Interview with Dana Guernsey, Chief Product Officer of Voltus

Interview with Dana Guernsey, Chief Product Officer of Voltus

Voltus, Inc. became the first DER monetization platform to be interconnected to every wholesale market in North America. Voltus was also able to successfully increase its female staff from 20% to 40%. Catherine spoke with Dana Guernsey, Chief Product Officer at Voltus, about these accomplishments, her impactful male mentors & an exciting recent Voltus project with a big-box retailer. Catherine and Dana also spoke about the importance of intentionality when it comes to hiring diverse staff as well as hiring employees that are the winning combination of bright, gritty & mission-driven.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Dana Guernsey. Dana is the Chief Product Officer at Voltus. And she’s joining us from Massachusetts. Welcome, Dana.

Dana: Hey, Catherine. Thanks for having me. 

Catherine: Thank you! I’m so glad that we finally get to do this. So tell me a little bit about your background and your role at Voltus.

Dana: Sure, so you said it. I’m currently our Chief Product Officer at Voltus. And as far as background, let’s see. So what’s the beginning, I grew up in Queens in New York City, and then went to college at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. So pretty much the opposite place from New York City as you can get, I guess, I ended up studying mechanical engineering there, combined with studio art. And it was, in fact, the closest thing to architecture I could conjure up at the time. That was what I thought I wanted to do was to become an architect. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled upon electric vehicles, and just became fascinated in their performance as both really awesome cars, but also really awesome for the environment. So this was, I think, before clean tech was a mainstream word, at least for me. In short, I found clean tech it through through the engineering school there. And so ultimately, the company Enernoc, which was a very successful publicly traded demand response company at the time, was where I landed my first job out of grad school. I was there for seven years, I ultimately led their whole international energy markets group. And throughout that time, I realized just how interesting electricity markets were, and how ripe for innovation they were, and still are. And I just became really fascinated with all the power market complexities. And then at that point, I’m a total clean tech energy wonk, right. So I left Enernoc to join a battery storage startup called Ambri, which was developing a new kind of long duration cost effective grid scale storage. And I was drawn to storage because it was just this like different angle on grid services from what was demand response at the time. And that three years at Ambri. But ultimately, they were a bit earlier in the commercialization process and what I was looking for. And so I found my way back to demand response and more broadly, DERs, or distributed energy resources, which include, for folks who aren’t as familiar with anything from demand response to energy storage to electric vehicle, and found my way back via Voltus.

Catherine: So Dana, I’m really glad that you shared that journey with us, because I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently with people in there who are trying to get into clean energy. And I’m trying to explain to them that like, everything is like a journey. And just because you don’t get into clean energy, like right out of the gates from school doesn’t mean that there’s not like an awesome roadmap for you to get into this space.

Dana: Totally. I definitely did not go into this career thinking that this was what I wanted to do. It was definitely something that evolved.

Catherine: Yeah, exactly. So tell me a little bit more about Voltus. For those who, too, if anybody doesn’t know about Voltus, can you provide a little bit more of an overview of what they’re doing, and some of the accomplishments you’ve had?

Dana: Sure. So I guess we’ll start in one sentence from both. This is a technology platform that connects distributed energy resources to electricity markets, in return for cash, that we somewhat literally plug energy things into energy markets, for the purpose of earning money for our customers, while also creating a more resilient and flexible grid. And so if you zoom out to the big picture for a moment, just to kind of lay the backdrop here of how this all works. There’s this aging and antiquated grid. And actually, I just listened to John Oliver speak about this very topic. So if you haven’t listened to that, I recommend that everybody does because he’ll tell it in a way more engaging way than I will. But basically, we have this aging and antiquated grid. It’s old. It was built for a different world. You layer in climate stress and climate emergencies plus, needing to accommodate this high penetration of renewables and electric vehicles. And it’s on the brink. It’s totally stressed out. On the flip side, we do have these abundant and cheap renewables, we have 21st century technology, we have 1000s and 1000s of existing assets that aren’t being utilized as efficiently as they could be. And we have lots of smart people trying to address this solvable problem. And so that’s what we do at Voltus, we glue all these things together. We’re taking flexible loads and other kinds of distributed energy resources like energy storage, and distributed generation EVs and energy efficiency. We take all these resources. And we built the cloud based technology that orchestrates their participation in these electricity markets. So we are paying them for their services.

