Energy Advisory Board Spotlight - David Ramm

By Janet Miranda

David Ramm currently serves as the, and chairman and CEO of BrightSource Energy Inc., a leading provider of concentrating solar thermal technology and managing partner of Dymar Development LLC, a Houston-based energy development and consulting company.

In 2002, Ramm co-founded DKRW Energy LLC, an energy infrastructure development company which developed 700 megawatts of U.S. wind energy, was active in natural gas infrastructure development for northwest Mexico and was the U.S. leader in the commercialization of coal-to-liquids conversion processes. He previously served as president, CEO and director of Integrated Electrical Services, president of Enron Wind Corporation, managing director of Enron Renewable Energy Corporation and has held senior management roles at United Technologies Corporation including VP of marketing and sales for Otis Elevator and chairman and CEO of UTC Fuel Cells. Prior to beginning his civilian career, Ramm served for nine years as a U.S. Army officer.

Ramm holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point, a M.S. in management from the Sloan School at MIT, and an MBA from Long Island University’s Roth School of Business.  He is a member of the External Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The conversation has been edited for clarity.

UH Energy: How did you get involved with the EAB? What do you think you bring to your role with the board?

David Ramm: I've been on the energy advisory board for a number of years. It’s been interesting to observe how things have changed over time. When I joined the board, it was appropriately mostly oil and gas and coal industry people and they were looking to bring some balance to it. I’ve been very involved in the renewable energy and clean tech space and I was I was recruited to provide some balance on the board. I’ve been on the board ever since and also had the privilege of serving as chairman for several years.

The balance of interests at the board has evolved over time as the industry has changed to reflect that many people are thinking about a future that will no doubt be less carbon fuel intensive. The big dilemma for everybody in the industry is the timing of all that, because there are no easy solutions and no short cuts to that objective. Everyone is trying to figure out what that future is and how to balance today’s real needs with the mandate to reduce carbon fuel combustion emissions.

So my contribution is in being part of that discussion and providing some insights based on the experience I have with  renewable energy development and technologies  Those EAB members who have spent careers  heavily involved in the oil and gas and coal industries have the real challenge of  continuing to invest in the present while marshalling investment for  what will be a more diversified future.

UHE: You have decades of experience in the renewable sector. How has the sector changed and grown, especially since its grown rapidly in recent years?

DR: I've been in the renewable space for almost 30 years. My introduction to the space was as the CEO of  a fuel cell company, which then was a division of United Technologies.

From that starting point I migrated to Houston to co-found Enron’s renewable energy business: we were early investors  in wind, solar, and other technologies. In those times it was not common to be in that space - If you were working renewables you were really out there pioneering certain activities; they were not mainstream. For sure the technologies were evolving in terms of their cost competitiveness but their penetration of the market wasn't highly visible. But I like to think that we pioneered some of that work and made a real impact by doing so. Developing renewable energy has gone from being something that was novel and viewed as an experiment to being an integral and growing part of the future. It's what the world is trying to move towards.

On a global installed capacity basis for stationary power generation carbon fuels dominate, but renewables are making an impact. Today in the U.S. on an annual basis, more megawatts of renewables than carbon fuel plants are being installed. That's been the biggest change, from the awkwardness of “what is it that you do?”  questions to becoming a real mainstream force and part of a long-term trend. Eventually, and in tandem with the conversion of most transportation from carbon-fueled to electric with electricity provided by renewables, the future will be that most of the energy consumption on the planet will be sourced from renewable energy production.

UHE: You’ve served as CEO of a few companies and even co-founded your own energy infrastructure and development company. Is this something you always saw yourself doing? What sort of skills have contributed to your success in these roles?

DR: I for sure did not start out in the energy space. I served in the military as an army officer for nine years and then went to a large corporation, United Technologies, to work in their elevator division, Otis Elevator. I got an opportunity to take a leadership role in an area that I didn't know much about, the fuel cell company that United Technologies owned and ran. I took the job mainly to get senior management experience and not because I was necessarily transitioning to any sort of energy or even clean energy industry. But once I got there, I really developed a passion for what I thought clean energy could do in a world that was going to need much more energy and couldn’t afford environmentally to stay on the path that had been established.

With regards to technology, I thought then and I think now that fuel cells will be an important part of the future energy environment. No one technology is the answer; it will take a mix of existing and yet to be developed technologies to replace the current energy generation portfolio of technologies.

From my experience at UTC and the fuel cell business, I’ve been fortunate to lead other businesses with a larger scope. I’ve also had “start-up” experiences which demand a different mindset and risk tolerance. But the journey has almost always focused on energy in one form or another: it's been a while since I started, sort of by chance, but it's turned into a rewarding 30-year run.

The basic skills that have contributed to whatever success I’ve had come, I think, came from my experience in the army. And then I was very fortunate in my first non-military assignment at Otis Elevator to work for a very strong mentor who provided a management model that could be applied to any industry. Once you have sound general management skills, however obtained, I think that you can apply them across a variety of different enterprises and be successful.

I have an undergraduate engineering degree. I think that's been very helpful – likely necessary - in terms of being able to understand technology and have useful commentary on it. I also earned a business school degree, and I think it really helps to have a combination of technical and business education to form the skill sets you need to have in order to be a general manager in an industry that relies on technology. I started with the basic lessons of leadership in the military and was able to augment those via education and work experiences.

