The latest edition of How did you get Your Start in the Grid focuses on Joanna Hubbard, co-founder and chief operating officer of British energy blockchain firm Electron. Prior to starting Electron two years ago Hubbard worked with McKinsey & Co., RHAdvisors and in renewable energy finance with Augusta & Co.
In answering five questions from Electric Light & Power/POWERGRID International, Hubbard talked about shifting her career from English to electricity, blockchain’s potential and learning more from people who think differently than her
1. We understand you were an English literature major. What led you to such technical interests in how we use electricity?
“I have always been interested by logic and critical reasoning. In math I enjoyed finding the cleanest, neatest forms of expression. In literature, I enjoyed the complexity: unpicking the layers of context and narrative that were wrapped around the reason.
“I got into energy in the first phase of the renewable transition when the onus was on deploying as much renewable generation as possible as fast as possible. There was a great need for the industry both to tell and sell this new vision, and to articulate an investment case. It felt like a perfect match and we really believed in our mission. Then we began hitting some snags: increasingly inflexible/ intermittent production; large capacity contracts for coal; grid constraints; cleantech bankruptcies… you name it. We did not have the right digital infrastructure or controls to maximise the efficiency of these renewable assets and we did not (arguably still do not) have the right market structures in place to address this challenge.
“I then joined McKinsey as a consultant and focused on digital transformation. I was at McKinsey when I first read about blockchain around the time Ethereum was launched. And I thought: This is it. This is how we address the second phase of the renewable transition in which the focus is on bringing hundreds of thousands of new assets into a common marketplace that determine the most cost and carbon-efficient actions for the whole system.”
2. You have spoken extensively on the future potential of blockchain. What is a common misconception about its use with energy?
“The first-and most common misconception- is blockchain’s use OF energy. Bitcoin uses a lot of energy to secure its network by design. Within blockchain-as in the technology not a particular platform-many alternate design decisions exist, some of which only use as much energy as if each of the participants were running Microsoft Word all day.
“The second misconception in energy is that its all about peer-to-peer electricity transactions. Electricity is a physically delivered good and peers are unlikely to own the wires or system controls that is needed to do this. As a result, all “peer-to-peer” projects that we see today are simply new decentralized financial layers on top of old centralised energy systems. Blockchain technology enabling any sort of system or dispatch efficiency.
“If we want to actually enable the economic outcome of peer-to-peer trading within this physically delivered system, we need to create new, shared digital infrastructure: common ways to price use of system, new shared market places and settlement rules, new access permissions to data.
“Blockchain can help many of these processes by enabling the industry to share a common structure that demonstrably fair and sufficiently granular and flexible for all participants. At Electron, we are working very hard to bring these new marketplaces to being, particularly in the flexibility markets which are perhaps most underserved by today’s digital infrastructure. But the tech is only part of the solution here- the other is industry alignment.
3. What will truly motivate any possible growth in clean energies? Political or economic motivations and why?
“For the early adopters it’s about personal value propositions such as clean or local or self sufficient. For mass adoption it’s about economic incentives. We saw this correlation as solar PV prices plummeted and installations skyrocketed. I hope we will see the same thing with batteries and EVs in the next 5-10 years. Politics, of course, plays a key role in this industry through-governments can tilt the playing field one way or another with through instruments such as clean subsidies and carbon penalties.
4. Is there someone in your climb whom you have modeled your own professional conduct on? What was it about them that inspired you?
“I have had the huge privilege of working with many exceptional minds throughout my career but I wouldn’t say I have modeled myself on any one person. Actually, I am struggling to answer this question because it rather implies that I am the product. I am not. The product is our marketplace platform for distributed energy.
“I would say, though, that the people who have influenced me the most are those who are very different and think very differently to me. As we are breaking new ground and exploring new market structures we absolutely need to make sure that we have all the different voices and knowledge bases at the table to get it right.”
5. Is there a mistake or misunderstanding you’ve made that eventually proved to be a positive in your life?
“Probably many small ones along the way, but start-up life is all about constant trade-offs of time, money and human capital so you really can’t dwell on them. Going into this, I knew that if things went badly it would be extraordinarily tough. What I had not understood is the same is true in reverse: Every time something great happens, you level up and it gets harder again. And yet somehow it is so much fun and there is nothing in the world I would rather be doing.”
Editor’s Note: How did you get your Start in the Grid has been a regular feature of the Electric Light & Power Executive Digest for the past year. Below are previous editions in the series focused on industry professionals and their personal stories.
Rami Morsi of PW Power Systems
Johannes Reinscke of Fluence
Kate Cummings of G&W Electric
Matt Kennedy of Doble Engineering.
Greg Ferree of Southern California Edison