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Podcast Transcript: Disrupting the Grid with Bill Nussey, Author of Freeing Energy

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

Intro (00:03):

Welcome to another episode of The Solar Podcast. Today, David is talking to Bill Nussey, author of the book, Freeing Energy, and host of a podcast by the same name. We talk about how small scale systems will totally disrupt large grid systems, how solar will be totally integrated in our lives in 10 years, and how getting solar panels is the best thing you can do to fight climate change. Let's get right into it on The Solar Podcast.

Dave Anderson (00:29):

Well, we'd like to welcome Bill Nussey to The Solar Podcast today, I'm Dave Anderson, the host of The Solar Podcast. We're thrilled to have Bill Nussey on the podcast. He's a longtime writer, author, runs his own podcast. He's written several books. He's well published. He's also delivered a Ted talk, it's always great to have anyone that's done a Ted talk. Also a serial entrepreneur, it seems as though, when you look through his resume. We're thrilled for his experience as an executive. We're thrilled for his insights and takes that he's going to have, both from a technical perspective. One of the things that I love about the podcast is that everyone that comes on the podcast, we're all energy users as well. And so, we get to have that unique perspective on top of whatever expertise that we might also bring to the podcast as well. So Bill, thanks so much for coming on. And we're thrilled to have you on today.

Bill Nussey (01:19):

Well, Dave, I appreciate it. I'm excited to chat with you about my absolute favorite topic, which is solar and solar and batteries.

Dave Anderson (01:25):

Yeah. So, we'll certainly get into this a little bit, but you most recently published a book, and you can see it over your shoulder there, Freeing Energy. So I'm curious, you said solar's your favorite topic, but the title of the book is Freeing Energy. So how do you make the distinction between energy and solar? And does the book then dive into broader topics outside of just solar?

Bill Nussey (01:49):

I'm cursed with having gotten a EE degree when I was very young. And so, terms like power and energy have very specific meanings to me. And so, when solar creates kilowatt hours, it is energy. That's definitionally energy. And what I mean by energy in this context of freeing it, is that the energy, primarily electric energy, is trapped in this crazy, century old monopoly business model. There's only three regulated monopolies in the United States that I know of, alcohol, gambling and electricity. So why are we managing our electric grid and the best single path forward to a clean energy, climate healthy future with a business model that's a hundred years old and hasn't changed one iota? So my book is about how do we free the electricity industry from this business model and let innovation just take off and do the same thing that it's done in other technology industries.

Dave Anderson (02:46):

And that, along with other things, are an example of some of the things we're going to jump into today. But Bill, I think it would be fantastic for our listeners if you could just give a quick overview of who you are and some of the things that you have worked on, and some of the things that you're excited about for the future, and then we can dive into each of those topics.

Bill Nussey (03:03):

Yeah. Great to start. I've been a tech nerd since I was in high school. Had my first software company when I was 14 years old, back when it was a fairly rare thing. And I just kept building and exiting software companies. And I took one of my companies public. We grew it to 3,000 people and $500 million, got to press the button at NASDAQ. And then I started or joined another company, which was in the software-as-a-service cloud business for marketing. And we grew that to be one of the top cloud marketing platforms in the world. And we sold that to IBM.

Bill Nussey (03:37):

And I wrote the CEO of IBM a letter and I said, "Listen, look what you could be. I've been here for a little while. You could do these great things." And she said, "Well, why don't you come run strategy for us?" And so I ended up running strategy for IBM. And that's where I stumbled into the clean energy industry. And a friend of mine said, "If you want to learn it, write a book." So I started writing a book a couple of years ago. It was supposed to take two, it took four. But I traveled all over the world, met the most inspiring people and got excited about it. So it's kind of a mixture of, help the world, help people and do super cool techy stuff that's going to create a lot of value for startups and investors.

Dave Anderson (04:16):

That's incredible. So going backwards just for one second. So founded, built a company that you ultimately were able to take public. What was the name of that company?

