Interview with Neha Palmer, CEO of TeraWatt Infrastructure | EV Charging Hubs

Neha Palmer, CEO of TeraWatt Infrastructure | EV Charging Hubs

What was it like to found a startup dedicated to building EV fleet charging hubs after nearly a decade of leading energy strategy for Google? In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with the brilliant Neha Palmer, CEO at TeraWatt Infrastructure, who had the foresight to anticipate the future real estate, operational & interconnect needs of EV fleets across the country. Fast forward to today & TeraWatt has properties in 18 states, just completed a large EV hub project near LAX, & has key partnerships with companies like South Korea’s SK Signet. Neha also talked about how she started her career as a gas engineer at PG&E & an Associate at Goldman Sachs before transitioning into cleantech, as well as her advice for those looking to join the cleantech industry.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I’m really, really excited to have Neha Palmer join me from San Francisco. She is the CEO at TeraWatt. Thanks for joining me.

Neha: Thanks for having me.

Catherine: And so, first and foremost, I want to thank Jake Sussman, who introduced us as somebody that we both think very highly of, and he’s doing some really great work with Cleantech Leaders Roundtable and Ambient Fuels. So thank you, Jake. So can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your current role at TeraWatt?

Neha: Yeah, great to be here today. So I am the co-founder and CEO of TeraWatt Infrastructure, we provide EV charging solutions really focused on fleets. Any kind of fleet, really, so light duty heavy duty, but we really like to provide what we call the complex charging case solution. So where you have lots of vehicles in one location or you have very large scale vehicles, like semi trucks that require high power needs, we’re here to provide a full stack solution and that means we can provide the space so the real estate for charging that large interconnect that many of these sites require to charge many vehicles at one time, all the onsite infrastructure, chargers, energy elements like storage and solar, and then running it reliably. And that’s a real big distinction for fleets. Versus other kinds of public facing charging. They need super high levels of reliability. And so we’re building the capability to deliver that as well.

Catherine: That’s great. I want to talk next about your transition into clean tech. So this is something that I’m kind of obsessed with, like everybody’s sort of career journey into this space and I knew that you started your career as a gas engineer with PG&E, and worked briefly at Goldman. How did you make your way into clean energy?

Neha: Kind of funny because as a gas engineer back when I started that was the clean fuel. Talk of conversion to LNG for vehicles. It was certainly cleaner than coal at the time, right, which was the main fuel for power plants. And it was really at the time of that big transition. So it was kind of like in my mind from the beginning of my career, but what really pushed me to that transition was when I was at Goldman we were working through helping a lot of our clients think through some compliance that they were going to have with respect to some really big goals for utilities in terms of converting their power fleets from coal to gas and reducing the amount of emission so that kind of planted the seed in my mind. And then I had this opportunity to actually go back to PG&E and work on the first very large scale renewable energy project. So we’re talking about 500 plus megawatt solar farms, really large wind farms at scale that had never really been built before. With all kinds of technology. So PV, thin film, power towers, tubes I got to see all of it. And it was really at that ground floor of when the industry really started to scale up. So that was my first foray. And I’ve kind of always kind of maintained that thread focused on clean energy throughout.

Catherine: I’m sure there are a lot of synergies with your EV journey now, right? So you’re sort of seeing it like you did back in the day with solar and wind like seeing it right from that ground up?

Neha: Absolutely. And what’s interesting is there’s a huge compliance issue, as well. Both industries face that drove a lot of the innovation and driving the cost curves down. Anyone who’s been in solar or wind knows what those cost curves have done over the last 10-15 years. We’re at that point with EVs as well. The battery costs are coming down over time, innovation and technology is making things more efficient. So very similar types of trajectories that we expect with EVs that we saw with large scale renewable energy. So a really exciting time for the industry.

Catherine: You were the head of energy strategy at Google for close to a decade. What was that like? And what kind of projects did you focus on there?

