Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Welcome Nicholas Klank, New Expert in the Mobile Workforce Community
- Feb 2, 2021 11:48 am GMT
The utility workforce and operations have long been trending in the more mobile direction, implementing innovations like AR/VR, remote data collection, sensors, smart grid technologies, and so much more. As steady as the rate of mobile workforce adoption had been, the challenges of 2020 were a fresh shot in the arm that to the adoption of these technologies and practices. Keeping utility employees socially distanced from each other and from customers became paramount, and the spirit of the mobile workforce was there to make this all possible.
The trends kicked off by the technology advancements and pushed forward thanks to necessity from the pandemic now show no sign of slowing down, so this is surely going to be a critical area to watch in the coming years. To help keep you abreast of all of these developments, Energy Central is happy to introduce the latest member of our Network of Experts, specifically in our Mobile Workforce Community, Nicholas Klank. Nicholas is the Head of Industry Research at Coperniq and he brings a wealth of experience and unparalleled insights to the industry at this crucial point in it’s history. To help you ‘get to know’ him, he agreed to answer some key questions as a part of our Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’
Enjoy hearing his thoughts on this moment in time for utilities and be sure to leave a comment or question for him at the end of the article.
Matt Chester: Can you kick things off for us broadly by sharing a bit about your background—how did you get involved in the world of energy and utilities, what role do you play in the industry today, and what are your areas of expertise?
Nicholas Klank: The outdoors has always been my biggest passion ever since childhood. My passion didn’t influence my study though until a fateful day when the bus left a couple minutes early and I wasn’t able to take the LSATs. On the walk home from the bus stop, I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. A friend trying to cheer me up took me down to the DC monuments and I stumbled on the first Solar Decathlon. At seeing all of that solar everywhere, I knew that bringing sustainability and solar into the mainstream was my life mission. I’ve been learning everything I could about it, getting a M. Architecture from a leading school in sustainable design, working on dozens of LEED and other green rated projects, hundreds of hours of continuing ed, and finally a career working directly in the solar energy.
My curiosity leads me to learn at least a little about everything I can. I always want to know more. I started out in solar as a residential surveyor and, before long, moved into commercial solar. There were occasionally breaks in between surveys so I was able to learn other aspects of the solar workflow as well like permitting, design, commercial install, and inspection. When SolarCity closed down its commercial division, I moved over to residential sales and then again to residential logistics. After a force reduction at SolarCity (now Tesla), I took all of this knowledge into project management at a much smaller organization and helped them implement several software solutions to become a scalable organization.
My holistic knowledge of solar workflows led me to Coperniq where I’ve been leading the research department. Coperniq is developing an all-in-one, cloud-based platform to help small solar companies grow scalably. I help the developers understand what each stage of the solar workflow is like, the challenges solar workers face, and determine the best path for our solution.
MC: With a prime background in solar energy and the world of energy as it relates to buildings, can you explain the importance of the mobile workforce area? Why did workflow and process management become your focus?
NK: Solar projects inherently require a mobile workforce. The site is always changing. Residentially, there are multiple projects per week and sometimes per day. There are so many facets to a solar project, which creates a complicated workflow. There are the sales consultants who go to the site followed by the surveyors, the installers, and the inspection coordinators. The solar industry could not exist without a mobile workforce.
Inefficiency is frustrating. If I see it in energy use, processes, or the use of human resources then it really irks me. Poor workflows frustrate and discourage workers, make their lives a chore, and work against the goal of every organization. I had a head injury when I was in high school and I have learned to develop processes and strategies to prevent my deficiencies from harming the goal. Having a process when auditing a site or installing a project is important in so many ways. The team gets better at knowing their jobs, they gain velocity in completing tasks, and mistakes happen less and less. The more efficiently everyone works, the higher the margins and the better the growth.
MC: When it comes to those workforce related tools, what are the prime differences that must be considered by smaller companies as opposed with much larger operations? How do the priorities end up shifting with size of organization?
