R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

“Your Passion is Energy”

Saying Goodbye Again

Today is Independence Day in the U.S., but I am spending it in the Netherlands without my family. This has become an all-too-familiar situation for me. I have spent far too many birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays in remote locations away from my family. The time has come to rectify that situation.

Most of my career has revolved around energy. But about a year and a half ago, I decided to try something slightly different. I left my job with ConocoPhillips in Aberdeen, Scotland (and I explained the details behind the decision here), said goodbye to friends and colleagues there, and boarded a plane to the Netherlands. This is where I have spent about half my time since then.

But that chapter is coming to a close. On Monday I will leave Amsterdam for the flight back to Texas. I have made this trip around 20 times in the past 18 months, but I am making the trip for the last time in my current role as Engineering Director for Accsys Technologies. This trip was my farewell tour, and I said my goodbyes to a fine engineering team.

The past year and a half has been both interesting and challenging. We are a small company, so I found myself doing more cross-functional work than at any other time in my career (e.g., writing HR policies). We were staffing up, so I also interviewed numerous people for all sorts of positions. Because our company was the first (and still only) to commercialize our technology, we encountered some unique engineering challenges.

As I look back, I am proud of what my engineering team has accomplished. They have vastly improved our process in the past two years, and we climbed a steep learning curve. We managed to increase the throughput of our plant in Arnhem by a third, while at the same time cutting our energy inputs. With all sincerity, our successes came about because I have a clever and dedicated team of engineers.

And while I believe strongly in the product that we have developed, my job involves about 50% travel. I have engineering teams based in Dallas and in the Netherlands, and I have to try to keep a presence in both locations. I knew that I could keep that up for a while, but not forever. If I continue with this schedule, I will grow old forever haunted by the lyrics to Cat’s in the Cradle.

I have been fortunate over the years to have had a number of different job opportunities present themselves. In the past six months I began to more seriously listen to inquiries. I decided if the right one came along – and it enabled me to spend more time with my family – then I would make a change. The right opportunity has come along.

Future Plans

If I had to describe my ideal job, it would be to bring sustainable energy technologies to the world. I would do a lot of technology evaluation, visiting with universities, small companies, inventors, and entrepreneurs. The goal would be to identify the renewable technologies that I feel can compete in the long-term, and then work to facilitate that future.

One of the most brilliant engineers I have ever met (who will also be a future colleague), recently introduced me to a very successful businessman who has been in the energy business for decades. Because he greatly values his privacy, I will not divulge his name nor the companies he has been involved with. Suffice to say that his vision is long-term, he is realistic, and he has a long track record of successfully building companies. When I met with him, I discussed my current job, and then we started talking about our views on the future of energy. He made a comment that I often hear when I am discussing energy: “Your passion is energy. You should follow your passion.”

After much discussion, which included meetings in Houston, Hawaii, and Hamburg – it was clear that my goals and views were very much aligned with his. We saw a similar future, but were both quite realistic about the challenges of realizing that future. The primary objective for both of us wasn’t to create wealth, but instead to see our current unsustainable way of life nudged toward something more sustainable. We are both concerned that we are leaving a mess for our children to clean up, and we believe we can build something better for them.

I have therefore decided to join forces with him, and will leave my current job on August 1st. I will continue to assist Accsys/Titan Wood with their technology on an as-needed basis, but my primary energies will be focused around the conversion of biomass into value-added products. The specific end product will depend upon the particulars of a situation. I firmly believe that biomass can work, sustainably, in specific niches. As fossil fuel prices rise, the niches will grow as long as the biomass technologies are not heavily dependent upon fossil fuel inputs. We plan to establish ourselves in some of those niches.

I have written in this blog about some of the technologies and companies that we will be involved with. (In fact, it is a long story, but one of my articles was what led to the initial contact, which occurred almost 3 years ago). Other technologies, which I have felt had great potential, I haven’t written about. I am still not yet going to write about them, as we are busy establishing ourselves in various areas and establishing dialogue with different companies. But as one of my new colleagues likes to say “We are technology agnostic.” That simply means that we are open to different technologies and won’t base our business around a single technology.

I will relocate to Hawaii with my family. I estimate that my travel will drop from the current 50% to around 10%, meaning I will get to spend much more time with my family. Based on our plans, when I do travel, I expect my travels will take me to Germany, which is familiar territory, but also to some areas I have not seen, like Southeast Asia.

Why Hawaii? Hawaii offers a unique laboratory for renewable energy. Hawaii has very good renewable resources (sun, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass, etc.), and no fossil fuel resources. Hawaii should have a small bias toward renewable energy relative to the rest of the U.S., since all fossil fuels must be shipped in for power and transport. And because of the year-round growing season, I can do a lot more experimentation there both with gardening (which I love to do) and with energy crops.

I won’t go into specific details right now about our efforts. We aren’t ready for that yet. Some parts of the business are already far along, and others are just starting. But we won’t be messing around with pie-in-the-sky technologies. That will be one of my key roles: To make sure we are focused where we need to be focused and not wasting our time working toward dead ends.

July 4, 2009 Posted by | Accsys Technologies, biomass, Hawaii, Netherlands, Titan Wood | 54 Comments

A Year Without a Car

On March 1, 2008 I sold my Nissan Micra in Aberdeen, Scotland and hopped a plane to Amsterdam to take up a new position. I have not owned a car since that time. A while back someone asked what that experience has been like, and suggested I write a story on it. So here it is.