Neha: It was a really amazing role, obviously, for an amazing company, and a real great platform to start to think about how do we make corporations participate and how do they actively participate in a way that’s beneficial to them and renewable and clean energy? So data centers use large amounts of electricity. So they require a couple of things from the energy perspective. They require, obviously, big interconnects so working with utilities, energy suppliers, grid operators, to get that interconnect, which is also a real big part of renewable energy projects as well, right? Maybe from the opposite side, where data centers are looking for power and that interconnect for that large amount of power. Obviously, renewable energy is focused on providing that to the grid. So source versus sink. But also, we wanted to make sure that we were being real thoughtful about our carbon footprint, which is the biggest portion of most datacenter companies’ carbon footprints, and so being thoughtful about how we could start to reduce that carbon footprint. So along with scaling up we when I started we were eight data centers on two continents, when I left we were dozens on multiple continents, really thinking about how we can match all of that growth with renewable energy. So we got the company to 100% renewable energy, using a lot of the tools that I learned with as first really big renewable projects and PG&E. So the corporate PPA became something really commonplace over that time. We had done some of the first ones of those but really scale up program around that. Also working directly with utilities who were supplying us energy to sleeve through renewables and then towards the end really thinking about okay, how do you time match all this with the concept of 24/7 carbon free energy, so it was a really great journey. I got to work with so many different grid operators and energy suppliers across the globe, and honestly prepared me for what I’m doing now. So the stack of infrastructure that I mentioned that TeraWatt provides: land, interconnect on site, infrastructure and reliable operations is the exact same infrastructure stack that you need for a data center. So it really prepared me well, well for what I’m doing now.

Catherine: And that leads me to my next question about the foundation of TeraWatts. So can you just talk a little bit more about those services and why you decided to found the company?

Neha: Yeah, so I think maybe I’ll take that in reverse order. You know, we saw, and my co-founder saw before I joined, a really big opportunity with respect to EV charging, especially for these large vehicles with large large batteries. If they’re all charging simultaneously they need large amounts of power in a very specific location. So these locations have to be where they are either traveling past or they tend to domicile in. So think of things like warehouse hubs and then along highway corridors, so the concept was really started with the land like we have to find these locations. We don’t know when this transition is going to happen. It’s still in the early stages of this, but they weren’t thinking about this back in 2018-19. So really assembling a portfolio of real estate assets that would be suitable for developing EV charging. When that time came. So fast forward to 2020 I started talking with them and it was really apparent with commitments from some of the big corporations around reducing supply chain carbon emissions tied to you know, heavy duty trucking and things like that. That the time was now. This fleet charging need was going to be apparent pretty soon. And it takes a while to develop these projects. So I saw the deed. I saw that it was a stack of infrastructure. So there’s real estate pieces, one thing but also just working with those utilities that can take time that interconnect, and then all the onsite infrastructure and opps. So I started the company because I saw the vision of what had to be assembled and it’s super complex is not something that a fleet manager is familiar with, thinking about kilowatt, so thinking about gallons of diesel normally. So I just saw that it was a big opportunity to help this industry transition and also just a gap that was going to exist with the customers and their know-how and understanding. So that was really the impetus to start the company. You know, and I think we’ve seen over the last two years that there has been this transition, and these fleets are now reaching out and saying I did my first pilot with my first two vehicles. But as I start to scale up, I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I need help.

Catherine: So can you talk a little bit more about the services that you’re offering?

Neha: So we have our portfolio of real estate assets. So we were able to have these locations that are real proximate to some of these big customers locations, we are able to work with the utility and bring the large amount of power to that site. We can provide development construction services at that site, so it can be developed on a built to suit basis for a specific customer. We can develop sites that are multi-tenant, so you might have multiple customers with a base of operations that’s proximate to one of our sites, that they’re able to share infrastructure that actually reduces the cost significantly for them. And then we’re able to operate these sites reliably. That is actually not a small feat. It’s a really nascent industry. The hardware is just starting to become more sophisticated. The software systems need to be developed over time also for this heavy duty use. And so we’re working on making sure we have the capability to operate them at the high uptime that these fleets require. So I think of the four things that we provide are real estate, working with a utility, working with the construction and development process, working through the hardware selection, and installing all of that, and then obviously, managing all of the energy services that you would have as a really large energy consumer and in the reliable operations.

Catherine: What are some of the projects you’re most proud of at TeraWatt?