NK: Great question. Solar people are pragmatic and all about getting the project done. Smaller organizations often take the quickest, cheapest thing to do—a kind-of Band-Aid solution like using a spreadsheet to manage projects. It makes sense and everyone usually agrees with the solution; however, Band-aids don’t scale well and other problems show up before too long. Only now, other systems rely on that solution and changing it becomes a much bigger project. I’ve always been vocal about choosing the solution for where you want to be 5 years from now. Essentially, it’s important to think like a larger organization. Evaluate. Plan. Implement. Re-evaluate. Adjust. Replan.
Large organizations have very different challenges than small ones. They need to maintain their efficiency while dealing with competing silos. They have usually implemented some sort of software solution or created their own. Large organizations take forever to make decisions and implementing a new tool is expensive. The cost of implementing a new software can compete with other overhead budgets. A large organization has high fixed costs and needs efficiency in order to survive. There’s an enormous fleet of vehicles that all have to be insured and maintained. There’s the cost of rent and all of the support staff like IT, HR, accounting, logistics, marketing, incident staff, safety, trainers, and multiple layers of management and leadership that now needs to be supported by revenue.
Decisions have much larger impacts. A policy to encourage speed somewhere in the process sacrifices quality across the organization and may now affect revenue and the ability to support all those fixed costs.
Large organizations need to think about where they want to be in five years too. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, makes decisions for three years from now. He has implemented all sorts of processes and policies that enable Amazon to act like a small business and not a global organization. Having sat through my share of phone calls with over 100 people on them, I particularly love their policy of a limit on attendees to what can be fed by two pizzas.
MC: This must be an incredibly exciting time in the industry to do what it is you do. Can you share a preview of what might not be possible commercially today but you see on the horizon in a way that really excites you? What’s on the verge of possibility that can tease our readers?
NK: Technologically, there are exciting things happening with Perovskite mods, solar roofs, storage, and adhesive cells that position solar to be even more dominant and cost-effective in the energy market. I’m also really excited how companies don’t want to have fossil fuels be part of their brand and are supporting renewables. All of these things are exciting; however, it’s the SolarApp that really excites me.
Implementation of the SolarAPP or Solar Automated Permit Processing will automate permitting for AHJs (Authorities Having Jurisdiction). During the pandemic, one of the biggest challenges has been the amount of time it takes to get permits approved. In Maryland, where I live, the length of time to get permits has skyrocketed and caused a lot of problems for solar companies. Aligning the permitting process for every AHJ to meet the same requirements would simplify the design and permitting processes for everyone.
MC: Can you share what it is about Energy Central that compelled you to get involved and integrated with the community? And what should community members look forward to you bringing to the table as our newest expert?
NK: I like the focus that Energy Central has. Bringing all of the various people from the grid together helps me do research and help others. Other groups that I have been part of like the USGBC have been wonderful, but they are so broad that it is sometimes hard to find the right people and answers.
I studied the American energy infrastructure as part of my master’s thesis in grad school and have come to learn that renewables are changing the way the grid can work. Other forms of power like coal will find it harder to adapt as renewables continue to expand.
I have worked on both the residential and commercial sides of solar installation in most facets of operations and even some in sales. I have worked in and struggled through remote work even before the pandemic as a field worker and as a project manager. During the evenings, I work with a startup that is developing an app for solar teams to manage their projects, documents, and field operations. I pay attention to process inefficiencies and am compelled to help people.
MC: Any last words for your fellow community members?
NK: As I said earlier, I am compelled to help people if they need it. There is almost nothing else in the world that gives me more reward than knowing I helped someone in need. In renewables, we all share a similar mission of installing power generation to harness inexhaustible, sustainable resources. The company I work for strives to help renewable companies succeed. If your organization is struggling with something, please reach out to me.
Thanks so much to Nicholas Klank for joining me in this interview and for his joining as an Energy Efficiency expert in the Energy Central community. When you see Nicholas engaging with content around Energy Central, be sure to say hi, ask a question, and make him feel welcome!