Expert Bio: Nic Stover

Location:
San Francisco, CA
Organization:
CalCom Solar & Polaris Energy Services
Position:
Chief Executive Officer
Socials:

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.  - Mark Twain

“The energy industry, while very large and for many years stagnant, is a very exciting and surprisingly dynamic landscape. Renewable energy is an exciting way to disrupt the archaic business model monopoly that the electric industry has over their ratepayers. For someone to thrive in this industry you need to have a desire to disrupt the status quo and help to push forward new ideas and new ways of thinking. Purpose doesn't have to be your primary driver. But I do believe that a sustainable industry like renewable energy allows people to combine passion, mission, profession, and vocation into something they love, something they are great at, something the world needs, and ultimately, something you get paid for!” - Nic Stover

Nic Stover began his educational career at Colorado State University where he received a B.S. in Construction Management; he also earned an MBA from Babson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Nic, when did your interest in the environment begin?

My interest in land stewardship and efficiency began very early on.   I grew up in a rural farmhouse on about 35 acres.  My parents were Sixties hippies that had moved West and found a home in the beautiful mountains of Colorado.  We grew our own food in the summer, composted where we could, used natural fertilizers, pumped our own water from the ground, and lived very simply without modern luxuries like air conditioning or cable television.  Today, that would be called keeping a “small carbon footprint.” But back then, it was simply living off the land in the least impactful ways possible.

Did you know in college that you would want to be an environmental expert?

As I entered college I was not sure of what my chosen field might be.  Having been active in student leadership as an athlete and eventually student body president in high school, I was drawn to politics, but found the rhetoric and motives uninteresting.   From my years of skiing, hunting, biking, and hiking I was very interested in Forest Fire Science but realized that research was not the best thing for me.  So ultimately, I was thrilled when I discovered Construction Management.  I had always spent my summers in construction doing everything from landscaping, to building roads, to framing houses.  I still take great pride in physical work and seeing the results of my hard work take shape.

After graduating from college, I read Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawkin and Amory & Hunter Lovins.   This was the point in time when I realized that there was a middle ground to be considered; a place where you could do what was best for the planet and also be capitalistic & grow a business.

Was striving for efficiency and responsible use of resources satisfying?

It took me a while to get to where I could show real impacts in the jobs that I was doing. But that point came in 2006 when I took over as Vice President of Construction for a resort in Idaho called Tamarack Resort.  Tamarack was a unique opportunity to forge new ground as it was the first all seasons resort (Ski, Golf, Hiking, etc.) to be built in over 20 years.   This was also the point in time where LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) started to gain momentum.    We were able to design and incorporate the LEED principles into two major projects.  But that was not enough for me.  After building 75 homes through a very brutal Idaho winter, I knew there had to be a better way.  I started looking very closely at modular construction techniques and saw the applicability to what we wanted to accomplish.  Modular, by nature, is extremely resource-efficient and creates the healthiest of living spaces.   It aligns perfectly with the LEED principles:

  • Recycling of materials at the main factory
  • Less use of fossil fuels (Single deliveries to jobsites vs. multiple)
  • Higher insulation / tighter building envelopes = less energy
  • Improved air quality with low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds)

What happened next?

Seeing the value and the opportunity, I formed a construction company called Rubicon Development and went to work on building a 6-unit housing complex in Cascade, ID that would eventually be certified as LEED Gold.  However, the greater economy had other plans for me.   In 2008, as I declared bankruptcy and fought to keep my house and truck, I decided it was time to reinvent myself and my career.  Energy seemed like a logical step.

Because past environmental destruction was the result of ignorance, we can easily forgive it. Today, we are better informed. Therefore, it’s essential that we make an ethical examination of what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations. Ours is clearly a pivotal generation. We have global communication and yet confrontation is more common than dialogue. - Dalai Lama

What was your thinking at that time?

The biggest economic driver of energy is the electrical grid which provides power for your home and/or business.  Many people take for granted the complex process of producing and transmitting energy to you at the exact moment that you need it. Even fewer people understand that the electrical grid has enough energy for all consumers around 99% of the time.  For the rare times when irrigation pumps are running, businesses are operating, and people are turning on their AC simultaneously, the grid becomes constrained.  The solution, in these rare instances, is to black out sections of the grid through rolling blackouts, build power plants that sit idle for 8,700 of the 8,760 hours in a year, or figure out ways to turn off electrical load at key times.

How did you work on this?

Through networking and my connections, I had a friend who had a product that used the cellular network to control irrigation pumps in Eastern Idaho.  What this product did by itself was simple. It turned an irrigation pump on and off.   The value and breakthrough was in combining a few hundred of these and aggregating them together into a load resource that replaced the needs for peaking power plants.

Very exciting! What did you do with this breakthrough?

We suspected there was interest beyond Eastern Idaho for this product and service so I agreed to join and run/create a sales and marketing department.  In a short period of time we created an entirely new offering and program focused on the big irrigation pumps in the Central Valley of CA.