Neha: So we had a really exciting thing happen a couple of weeks ago where we had a shovel ceremony for a site that we’re building near LAX, the airport. So it’s a five minute drive from the airport, and it’s a site that will have 20 plus heavy DCFC. So really fast chargers for rideshare and taxi fleets that are serving customers coming in out of the airport, but this will hopefully allow a lot of EVs to start serving the airport and a real efficient way for them. It’s proximate to the airport, so they’re not going out of their way to charge. Customers that we’ve engaged with those fleets have the capability to know that when they drive up, they’re gonna have chargers available, they’re going to have the power level and reliability that they need for that charging session. And so they’re able to start to plan a lot more capacity in their fleets with EVs. So that one’s super exciting. We have a project that we’re working on under the Port of Long Beach, the heavy duty side that will have over a dozen heavy duty chargers to power semi trucks. And I’d mentioned compliance earlier starting in January of next year. A lot of the vehicles coming out of the port will have to increasingly be transitioned to EVs and zero emission vehicles. So there’s a real need that’s coming up pretty quickly. And we’ll be able to turn that site up early next year which is really exciting to help you know our customers who are struggling with Okay, I will have to get these vehicles but once I get them how am I going to charge them because it does take you know, 12-18 months longer to develop these sites.

Catherine: Are most of your projects focused on California?

Neha: So we do have properties across 18 states. We know that these are moving assets, they’re gonna move everywhere. California certainly is where the bulk of the activity is right now. Driven by a couple of things. Driven by some of the compliance obligations. Driven by density. The densest freight corridor in the US is between the Port of Long Beach and Phoenix, which obviously a huge portion of that is through California. One of the biggest warehouse hubs is called the Inland Empire which is in southern California. So we see a lot of the fleets piloting their vehicles, their first EVs in this region, and so a lot of activity is there but really quickly, we’re starting to hear about other regions, Arizona with Phoenix and then Texas also, and the drivers are you know, in Texas, there’s something called the Texas triangle where the distances between those three major cities is really relevant with how the range is for some of the heavy duty trucks that are available today. So you start to see that transition proliferating across the US.

Catherine: Are there any key partnerships that you all have formed doing these projects?

Neha: Yeah, so we obviously have a real important piece of our stack, which is the charging hardware. And so we have formed a few partnerships with respect to that. Signet is one charging provider. We say we are hardware agnostic but not provider agnostic. We want to have partners who are willing to work with us. We’re still learning about how this hardware needs to perform for fleets especially. A lot of the hardware today has been focused on public facing charging for passenger vehicles. So working with companies like them is really helpful as we think through things like firmware software, the interaction with the hardware. And so those partnerships really matter, not only from a supply chain perspective, but also just developing this technology over time. They’re going to be really critical to how we grow.

Catherine: What are some of the things that you’re most looking forward to working on a TeraWatt in the years to come?

Neha: I think that the network is going to be so important, like critical, for these foods to be able to grow. So I think about the customer journey, they often pilot a few vehicles on their site, and they definitely want to have charging at their base of operations. And that is another solution we can provide. I mentioned that full stack. They may have a site but they don’t know how to work with the utility or do the development construction. And then they need help in the operations. We can also help them with what we call behind the fence on their side of operations. But if you look as a trajectory goes on, as they have more and more EVs, they really do need space. Oftentimes, their base of operations already is fully packed with what they’re doing. So adding charging operations would be disruptive. They need power, and oftentimes they’re in rented space where the landlord doesn’t want to bring that kind of investment to the site. So the second kind of step ICU is where they branch out into things that are not happening on their site, but happening either adjacent or on a route that they travel often so maybe built a suit next to them on route and eventually over the road, these long highway distances as the vehicles start to have more and more range, they’ll start to travel 500 plus miles and so need charging along these highway corridors. So I think of that as the customer network they need for their routes. Okay, where do I need to have all of this infrastructure I’m super excited about building this network of networks, and really using the TeraWatt network, which would be our our all of our land sites, where either it’s a customer or charging on their own in a joint tenancy situation, or extending their range and I think that network and building it out is going to be super exciting to see that someone can go from Port of Long Beach all the way to Texas on our network. I’m super excited to see that one day. I’m excited to do I have in my mind the road trip I’m gonna take where I get in the truck and ride with someone from the Port of Long Beach all the way to Texas, we will have to stop and along the way, but we’ll stop and charge at TeraWatt stations along the way.

Catherine: We’ll get there one day.

Neha: Maybe that’ll be a really quantum battery. But yes.

Catherine: Yeah. Well, I love a couple of things that you said like building the network of networks and behind the fence. I mean, how many times I hear, behind the meter, behind the meter, behind the meter. It’s nice to hear another terminology. I like that behind the fence that gives me a good visual there. What are some of the top challenges you feel that are facing fleet electrification?