Catherine: Great, thank you for explaining that to everyone. And I want to talk a little bit about your tagline, which I love, which is I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, Be Bright, Gritty and Good.

Dana: Yeah, so we talk about hiring: Bright, Gritty and Good. And those three things are really a magical trio, when you think about who you want to work for your company. And it’s really hard to find all three. 

Catherine: Yeah,I totally get that.

Dana: And the good piece comes in, because I thought what you were gonna say is, our tagline is actually it’s Better Energy, More Cash. And so we’re a very mission driven organization. People really care about the work we’re doing. And folks are attracted to that. So we’re getting all kinds of talented technology engineers, and energy markets specialists, and phenomenal sales people. And they’re, they’re driven to us, in part because of the mission. And so that’s the good piece of people who really, genuinely want to do well by doing good.

Catherine: Yeah. Thank you for that. So also, for those who don’t know, earlier this year, Voltus became the first ER. monetize platform interconnected to every wholesale energy market. Congratulations, by the way. 

Dana: Thank you. 

Catherine: Could you talk about some of the trends including progress made as a result of first order 2-2-2-2, as well as the challenges Voltus has been facing?

Dana: Sure. Thanks. So this is expanding a little bit on what we were getting at before. And there’s really these there’s a few macro level drivers that are all working to accelerate the growth of these resources. So first is the ongoing transition to renewable energy, which is expected to triple by 2050. So this intermittency of renewables requires significantly more flexibility from other resources to balance and backstop their inflexibility. The second is just plain electrification. It’s this rapid electrification of things like the automobile, there’s whole bus fleets, there’s home heating, there’s data center loads, we don’t think about the data centers. But the more data we use, the more we need cryptocurrency and so on. So we’re seeing our demand for electricity grow. And then the third bit here is the need for greater grid resiliency. And so I think now, it’s definitely become much more of a dinner table conversation, every American today understands in a way they might not have, even just a couple years ago, the fragility of the grid, it’s unreliable, it’s increasingly increasingly costly. And it’s ill prepared for the increasing impacts of climate change. So look no further than August 2020 blackouts in California or the recent February blackouts in Texas for winter storm Yuri, or the Louisiana blackouts from Hurricane it just like goes on and on and on. And never used to be that way. There’d be three macro level trends. And then the convergence of the modern tech stack, as we were talking about with these energy markets, has, thus created this new energy internet of things. And so it allows our platform to connect energy markets and energy assets in a way we’ve never seen them before. But that brings us to the challenges we face. It’s not that we try to make it really simple, but it’s actually deceptively complicated. The markets are crazy complicated, and they’re each their own snowflake. And so our job at Voltus is to simplify that complexity and bring a single platform to customers to make their life simple. You also asked about FERC 2222, which was the landmark order from FERC. Last year that was the final piece of the puzzle for unencumbered access to these markets for these DER aggregations and so that was a game changer and they were somewhat impatiently waiting for it to take effect across the market. Patience is a virtue though. So we’re working through that and really eager for those rules to take hold.

Catherine: I feel like a little bit of an idiot calling it 2-2-2-2.

Dana: It goes by all the names, it’s 2-2-2-2 it’s 2222, Two By Four for some of our southern customers.

Catherine: I’m not an expert on the orders. I apologize. So I want to talk a little bit about some of the projects that you’re working on. And some of the ones specifically that you’re most proud of.

Dana: All right, let’s see. So last year, in 2020, we became the first DER aggregator in SPP, what acronyms, so the Southwest Power Pool, which covers, I want it something like 17 states in the center of the country. And we provide what’s called operating reserves. So every market needs operating reserves, they’re procured for the reason that there needs to be this balance to the day to day minute to minute fluctuations on the grid, they get used a couple times a month on average, and are relatively short in duration. So from a customer perspective, we can be the first irrigator in SPP on the market side. And then on the customer side, one of our many customers is a national big box retailers. So we’ve enabled all of their facilities in SPP to automatically respond to these grid events by changing their HVAC setpoint. So it’s this end to end signal, from SPP to voltage to these stores and back again, to help balance the grid. If you were standing in one of the stores, you’ve never noticed it. And so I love the project, because it’s this example of where we were innovating on both sides, both sides of the platform, both on the grid operator integration side, as well as integrating with a customer like a big box retail store. And so the technical integration, being on both sides is really just a good example of where we fit in this whole ecosystem. 

