay in that family, right?

Claire: I mean, in the OEM market, I’ve spent my career in the solar energy and energy efficiency, renewable energy, climate tech space mobility is something that’s new to me and that’s really interesting, because we’re in the middle of two sets of behemoths, one, the utilities who are so ingrained and used to doing things they wanted to and are so anxious about the idea of virtual power plants, because how does that impact my grid and something that’s changing and who’s moving my cheese and I worked with utilities. I worked for Constellation and I worked with Enron. I totally understand where that’s coming from. And then there’s the OEM side, which is another set of behemoths that wants to make money but they’re seeing that customers are asking for something else. And they’re not used to it. I mean OEMs don’t make as much money on electric vehicles because they don’t break. There aren’t as many operations and maintenance costs, there’s not as high margins, and they’re not thrilled about making electric vehicles, but that is certainly the wave of the future.

Catherine: Right. I know that you became interested in environmental science and climate change at an early age and that you initially wanted to be a physicist. How did you end up making your way into and succeeding within clean energy? And then the EV space in particular, did you have any key mentors along the way?

Claire: Good question, so I grew up 30 miles west of Chicago and cornfields literally, and when I was growing up, acid rain was a really big deal. And honestly, I think my middle school science teacher, I did my science fair projects on acid rain and its effect on a water environment and I passed legislation when I was in high school about recycling, and it’s just something that I’ve really been passionate about my whole life. Just like Jigger, my dad’s a doctor. Jigger and I grew up very close to each other outside of Chicago. And I knew I never wanted to be in medicine and I knew I wanted to do something to help people and energy just as really interesting. And so when I went to college, I helped create the environmental science undergrad major, that’s there. And I’ve been rolling along ever since then. I’ve had a lot of changes across my career, but I started doing risk management consulting. I worked at Enron in the late 90s went back to business school, no Enron and go back to wound up at Constellation and was constellations first renewable energies originator, which in 2002 was kind of a joke, but I’ve been very passionate about it for my whole life started SunEdison like Jigger and I’ve worked for the federal government for a couple years and then really a lot of startup investing, advising and then on the operations and development side, and I love waking up every day and trying to solve our climate change problems.

Catherine: Yeah, I know that you became interested in environmental science, climate change at an early age. Initially, you wanted to become a physicist. How did you end up making your way into succeeding within clean energy in the EV space in particular? Did you have any key mentors along the way?

Claire: Thank you for the question. So yeah, I’ve been really passionate about it my whole life ever since I was a little kid I was involved in passing legislation and at my school helped to create the environmental science undergrad major, realize that energy is a huge part of the climate change problem and was off to the races and did risk management consulting work for Enron went to business school no Enron to go back to which is why I’m based in constellation I’m based in Baltimore now I went down to work for Constellation started SunEdison and have like been off to the races sense and in terms of sort of advice I would give people find good mentors. I had a wonderful mentor in college, Maryam Golnaraghi, who is a PhD in oceanography and she’s now doing risk management work with insurance companies, the top insurance companies in the world and how they’re going to be involved in the climate change movement. I’ve been very lucky to know really wonderful people. Dan Kammen was my first boss, he is a professor at ERG, at Energy Resources Group at Berkeley. I’ve been very lucky to find people along the way who have been supportive of me and supportive of trying to solve climate change problems one way or the other.
In terms of sort of how to get into the field. There are hundreds of 1000s of jobs coming to the climate tech field. And if you want a job, there’s one for you. In terms of advice I would give I would try to think through what day to day function are you most interested in? Is it human resources? Is finance? Is it operations, as a business development uses sales right, so everyone has a unique skill set? Right and then I would also think about what type of organization you want to be at. I originally thought I was going to work for a nonprofit my whole life but I don’t have the attention span, have the patience for that. I thought I was gonna work for the government but I didn’t really have the patience for that either. So I’m trying to figure out are you a startup person? Are you a fortune 500 person who wants to work with a group of you know, 75 people are you raring to go and creating things on your own time. There are opportunities for anyone that wants a job. There are so many construction jobs, there is so much work to do. And there’s so much money with the Inflation Reduction Act and with just the general interest from the private sector of trying to solve our climate change problems, that there’s an opportunity for everyone who wants one.

Catherine: I think it’s really interesting what you just said because I get asked this question a lot by people who are graduating coming into the industry, I think they get very bogged down by the technology. So they’re like what technology doesn’t want to be solar, do I want to wind, and they feel like there’s this pressure they put on themselves. They really have to understand the ins and outs of that technology to know if that’s the direction you want to go. But I kind of liked what you said, which is let’s think about function first. Then let’s think about the org first. Then, if the checkout whatever the technology is, you’ve demonstrated you can work in tons of different technologies. And technology is important but perhaps not as important as knowing what function and or you are best suited towards?

Claire: Well, I think it depends on what function you want to be. So if you’re a mechanical engineer that simply focuses on some really specific part of a lithium ion battery field. But I think for most of us who are not engineers, a computer scientist could be in any industry and be solving problems. And we have two thirds of Fermata Energy are computer scientists, software engineers, right and so whether they’re working on electric vehicle bi directionality, or solar or data science for the data science and the AI platform, the UX affiliated with that, having different things talk to each other across different platforms, integrating software, that’s whether you’re working on electric vehicle or wind turbine, your function is still the same. So frankly, that’s a rather young question in the sense that, of course, you want to start understanding everything about a technology but you’re not going to. By studying it, at some point you have to jump in and learn about it and go to a company and figure it out.

Catherine: Thank you so much for your time and all the work that you’ve done. It’s, I just have so much respect for you and for the path that you’ve paved for a lot of us and not just women, but like the industry in general, so thank you I appreciate that.

Claire: Thank you for your time and thank you for inviting me.