Bill Nussey (04:27):

That was called IXL. And not a lot of people have been around long enough, but the internet was quite a thing once upon a time, and nobody was on it. And so IXL was arguably the largest company in the world if you were some of our clients like Home Depot and General Electric and others, and you said, "Gosh, this internet thing seems pretty cool. Can we put up a website? Can we sell things over the internet?" And IXL was really one of the first companies in the planet that you could go to. And people would pay a lot of money, millions, tens of millions of dollars to have us internet-ify their companies. We had 3,000 people in 25 locations around the world, and companies of all stripe sizes came to IXL to get them on. We were the on ramp for the internet.

Dave Anderson (05:09):

Yeah. That's incredible. So IXL grows and ultimately you're able to take it public through the NASDAQ, which, as an entrepreneur, that's kind of the ultimate, right? Most people think, I want to build a company, grow it, take it public. If you were to try to roadmap out what most entrepreneurs think success looks like, and you'd accomplish that. And then you take that and parlay that into your next opportunity. So what is it exactly that drives you as an entrepreneur? If you've reached the pinnacle of what most entrepreneurs are chasing, why then go do it again?

Bill Nussey (05:43):

Particularly, I've done a few more since then, and I'm lining up to do a bunch more now. And people think I'm kind of crazy because, at my point in life, why aren't you retiring? Or just, why work so hard? And I'll tell you, man, I learned a couple things when I was younger. I learned that I'm really only happy when I'm learning. And so I got to learn, I got to be building my brain and seeing things, a new perspective. I love meeting people that are doing inspiring work. I love building teams. And it's hard work. And honestly, as you get older, it's maybe a bit harder. And you know some of the techniques, and you know some of the dumb things to avoid. But also, it's harder. People's expectations are different.

Bill Nussey (06:26):

But when we sold the company to IBM, my wife had this notion that we should give away the biggest chunk of the money so that I couldn't retire. And so we have had so much fun. We've been funding electrification projects from Puerto Rico to Africa, schools and healthcare centers where they were off grid, or they couldn't afford electricity, and giving them solar micro grids. Been so fun. I talk about a few of them in the book. And I wanted to be in a position where I felt a fire to go do something that really mattered, to make a dent in the universe.

Bill Nussey (06:59):

And that's really been the north star for me. Where am I going to learn? And how can I make a difference to pay it forward? And I raised my kids, who are both young adults now, with a singular notion in life, which is, how do you make the world a better place? That's the question you have to ask yourself every day. And it could be that you're just helping someone across the street who's in a walker. It could be that you're donating $10 billion to charity. Whatever you do, at the end of each month, if you don't feel you've made the world a better place, then I think you might find a greater degree of happiness and reward if you asked that question more rigorously.

Dave Anderson (07:37):

So is it then safe to say that, for you, the reason that you start businesses and the reason that you've found yourself being this serial entrepreneur is, in fact, because you're trying to make a broader or bigger impact outside of the business, actually, just a worldwide impact? You call that your north star.

Bill Nussey (07:56):

I think now, at this point in my career, that is absolutely 100% my target. I think earlier, for everybody who's in their 20s and 30s, that part of your career is where you're trying to build your resume. Many people, I did, have families at those points. So you try to balance that with building your opportunity to demonstrate your business acumen, make more money.

Bill Nussey (08:20):

So I think I chose well, and I always chose by where I was going to learn the most, as opposed to what would make me the most money. And so, I probably made less money than others, but I learned a hell of a lot. And now I'm in this great position, going to be spinning up some ventures in the next year, all around energy and solar. And I think it's a great place to be. And the path may not be for everybody, but for me, I'm happy, I'm excited. I get up every day on fire. What can I do? Who can I work with? Who am I going to meet? How am I going to meet Dave Anderson today, someone who's doing great work, getting a message out there? And I'm loving it.

Dave Anderson (08:53):

So segueing a little bit into, and you've already teased us with some of the information that's in the book, Freeing Energy. But you challenged that perhaps we're not actually running, or we're not electrifying our world the way that we would if we were to do it over again. And so, maybe you can kind of talk a little bit about some of the conclusions that you drew through the research and through the time that you've spent either as a podcast expert or through the examples that you've had being a serial entrepreneur, or just in the research that you did for the book. Maybe you can kind of help us and our listeners understand some of the conclusions that you were able to ultimately arrive at as it relates to our energy, as we see it today, and what we maybe should be considering or doing differently.

