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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Welcome Tom Hoff of Clean Power Research, New Expert in the Clean Power Community- [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Clean Power Professionals Group
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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Feb 23, 2022
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Transitioning the utility towards clean and renewable energy has undeniably morphed from a forward-looking aspiration to a concrete goal that's been implemented everywhere you look. The desire for clean power is just the beginning, though, as implementation requires addressing multitudes of hurdles, such as the following to name a few:

  • Overcoming intermittency issues
  • Developing pipelines of projects and supply chains to meet those needs
  • Ensuring the grid is ready to handle the influx of new renewable energy generation
  • Pushing past economic challenges by continuing to bring down costs

Each of these challenges, however, are being tackled with new technology, programs, research, and leadership every day. The clean energy sector is moving faster now than it ever has in the past, and so it's critical to look to the movers and shakers in this space to keep track of it all. To do so within the Energy Central Community, we're delighted to welcome to Energy Central’s Network of Experts, specifically in our Clean Power Group, Tom Hoff.

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Tom is the Founder and Chief Research Officer at Clean Power Research. Having started his career in the utility industry working at PG&E, Tom pivoted to founding Clean Power Research to pioneer the science of valuing distributed solar generation. Tom has a Ph.D. from Stanford, as well as numerous patents in PV fleet power estimation, building performance, and holistic energy analysis. 

As a recognized expert on Energy Central, Tom was kind enough to sit down with me as a part of our Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’

If you have any thoughts or questions for Tom, be sure to let him know in the comments below!

Matt Chester: Let’s start with the basics, Tom. What is your background and how did you end up getting involved in the clean power space as a career?

Tom Hoff Following the completion of a math/computer science bachelor’s degree, I received a master’s degree from a non-traditional engineering program. It was during the master’s program that I developed a deep interest in solar energy.

My first job was in R&D at Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in 1984, a company that was performing high quality, applied solar research. I quickly narrowed my research focus to the intersection of the technical and economic aspects of solar, particularly quantifying the value of solar from a variety of perspectives. I performed research and authored papers for years.

In 1992, I decided to go back to school for a PhD and was accepted into Stanford University’s Engineering Economic System program. In order to pay for tuition and our growing family’s living expenses, I continued to consult for PG&E during this time.

There were several advantages to working while studying for my PhD. First, I was able to apply the PhD classes (which included economics, finance, investment science, probability, decision analysis, operations research, and real options) to my consulting work. It became a practical PhD.

Second, my primary consulting job in partnership with Howard Wenger was to evaluate the first grid-supported PV system (a 500 kW PV system installed in Kerman, California by PG&E in 1993). We evaluated the performance and economics of this novel “distributed generation” PV system from many perspectives and document findings in research papers.

One highlight of my time at Stanford was that I met Jeff Ressler. Jeff is a passionate learner and one of the most curious people I know. We became good friends and talked a lot about solar and its potential economic impact. Jeff graduated in 1996 and went on to a stellar career at Microsoft. I dreamt about working together in the future. The possibility, however, seemed remote as Jeff’s career continued to excel (first as Speech Assistant to Bill Gates and then as Director of Exchange Product Management).

After graduating in 1997 and moving to Napa, my experience was not as glamorous. Our business partnership ended when Howard Wenger took a job at AstroPower. Shortly after that, I did not get a major contract renewed. And to add insult to injury, on the personal front, our newly purchased house required major, unexpected repairs.

That was the environment when we founded Clean Power Research. With no assets and few customers, we had the idea that we could bridge the gap between the needs of people and solar research. Rather than burying the best research ideas in academic journals, we would make research accessible via software services to guide people down the renewables path. Even though it would be 10 years until he joined Clean Power Research, Jeff was instrumental in providing guidance about business models and software implementation approaches.

 

MC: You founded Clean Power Research over 24 years ago, and so you’ve seen firsthand some of the most significant changes in this sector. What has been the most surprising part of that evolution to you?

TH: I did not imagine that I would get to see the world prioritize the commitment required to head down the path toward a clean-powered planet.

 

MC: How has your vision for the clean energy future changed during this time? Has the introduction of new technologies or opportunities required any pivots?  

TH: While we did preliminary work twenty years ago on how distributed resources could help to address global climate change, Clean Power Research’s primary focus was initially on solar, particularly distributed PV.

Over time, our vision for a clean-powered planet emerged. It became clear that we needed to provide more holistic solutions. Solar addresses the supply side of the equation. Consumer behavior determines the demand side of the equation. Both are equally important. Clean Power Research pivoted beyond solar to support this vision.

One way we support the energy transformation more holistically is by partnering with utility and energy agency customers. We offer an automation tool that emerged out of a need to manage solar incentives and then later interconnection programs but has since evolved into a more powerful automation platform, applicable to a very wide range of programs and projects at utilities, including battery storage, electric vehicles and EVSE, building electrification, COVID relief programs and electric bill assistance, pole attachments, new service delivery, large-scale FERC interconnections, power purchase agreements and more. 