Catherine: Yeah, it’s a great story, very innovative. I want to talk about women. So let’s talk about women in STEM. It’s no secret that there are a paltry number of women in clean tech at the moment. How important has mentorship been to your career success? And are you a mentor? 

Dana: It’s been hugely important. That’s the answer. And, in fact, I’ll say that, all but one of my mentors have been men. So I think sometimes people think that to get mentorship as, as a woman in STEM that you need to find another woman. But you can also find really great male mentors who are allies, and who are actively supporting gender equity in the world. And so in short, yes, I’ve benefited greatly from each of my mentors. And I’m actually in touch with all of them to this day on a regular basis. But I just wanted to highlight that they can come in any form. Additionally, I do also mentor others, both formally and informally. So I do it formally through a board I’m on for the Dartmouth engineering school. And I mentor a couple of students each year. And then I do it informally with people I’ve just come to know do work or other professional experiences. And mentoring is something that you have to actually really enjoy, though, to do otherwise, it can feel a bit forced, right? And I do genuinely like mentoring others in particular, other women, maybe who are early in their career and just helping out how I can. Which is definitely not to say I have any magical advice. But I think just like sharing common experiences. Just it does seem to help at times and just being a voice for others to talk to.

Catherine: And my final question is around Diversity, Equity Inclusion within Voltus. And I know, I think one of your co-founders, Greg was just talking about this on LinkedIn the other day, because you wrote a blog post for Voltus a while back about how Voltus is making a concerted effort to diversify its workforce. What are some of the specific ways that you all are doing that? And what progress have you seen?

Dana: Yeah, so that’s all correct. I would say we do three, three things. First, is we measure, you can’t improve what you can’t measure and we’re very passionate about data. And so we know that when we started, we were around 20% women. We know we’re now around 40%. Second is we are intentional. And so we have a company goal, that for every open roll we interview, it’s 50% female and 40% people of color, which is simply demographically consistent with the US general population. And that was a lot of what my blog post was about. We have this pipeline problem. If you’re only interviewing a certain set of candidates, well, then you’re only going to hire a certain set of candidates and so much more proactive and intentional with your interviewer population. And then we hire based on merit, or the best person for the role. But what we’ve found is that when our interview population of who we’re actually talking to is representative of the general population, but then we end up with a company that is similar to that. And so we do this because we believe that diverse perspectives actually make for a better company with better culture and better business results. That’s why I think sometimes, I like to also mention that. And so, so that was two. So the third is, we talk about it. And I know definitely not an obvious thing to say, but we do talk about it. And we try as much as possible to create an inclusive environment. We look for people who are culturally additive, and not just culture fit. I’m not a huge fan of the word culture fit. We ask questions, we listen to the answers, we make adjustments. And I think the leadership team will be the first to tell you we have much room to improve, for sure. But I think by doing these things, and by talking about it and intentionally nurturing that type of culture deeply caring about employees, we’re hoping that we continue to make some really great progress. We didn’t have progress to make and probably always will.

Catherine: Yeah. I think that’s really, really great. And I think for people listening, that’s like three, relief. And when I say easy, but clearly defined things that you’re doing that are working that hopefully they can take back and replicate within their own organizations. The one that really sticks with me is the intentionality piece. I think people are so amazed when they say oh, how do you find these women? I’m like, I go out and I look for them. They’re not just gonna walk on your door.

Dana: How do you find anything? 

Catherine: It’s not some magic formula. So thank you so much for your time today. I really really appreciate it. And yeah, keep fighting the good fight for clean energy and and women. I really appreciate it.

Dana: Likewise, thanks for talking to me, Catherine.