By Michael Asiffo
You’ve probably first heard your Grade III teacher speak of Clean or Renewable Energy. Beyond the classroom, our relationship with renewable energy has been quite limited to advertisements or the blue recycling bins around the city.
Clean energy is considered a legitimate alternative to mainstreams forms of energy. However, there have been many arguments and claims as to why this should not be the case. Comments such as: “It is too expensive” to “Those solar cars do not go that far right?” have been used to argue against renewable energy. Now the question becomes, do these comments have some validity?
In this VIBE TALKS interview, Correspondent Michael Asiffo speaks with Jigar Shah – Co Founder and President Generate Capital Inc. to unravel questions related to renewable energy. Shah is the former founding CEO of SunEdison, a company which pioneered “no money down solar” and unlocked a multi-million-dollar solar market.
Michael: We’ve heard a lot about renewable energy and clean energy and that we need to do something. So how are we as a society handling this task of trying to find alternative sources of energy?
Jigar: The first piece of this is getting people to believe it is possible. Until a few years ago, folks in Ontario, folks in Quebec, folks in Alberta (etc.) really believed that renewable energy was far more expensive than the alternative. It is only in the last year or so that people started realizing that actually renewable energy is so cheap now that it could reduce costs of electricity across the provinces. So now that the mental model has shifted, now we can actually have a conversation around what is the best way to procure renewable energy at scale and how individual people can participate in that process.
Michael: I think that this is one of the myths that got in the way of that process. It’s that, you always heard that renewable energy is expensive. So in your mind, are there any other myths that you would like to dispel about renewable energy?
Jigar: I think today now that renewable energy is part of the mainstream conversation; it is no longer alternative energy, it is mainstream energy. Now we can actually have a real conversation around: How do we integrate this into the grid? Where is the best place to put it? Do we put it on people’s rooftops? Do we put it in the middle of nowhere and feed it into the grid? Should the utilities own the renewable energy? Should the private sector own the renewable energy? All of those conversations are now on the table and we are having a conversation like grown-ups, where before we were not able to have that conversation.
Michael: When it comes to the conversations that they are having, I think one of the talking points is oil for transportation and the reliance that our society – especially North America, has on oil. How would you propose waning off that since you have been in a lot of these meetings?
Jigar: I think this is about consumer preferences. I mean at least for me, pretty much everyone I know that has moved to an electric vehicle is so thankful they never have to a gas station again. They never wanted to go to a gas station, it was never the highlight of their day but it was just a necessary evil to owning a car. Now most people I know charge their electric cars at home and some of them even have charging at work. So they just park their car, plug it in the charger and never have to go to a gas station again. They just think that it is a far better way of owning a car. So a lot of folks are starting to move towards electric vehicles not because it saves the planet or because it uses less oil or all those other things. They use it because it is actually just a far better way to drive around.
Michael: One of the arguments against using an electric vehicle: “Oh, I’d like to, but the car is expensive” and “There is barely any charging stations.” what would you say to that person who brings up that argument?
Jigar: Well they are not serious about moving to an EV (electric vehicle). Today you can lease an EV for the same price or cheaper than you can get a gas power car so the cost structure is not different for an EV than a gasoline powered car. The second piece of it is that pretty much everyone I know in Canada owns at least two cars if not three. So it is not like people say: “Oh, this is my only car.” So if you have ‘range anxiety’ or other issues, then you just take your other car but for 90 plus per cent of your trips are less than 80 miles. So you could take your electric vehicle and if you get a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla Model S than you are talking about going 200 miles. For people who are very serious about buying electric vehicles, this is not a problem. I think for people who want to justify why they are green and progressive but are not buying electric vehicle, then, yeah they’ll make all sorts of arguments.
Michael: From my perspective, I live in a suburban area near Toronto it is called Woodbridge Ontario and there is one charging station at the local mall. For me personally, I would like to see more charging stations. Do you know if Canada has got an energy plan going forward that would allow for more charging stations on every corner just like there is a gas station on every corner?
Jigar: Do you own a car?
Michael: Yes, I own a car.
Jigar: And where do you park a car?
Michael: I park in my driveway but I guess it depends on where I am going. If I go to the mall, I park at the mall parking lot.
Jigar: Right, but overnight you plug in your car, your car is full in the morning and you got between 80 miles to 200 miles to go. If you have a plug in hybrid vehicle than maybe it is only 30 miles electric and then it is gasoline. Why do you need to plug it at the mall? Why do you need to plug it anywhere? Why don’t you just drive the car for the day, bring it home and then plug it back in. it is like a different paradigm. Yeah if you go to the mall and there is a charging station, you pull out your app; you are like: “Oh there is a charging station nearby, I am going to park there and plug in.” But if you do not have one, than you are fine. I just think this is sort of this mental game that we play with each other where everyone wants something for free. So they are like: “Oh, because there is a charging station, I can just keep my car tapped up.” But you do not have to keep your gasoline car tapped up at full all the time right? You are just like: “Once it gets to a quarter tank, I will just stop by somewhere and fill up.”
Michael: Moving on from transportation to the office workspace, I know you have done a lot of work in terms of moving offices from energy that was not necessarily clean to new (clean) energy. What were some of your challenges with talking to corporations about that?
Jigar: In general, I would say that every single corporation I talk to today says: “Yeah, we’d love to stop polluting the planet and start buying energy from sources that are cleaner but you got to make it easy for me because my business is selling widgets or consulting or being a data center or whatever and it is not being the world’s expert on clean energy.” So you got to figure out a way to create a contract such that they are paying the same price for clean energy that they were for polluting energy and they do not have to worry about all the paperwork and all the fuss in the middle. And today we can do that, before we were doing that with subsidies from the government and other stuff. So a lot of folks were like: “I don’t want to be a part of that,” but today clean energy is cost effective and now with the Global adjustment tariff in Ontario, battery storage is cost effective for anybody who has a large building. And so you are starting to see a ton of people install battery storage. To me it is not expecting the customer to become a PHD in this stuff and instead treating them like the utility company treats them. So it is like: “Here is a service we are offering you, would you like to sign up? Great let us move forward.”
Michael: We always hear about renewable energy but are not really educated about renewable energy. So what are some resources that people can go to in order to get more educated about renewable energy?
Jigar: Green Tech Media is a great website to go to for some information. There are other websites as well. For me, it is really about broadening your horizons. For a lot of people, renewable energy is wind and solar. For us at Generate Capital, we are funding a lot of anaerobic digester projects, we are funding a lot of compost facilities, we are funding a lot of electric vehicle rollouts. So for us, renewable energy is the largest world creation opportunity of our generation and it touches every single part of your life. There are a lot of solutions that are out there that just have not scaled up that we are funding. To me green tech media is a great place to get information but there are a lot of resources as well.