Likewise, we developed a customer engagement tool for utilities that quantifies the value of a customer-owned PV system. Today, WattPlan has expanded to include electric vehicles, battery storage, demand response, efficiency, community solar and more.

We have also witnessed the increased linking of our tools by utilities. For example, a utility may want to provide their customers an easy path to get personalized EV modeling and calculations via WattPlan, and signup for a ride-and-drive event using PowerClerk. Customers that engage early are more likely to schedule a ride-and-drive or take advantage of an EV incentive.

This digital self-service experience increases the likelihood that a utility will reach its electrification goals, improves customer satisfaction, and paves the way for customers to take the next step in electrifying their transportation. And it doesn’t end there. After the EV purchase, utilities can advise their customers about charging options and the associated bill impacts.

 

MC: As you look to the next decade in the clean energy transition, what do you think remains as the most notable hurdle? And do you think the necessary solutions are in reach to overcome it?    

TH: Drastically reducing carbon emissions will require that consumers change how they think. One of the biggest hurdles to achieving the energy transformation is changing the mindset of the billions of energy consumers around the world about what they purchase and how they use their purchases.

Consider my own experience. Prior to 2013, I thought we lived in an energy efficient home. In 2013, we purchased our first EV. I was surprised that our utility bills increased (note: I should have expected that). The EV purchase drove me to re-examine our home’s energy efficiency. I was surprised to discover that basic energy efficiency investments (LED lights and reduced base loads) fully offset the electricity consumed by the EV. This discovery got me to dream bigger.

I proposed that we could cost-effectively electrify our 30-year-old house and annually offset consumption with renewable power from a moderately-sized PV system. The purchases included EVs, heat pumps (for space heating, water heating and clothes drying), an induction cooktop, various types of electrical and building shell energy efficiency improvements, and a PV system.

I remember the many issues we faced and how our thinking changed.

  • Can you drive a car without stopping at a gas station? (Yes. The fuel is electricity.)
  • Does it matter where I charge the EV? (Yes. EV charging rates can vary by 500% depending upon how you charge.)
  • Are EVs low cost to maintain? (Yes. I have spent one cent per mile on basic service after driving more than 90K miles.)
  • Should we keep the existing natural gas water heater in place “just in case” as a backup for the heat pump water heater? (We kept the old unit for a year until we were convinced that we would not have cold showers.)
  • Does thermal energy efficiency reduce consumption? (Yes. It also improves comfort.)
  • Are we going to freeze without ductwork with a mini-split heat pump space heater? (No.)
  • How does a heat pump clothes dryer work and does it save energy? (It works just like other heat pump technologies. Yes, it saves energy).
  • What is an induction cooktop? (It is a new way to cook food with multiple non-energy benefits).
  • Does PV actually produce electricity? (It works like clockwork).

What seemed like fantasy eight years ago is now natural. We live in a comfortable house even though the heating system is fully electrified. Our cars run off electricity. We offset our annual consumption with energy from a 6 kW PV system. Our household produces nearly zero carbon emissions. To top it off, we spend little on operational costs. It is difficult to remember that we lived any other way.

Achieving the vision of a clean-powered planet will require thousands of utilities and billions of people to change their thinking. Clean Power Research builds the program automation (PowerClerk), customer engagement (WattPlan Advisor) and grid planning (SolarAnywhere) tools that will support this transformation.

 

MC: Reflecting on your career at Clean Power Research, what are you most proud of?

TH: I am most proud of the two people who took the greatest risks. My wife, Elaine, risked starting a business from scratch with a young family. My friend and business partner, Jeff Ressler, risked leaving a promising career at Microsoft to join Clean Power Research.

I am also proud of all the people who have chosen to spend their careers at Clean Power Research. We are a great company because we are composed of passionate people who are pursuing the ambitious vision of a clean-powered planet.

I am proud that utilities large and small (we support all of the Top 10 electric utilities in the Fortune 500 as well as many municipal and co-op utilities) and the solar industry trust Clean Power Research to serve them.

And I am proud that we have been able to maintain a good work/life balance at Clean Power Research.

 

MC: What excites you most about getting more involved in the Energy Central Community as a part of our Network of Experts? And on the other hand, what value do you hope to bring to the community?

TH: As a researcher, I hope to engage with members interested in exploring energy transformation challenges utilities are facing, how to solve those challenges and how to empower the utilities to use data they may already have to make informed decisions. 

Complementary to my research approach, Jeff Ressler is focused on our software solutions and product roadmap. He is closely connected to our many utility customers which exposes our team to a lot of best practices that this community can benefit from.

I believe Jeff and I will make a great team on Energy Central. I’m excited to interact with the Energy Central Community to hear other people’s ideas, share our ideas and interact with the goal of building new methods that we can implement in our software to address the challenges that utilities and consumers will face.

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