Neha: Gosh, there are a number of dimensions and I will say I list some things but I think that they’re getting better every year. Two years ago the challenge was I don’t have any trucks. I can’t get the trucks, trucks are not coming off the assembly line, they’re late. That is largely quelled. At this point, I do think that anybody who wants to buy a battery electric vehicle can do it. And that was a challenge across light duty and heavy duty. Certainly on the light duty side there’s so many more models available and coming off lines en masse that those fleets are pretty excited about the optionality they have and even on the heavy duty side you see more and more OEMs delivering those trucks. So that’s exciting. But it continues to be a challenge, right? They’re building these lines for the first time. They will have stop-starts as they start to scale their programs. So I think just the supply from that side, the cost is still higher than a traditional vehicle and we talked about something called the total cost of operation. The data back from the light duty segment is that it’s 50 to 60% less cost to operate once you have the vehicle and EV versus Ice Vehicle and a fleet. So that long term operational costs kind of going away can mitigate a higher upfront cost but a lot of these please don’t have that experience to be able to say okay, I can make the higher upfront investment. So I think the cost trajectory has to come down and I mentioned the correlation with renewable energy. We all see that with EV and battery electric vehicles as well. And I think putting these new sites together takes time, it takes capital, it takes know-how and it takes working with the utility and all of those things can lend themselves to very long timelines. We’re talking in some cases three plus years for very large sites. So I do think making sure that the charging is keeping up with all these vehicles as they roll off the line and they start to get adopted is going to be really important for us to really lean on. I’m super excited for our business because I think that’ll be core to that, but it’s a huge industry and we’re gonna need lots of players to help support that. So I think those are the major challenges. And there is just the traditional adoption curve, right? It is.. not disruptive, but it’s something new that they have to learn in terms of folding into their operations, and they’ve been running these ice fleets for over 100 years now. Transitioning to EVs is something that they’ll have to ingest.

Catherine: Do you have any advice for those looking to transition into clean tech from like other industries or even mobility more specifically?

Neha: The first thing is we need you. This industry knows how much demand there is. We have these folks at TeraWatt who are super passionate about sustainability being in clean tech, and so we’ve been able to take people whose skills are very transferable, whether it’s software engineers, or finance people, or even construction. And so it’s very relevant things that you know, that apply to our business. So, ‘we need you’ is the first thing. The second thing is I think it’s really important to understand the industry. And so, if there is someplace that you think that you want to learn more, especially on the energy side, like working at a utility is a really great grounding in terms of learning so many different aspects of energy. So maybe I’m biased there having worked at the utility straight out of college but your that really was a great proving ground to understand so many different aspects. Because it is not just the technology, it’s the regulatory scheme that you sit in. It is all of the different things that are really important to the industry, like interconnect is really about technology, but it’s also about rate structure and what tariffs are. So I think that can be really helpful. But I think at the end of the day, it’s Don’t be shy, like there are so many ways that the industry is opening up, that skills are very transferable. And we’re at a moment where companies are very open to allowing people to learn on the job, the pieces that are focused on the industry, but really making sure that we’re putting the aperture to folks who are passionate number one, I think that’s really important to have successful employees but also we just have a huge need. And so I also see bringing in expertise from other industries has been really helpful to our industry. So our higher technology comes from a company called Spot hero, which does parking. It’s a great, great service, right? Yeah, exactly. But there’s a lot of relevancy with what he’s built there. Parking is a big part of charging and so I think there’s a lot of cross corollary things that you can bring in from other industries too.

Catherine: I’m just so glad that you said that and I’m so glad that you said that without me prompting you to say it because I have, again, I get these bees in my bonnet. Things that I get very worked up about and one of them is bringing in diversity, but people in general, into the clean energy industry and how important it is to have different people from different backgrounds and schools of thought. And I think that I’m grateful to you and TeraWatt for being open to that because I don’t think actually a lot of companies are yet open to that. And one thing I said earlier today and another interview I was doing was I think the companies that are open to all this amazing talent from other industries, those early adopters of those people are the ones that are going to benefit the most. Because there’s just such amazing talent on the market and they want so desperately to be part of this clean energy transition.

Neha: Exactly. And then you can’t discount that passion right when someone is actively making a big career switch to come into this area. They’re super excited, and that’s going to be a really great employee to have.

Catherine: Yeah, totally. Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with us and for all that you’re doing for our industry.

Neha: Thanks so much for having me.