UHE: You are currently CEO of BrightSource, which uses solar thermal technology to create electricity. How does this technology work in the marketplace? And how is it helpful for during the energy transition?

DR: Companies in the solar industry are in general either in the photovoltaic or PV space or they are working on solar thermal technology. The PV industry, which is the dominant solar technology with 95 percent of the world's installed solar generation, uses the photons which make up light to displace electrons in PV panels to produce electricity. If you want to capture the heat of the sun for whatever purpose, then you're in the solar thermal side of the solar industry. There are several versions of solar thermal technology, each with unique features. Once captured, thermal energy can be used to produce steam for power generation, can be used directly for multiple industrial processes or can be stored for future use.  Both PV and solar thermal technologies have experienced significant improvements in cost, reliability and deployment processes and both have room to improve further going forward.

BrightSource is in the solar thermal space. It is a twelve-year-old company that originated when primarily West Coast private equity and venture firms decided that it looked like we were going to go short on fossil fuels and it was the time to invest in renewables. The clean tech industry boomed as many billions of dollars were poured in from California.

The “boom” of clean tech was interrupted by the inventiveness of the Houston energy community which implemented and rapidly improved the combination of horizontal drilling and fracking technologies in the oil and natural gas businesses Today, in the U.S., we have an oversupply of natural gas and an abundance of petroleum liquids. Instead of being an importer of natural gas, as was predicted, we're now an exporter via LNG and instead of an ever-increasing percentage of crude oil being imported, we are now a net exporter of crude. Just a remarkable set of events that have dramatically impacted the US and global energy economies.

Nonetheless, that window of time where there was uncertainty about the future of energy created a big investment in the clean tech space, including major investments in solar. Some companies that were beneficiaries of those investments failed. Some of them are still flying – some faster than others. BrightSource made it through, has demonstrated success in the U.S. market as well as in global markets, but will need to continue to improve and diversify in order to achieve its maximum potential.

BrightSource has its basis in an Israeli technology that had a long history, failed and then came back successfully in another form. The investment was led by a California venture capital firm called VantagePoint Capital and strongly supported by the French energy/infrastructure firm Alstom which has since been acquired by General Electric.

The technology seeks to capture the heat of the sun, concentrate that heat and then store it thermally. Importantly, in a world that values dispatchable renewable energy, that stored heat can then be converted to steam for input into a conventional steam turbine to produce electricity. There are different ways to capture heat from the sun. BrightSource focused on what's called power tower technology, which puts a central receiver in the middle of a very large field of thousands of mirrors. Each mirror is an individual smart device and all are coordinated by sophisticated software aided by weather forecasting and resultant demand/supply algorithms.

BrightSource’s markets are today primarily in China and in the Middle East/North Africa along with South Africa and parts of South America. There's a lot of work being done on the storage side of solar thermal technology. At scale and with long duration requirements, thermal storage is superior to forms of battery or chemical storage; thermal energy can be stored economically for 24/7 operations.

Utility scale production of electricity has historically been BrightSource’s focus. But in a longer-term view, the use of carbon-based fuels to create high temperatures for industrial process purposes will be challenged. For making cement, for desalinization of water, for producing hydrogen and for other heat dependent processes, thermal energy from the sun is likely to be an important technology replacement activity.

Over the last six months to a year, multiple emerging companies have focused on uses of solar thermal that are not aimed at production of electricity. BrightSource is following those trends with partnerships along with research and development and is seeking to diversify so that it takes advantage of the skill sets that it's developed in electricity production by adapting them to other potentially important market applications.

UHE: What advice do you have for students entering the energy industry during the transition to clean energy?

DR: That’s a great question because it's entirely possible - in fact probable - that if a student chose, as an example, to be in the natural gas space, that he or she could go to work in that industry and retire, 30 or 40 years from now in that same business, same industry, because that industry is going to not only going to survive, it's going to continue to prosper during the working horizon of today’s college graduate.

The requirements of the global energy will only continue to grow. Per capita energy increases combined with increased population trends are going to create tremendous needs for energy to power homes and businesses and to support transportation demand. There is no possibility that those energy requirements get met in the near term by some magic switch of turning to renewables.

The energy industry is a very viable, interesting, profitable, and long-term business.

It's reasonable for a college student today to think that  the world will need carbon based fuels for decades to come and to believe that a working career in those industries that produce, deliver, store and utilize those fuels will be rewarding and important to the world's economic growth.  Long-term though, I believe there is a carbonless future, and I believe that either existing technologies as improved  or new clean energy technologies will replace our need for carbon fuels and that those traditional industries based on carbon fuels will retreat over a long period of time. The advice to a college student who today is interested in the energy space is to do what you are most attracted to because there is plenty of room for energy professionals across the energy landscape.

What's great about the oil and gas industry is that if you can get a sound education and get out there, there's tremendous demand for talent.

If a student  is drawn to the emergence of renewables or motivated by doing something that  might be impactful in terms of the world's issues with climate change and environmental soundness, I think there is a great future in entering the renewable space. The good news is that there are many choices and the bad news is that there are many choices. While I think it’s certainly possible to start on one side and go to the other, I’d recommend getting a sound and broad education, getting as much exposure as possible to the industry while a student and then letting those experiences lead to a good decision. Given the important transition that the energy industry is experiencing, there are a wealth of great opportunities. The traditional and new forms of energy are on a merger path and plenty of help will be needed to make that merger successful.