While in Europe

It is really a tale of two continents. In large parts of Europe, one can get along reasonably well without a car. In the past year, I have worked at my company’s Accoya factory in the Netherlands most of the time. I fly in to Amsterdam, and there is a train station right in the airport. I catch a direct, 1 hour and 15 minute train to the Arnhem Central Train Station. From there, it’s a 15-minute cab ride to my apartment. (If you want to argue that my international flights more than offset any fuel savings from biking to work, you won’t get any argument from me. But in this economy, you do what you have to).

I secured an apartment that is only about half a mile from work, and I adopted the common Dutch habit of riding my bike to work. I certainly don’t feel safe all of the time with cars whizzing past me, and at times it has been an inconvenience, but the vast majority of the time the bike suits me just fine.

As for the inconvenience, if I want to go out to eat, I am around a mile from the nearest restaurant. When visitors come over to the factory to visit, I often find myself riding the bike in the dark, to a restaurant that may be 3 miles from my apartment. That may seem like a piece of cake, but I have done it in the snow, in freezing rain, and with a fierce wind in my face. It would certainly be more convenient to hop in a car and go.

The worst inconvenience to date was when I had a bad cold, and my secretary made me a doctor’s appointment on short notice. I hopped on my bike and rode a mile and a half in a freezing downpour. I could have probably bothered someone to take me, but I really try to be as low-maintenance as possible.

I do have other options, and I utilize them. There is a bus stop near my apartment, and I use it quite a lot. During the day the bus comes frequently, but later in the evening it only runs once an hour, and then stops altogether at about 10 p.m. (Incidentally, I learned one night while waiting for a bus at 10 that’s when the prostitutes come out and take over the bus stops).

For trips of intermediate length, a cab is another option I utilize from time to time. When I fly home, I have to catch a train at 6 a.m. That’s always a cab ride to the station. If I want to travel to another major European city, the train connections are superb. However, if you want to venture out into the countryside, it may be more difficult. My son wants me to take him to Normandy this summer, and that’s almost impossible to do without a car because the major points of interest are scattered over several miles, and there aren’t easy train connections to my knowledge. So this summer I expect to rent a car in Europe for the first time.

Meanwhile, Back in Texas

But as I said, it is a tale of two continents. When I fly back to Texas, it is hard to do without a car. I fly into the airport, and the first thing I have to do is catch a cab for the 35-mile drive to my house.

I bought a house 25 miles from my Dallas office, because 1). I hate cities, so I chose a house in the country; 2). I knew I wasn’t going to have to spend that much time in the office. 3). Because the housing bubble was imploding, I got a builder’s foreclosure for about half the appraised price. If I had to make that commute every day, I would have sucked it up and bought a house closer to the office, preferably close to some kind of public transportation. From where I live, public transportation isn’t an option, so I rent a compact car when I have to be in the office, or borrow my wife’s car if the kids are out of school.

How long can I keep this up? To be honest, I never thought I could keep it up for over a year. My initial assignment involved several straight months in the Netherlands, and I thought I would have to buy a car when I returned. But every time I do a cost benefit analysis, I can never justify it when I only need it one or two weeks a month. I have no registration fees or maintenance to pay, and I don’t have to keep insurance on it, because my insurance company covers me for a car rental at no extra cost. In the past six months, I have spent a total of $825 on car rentals. I don’t think a car purchase makes economic sense until I find myself spending 3-4 times this amount over a six month period. Given my current work arrangements, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Besides, I like the idea of living without a car. I will continue to put it off as long as possible, even if it occasionally means riding my bike to the doctor in the freezing rain.

Footnote

On an unrelated footnote, the 2009 EIA Energy Conference takes place on April 7th and 8th. The conference is free, so feel free to drop by if you are in the area. There are a number of topics that look interesting, including the following two plenary talks:

Energy and the Macroeconomy – William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics, Yale University

Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World – John W. Rowe, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

There are also a number of panel sessions, including:

The Future for Transport Demand

What’s Ahead for Natural Gas Markets?

Meeting the Growing Demand for Liquids

Financial Markets and Short-Term Energy Prices

Investing in Oil and Natural Gas – Opportunities and Barriers

I have been asked to participate on the panel Energy and the Media. The other panelists are Steven Mufson from the Washington Post and Eric Pooley from Harvard University (who was also former managing editor at Fortune). Mufson is the main energy reporter for the Post, and I think he does a good job of reporting the important stories. I have read a lot of his work, and have spoken to him on at least one occasion. Then there’s me, the energy blogger. Please humor me and let’s not play the game “Which One is not Like the Others?” 🙂

Here’s where I could use some assistance. I have a general idea of the themes I would like to explore. Namely, I want to discuss the amount of energy misinformation, which I think stems from some reporters really not having the background to know when they are being misled. We as a nation have a low energy IQ, and that creeps into many of the stories in the media. The TDP fiasco is a perfect example. Had the reporters dug a bit more and been more critical, it would have been another possibly interesting next generation fuel experiment, instead of something that ultimately had a lot of taxpayer money thrown at it.

But what else? What other themes should be examined on a panel entitled Energy and the Media?

March 16, 2009 Posted by | cars, DOE, EIA, Energy Information Administration, mass transit, Netherlands, texas | 83 Comments