Interest and attention from larger companies soon followed, and we received a compelling financial offer which led to our adoption into a larger, international energy company.  After the buyout, I fulfilled my contractual obligation to this new company but was still drawn back to what I viewed as a neglected segment of the energy picture.

What is the neglected segment?

Energy for agriculture.    Not wanting to move away from the sustainable energy field, I was again drawn into a new opportunity through networking with a friend. He had recently launched a solar company that was gaining traction with agricultural growers and asked for my help.

Coincidently, at that same time, Solyndra (large solar manufacturer) was all over the press for their big business collapse, leading many people (including myself) to believe that solar was a struggling industry.    But fortunately, being in California, despite all of its regulation and bureaucracy, there was one major perk: The economic landscape was (and is) well-aligned for solar due to abundant sunshine, high electricity costs, and government interest in renewables. So, believing that the agriculture segment was ready for innovation and that the time was right, I got involved in the solar industry.

What is it like to do your job?

Building a company that focuses on the improvement of the sustainable ecosystem is not without its challenges.  As a CEO, I need to ensure my company stays closely aligned with the developments and changes on the regulatory landscape.  We need to stay on top of the very latest in programs offered by the utilities, changing market structures, and what the impacts are on our customers.

Remaining on top of the regulatory landscape is only part of what goes into my daily routine.  Everyday I focus on what I can do to attract and retain the very best and most talented people in the renewable energy industry.  I constantly search for employees that are passionate about delivering best-in-class service that can help agriculture businesses understand the energy environment that they face and what they can do to lower their costs.  I am constantly in search of the best partnerships, and selection of the very best products.  Put another way, there are 3 P’s I focus on improving everyday: People, Process, and Product.

What characteristics do you think allow someone to thrive in this career field?

A key question that needs to be at the forefront of any business venture is this: does it make good financial sense for the customer?   If it only makes environmental sense, the market and your ability to grow the business is greatly reduced.  If it doesn’t make financial sense, you need to keep reiterating and improving your product, your idea, or your business until it makes financial sense!

Exactly how does your work impact the environment?

The electricity grid in most parts of the country is aging and not very robust.   There are 3,200 utilities that make up the U.S. electrical grid where they burn fossil fuels in centralized stations and distribute it over 2.7 million miles of power lines.   These coal-fired power plants are being decommissioned as the EPA and other agencies regulate carbon, fossil fuels and other pollutants that exacerbate climate change.   Adding to the complexity is the decreased amount of hydroelectric power we are seeing in many states as less rainfall fills rivers and reservoirs.   Hydro production in CA fell by 46 percent in 2014 as extreme drought conditions spread across the state. According to the Energy Information Administration, solar PV and concentrating solar power made up for 83 percent of the hydropower decline.  As more solar continues to come online and at rates below what utilities are paying for existing generation, look for solar to fill more and more of the generation needs of an aging electrical grid.

Do you like your job?

I love my job.  I get to help an underserved and under represented segment of our economy.  By providing tools, reports and analysis we can help them to understand when they use energy (Peak power is 3x more expensive than off peak). This is often times more important than how much energy they use. But while I get excited for the customers, I also am thrilled to be able to work alongside some of the best and brightest minds.  My team is passionate about delivering the best product and experience to our customers and it shows in the excitement and enthusiasm I see every day.  Watching young professionals grow, take on new tasks and discover new ways for us to run our business is very exciting.

What one thing would you like to see changed in your field?

Regulation.   Not in the operation of our business, but in the way that electric utilities still control and slow down the process for customers to go solar.  For our average system which is about 1 MW in size (size equivalent to powering180 residences) it takes less than 2 months to build. But – it takes a dedicated team 10 months to get it permitted and connected to the utility grid.   The obstacle slowing the speed of adoption is not lack of customer interest.  It is the regulatory complexity that prohibits and restricts fair compensation of renewable power.

What do you hope to have accomplished by the end of your career?

Thinking really big picture, I look forward to the day when smart use of renewables simply becomes standard electrical grid operation practices. If future generations said things like “I can’t believe you used to power the grid with coal” that would be a massive accomplishment for all parties. On a smaller scale, I would simply like to be able to continue to learn, share and pass on my knowledge and understanding of agriculture-related energy issues to employees and customers.   It is my belief that a better understanding, dialogue and discussion will lead to more intelligent energy use and energy decisions. We are reaching a new age where our limited resources need to be managed strategically.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?

You don’t have to have it all figured out from the beginning.  You are going to make mistakes. But you need to be ready to adapt, learn, reflect, and get back in there and make it work.  Beyond getting things going, surround yourself with intelligent and adaptable people.  Something I recently learned to do is to grow a circle of advisors as “live” resources.  I am a huge believer in life-long learning. But one truth that never changes for me is that there is no substitute for a real person, or an advisor that has walked the path you are on before you, and can look at it from a different perspective.