Bill Nussey (09:36):

Boy, I could spend another few hours answering that question. But let me give you a couple of stories. I dream of having a time machine, and I would go back in time. And a couple of my heroes are Orville and Wilbur Wright, and I would go back to 1920 and I would bring them forward to 2020, 2022. And I would show them a 747 and an F18 and say, "Look at this simple idea you created, and how it has grown over the century. And it's absolutely transformational to everything in our society." They'd be like, "Yeah, man, look what we did. That's big." Then I'd go back in time to 1920 and I'd get Alexander Graham Bell and I'd bring him forward and I'd whip out my iPhone, right? And I'd say, "Sir, this thing that you created, now has grown over a hundred years. And from this device in my hand, I can dial 10 digits and reach 7 Billion human beings on the planet Earth instantaneously, and access the sum total of all human knowledge within seconds. This is what you started." And Alexander Graham Bell should hopefully feel very proud.

Bill Nussey (10:35):

But you know what, if I went back to 1920 and brought Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla forward, and I brought them to any part of the electric grid that they invented, they would look at it and say, "This is identical in architecture, in technology, you have changed virtually nothing in a hundred years. Why is it that those guys have had utterly transformational changes on the world, and electricity has remained 120 volts, AC transmission and distribution lines, giant centralized coal power plants? What were you doing for the last a hundred years?" And that realization is what just ignited me to write a book because people, we are so stuck like the frogs in the boiling water that we don't realize that this system that served us so well, that electrified the country and the world, created economic development like no other technology, it was transformational a hundred years ago, and it's completely out of date today. And very few people realize it.

Bill Nussey (11:34):

And so, this book is not just a discussion about how broken the grid that we have today is, despite all the good that it does, but we're going to see rolling blackouts this summer across the US and the world. And it's just so old and antiquated. But it's really a call to arms for entrepreneurs and innovators to say, there's something about to change fundamentally that allows you, for the first time in a hundred years, to break through those monopolies that have controlled this and kept innovation tamped down. And there's a chance for you as innovators and entrepreneurs, or just as everyday citizens, to make a difference in the acceleration towards a climate healthy future. And that is these small scale systems.

Bill Nussey (12:20):

You think the rooftop solar and micro grids are this little idea that sits on the side. The book makes the case, the podcast makes the case, the guests we have, people I interviewed, make the case, I think compellingly, that these small systems are going to completely rewrite the rules of electricity and the way we power the world. They're going to allow us to have electric cars and electric heating and electric industrial systems. And they are not just an afterthought, they're going to become a central part of the story.

Bill Nussey (12:46):

The book makes the case, and I have 400 citations and hundreds of spreadsheets, and I talk to the top experts in the world. And skeptics read this book and then come back and say, "Well, I've changed my mind. Holy cow, this is going to be a big thing." And for people like me that have spent a career, first in small computers, then the internet, then in digital marketing, watching massive disruptions take place, shaking up the incumbents and bringing in a bunch of garage shop, long haired startup people. This is the same thing that's going to happen here. It's going to be so fun.

Bill Nussey (13:17):

And by the way, as a consequence, 770 million people today have no electricity at all. They have nothing. And this tsunami is going to sweep by and provide them the beginnings of the economic ladder that we, in Europe and America, have enjoyed so much, has worked so well for us. It's going to get people in Africa and India on that same transformation in their wellbeing and their livelihoods that we in the US have had for a hundred years.

Dave Anderson (13:46):

Yeah. So many things we can try to unpack there. Thinking about the example of Alexander Graham Bell, no way he could have foreseen, in a hundred years, what the telephone ultimately has become for us. It would've been impossible. In some ways, I think it's impossible for us to really understand what the energy system and energy transformation is going to look like. But I would imagine, and you've already mentioned or alluded to a few of them, that you've drawn some of your own conclusions about, some of the innovation opportunities that might exist. And so, I'd love to hear your take on what you think some of those might look like. You mentioned micro grids and a handful of other things, but what are some examples that might be controversial or might actually be things that people hadn't even thought of, are some conclusions that you were drawing as you were doing the research for the book?

Bill Nussey (14:33):

The last couple of chapters of the book, I've got 50 examples o