EnergyWire's Ferris discusses game-changing tech CEO Bill Watkins

Could energy storage upend the utility industry? Technology CEO Bill Watkins thinks so. EnergyWire's David Ferris recently spoke to him for a new feature piece on Watkins' out-of-the-box battery strategy. On today's The Cutting Edge, Ferris explains how Watkins' unique personality and ideas are gaining attention as he works to shake up the utility industry.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to The Cutting Edge. Could energy storage upend the utility industry? Tech CEO Bill Watkins thinks so, and EnergyWire's David Ferris recently spoke to him for a new feature piece. David, how is Watkins trying to change the game through energy storage?

David Ferris: Well, Bill Watkins is a big personality. He says a lot of crazy things, and his company, Imergy Power Systems, is trying some stuff that sounds unbelievable at first. So let me back up and explain what it is the company's trying to do.

So, first of all, they're building what's called a flow battery, which is unlike the batteries that most people think of when they think of batteries. It's basically two big tanks of electrolyte that flow through an electro-chemical cell and create an electric current. And the material that -- the principal material, the electrolyte for Imergy is called vanadium, and it's a wonder material. People would love to use it in the flow battery space, but they don't often because it's so expensive.

Now, what Imergy wants to do is lower the cost of its vanadium by getting it basically from industrial waste, from the byproducts of making petroleum or from the ash left over from burning coal. And by lowering those costs, they think they can achieve huge scale. And by achieving huge scale, in the words of Bill Watkins, he thinks he can destroy the utilities.

Monica Trauzzi: Wow. You write that he doesn't quite know how the technology works. So how does he manage to stay relevant then?

David Ferris: Well, it's interesting. He is not a chemist, he's not an engineer. He has a political science bachelor's and doesn't even have an MBA. But what he has done is proven to have an ability to come into a big organization, for example, Seagate Technology is the first major company he worked for, where he ended up being in charge of running a lot of its production lines and came up with techniques for making the process drastically more proficient. That ended up propelling him into the CEO slot, where he ran the company for several years. Then he moved on to a company called Bridgelux, an LED manufacturer, and drastically changed its technology and scaled it up to the point where it sold for over $100 million to Toshiba. And now he's bringing that same approach, the ability to change a platform. He's changed the technology platform for Imergy and plans to bring it to this huge scale.

Monica Trauzzi: So like you said, he has a very interesting personality. What most impressed you about how he stands apart from others in the utility space?

David Ferris: Well, the thing you immediately know upon meeting Bill is that you're in the presence of someone who really lives life to the fullest and doesn't care what anyone thinks of him, and he swears a lot, he laughs loud, he -- actually, which gets him in trouble sometimes. When he left Seagate, it was abruptly, and it was because he ended up having a shouting match involving some profanity with the board and stormed out. And -- but on the other hand, he reportedly has gotten huge loyalty from his employees, and it has involved a huge -- and really interesting teamwork exercises. He's actually a huge passionate sports fan. He owns a professional lacrosse team, and is a big fan and participant in adventure racing, which is sort of the endurance sport to end all endurance sports. It's really, really hard. And he created his own adventure racing event for his employees at Seagate and flew them all over the world at enormous expense to participate in an adventure race that he devised himself.

Monica Trauzzi: And you report that he's worried about Tesla's Elon Musk. Why is that?

David Ferris: Well, everybody knows about lithium-ion batteries. You know, they're in electric cars, they're in phones. Everyone knows about Tesla. Everyone knows about Tesla's gigafactory and how it's planning to ramp up and create lithium-ion batteries for the whole world. Flow batteries aren't there yet. Flow batteries are still very much in the testing phase -- or not in the testing phase, but in the early deployment phase, and what -- there's an urgency to what Bill Watkins is doing because he wants to ramp it up to global scale quickly so that it can compete with the incumbent lithium-ion. It's unknown whether Imergy can pull it off or frankly whether flow batteries, where they'll sit in the energy storage space, but whatever happens, I think we can be sure that Bill Watkins is going to have some interesting things to say about it.

Monica Trauzzi: All right. Very nice. Great piece to read. I encourage everyone to take a look at it. Thank you for coming on the show.

David Ferris: Thanks for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: More Cutting Edge coming next Friday. We'll see you then.

[End of Audio]



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