In this conversation, we will be speaking with Ian Springsteel, who is the Director of U.S. Regulatory Strategy at the National Grid. In this capacity, Ian develops and oversees regulatory strategy and implementation of new programs and petitions to U.S. regulators. His areas of focus include: electric vehicles and electrification of heat, solar incentive programs, grid modernization, and energy storage. In this conversation we discuss several of the programs he developed within those technology areas and also dive into what inspired Ian to get involved in the Energy Sector to begin with. Hope you enjoy my conversation with Mr. Ian Springsteel!
Are you looking to become a leader in clean energy and an expert in cleantech? Do you hope to get noticed in the crowd as you pursue a career in this fastly growing industry? You are in the right place. Join Karan Takkar as he invites clean energy leaders to share industry developments, highlight cleantech investment opportunities, and shed light on how you can increase their chances of employment in this high-growth sector. We will also discuss the energy transition across key emerging markets like India and explore partnership opportunities for the US private and public sector. After all, this is the Zenergy podcast.
00:51 Karan Takhar
In this conversation, we will be speaking with Ian Springsteel, who is the director of US regulatory strategy at the National Grid. In this capacity, develop an overseas regulatory strategy and implementation of new programs and petitions to US regulators. His areas of focus include electric vehicles and electrification of heat, solar incentive programs, grid modernization, and energy storage. In this conversation, we discuss several of the programs that Ian developed within those mentioned technology areas and also dive into what inspired him to get involved in the energy sector. To begin with, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Mr. Ian Springsteel. Thank you, Ian, for taking the time. I really have been looking forward to speaking with you.
01:56 Ian Springsteel
Absolutely, yeah a pleasure to be here.
01:58 Karan Takhar
And as I was reading up on your professional journey, I saw that your transition into the energy industry occurred as entering a full-time position in the energy industry occurred directly after graduating from the Harvard Kennedy School. Can you walk us through what initially sparked your interest in energy and how you got connected to that first opportunity with the Massachusetts Technology collaborative?
02:34 Ian Springsteel
So in my initial career, I was a journalist and passionate about being a journalist, and I worry about economics and finance and was interested in those kinds of questions, and as that progressed, you know, I realized some of its limitations and was interested in doing other things. Just as an industry, I think it was having growing or maturity pains, if you will, especially after the .com bubble. and around that time, units for 2000 - 2001, I did some pieces on global warming, greenhouse gas emissions, and so forth, pollution, the success of Knox trading and sulfur trading for James in the US, and cleaning up the Northeast and also the California energy crisis occurred, during that heat wave in 2001 and I was out actually out there during that, but I was not subject to the the the blackouts or anything 'cause I was elsewhere in the state of the mountains, but when I got back I was reading about it and found this whole world of energy and ISO’s &RTO’s and energy development very interesting and the more I looked into it, the more I realized that there was going to be a trillion-dollar overturn within the energy industry of Investment of over the rest of my lifetime and change, just dramatic change, and now little industry worked and where we get our energy and where we had to get our energy. So, that interested me because it was such a radical concept, but it also addressed a threat that I thought was really fundamental to motive of personal motivating, to go address, so when I went to the Kennedy School it was partly to create some sort of career change for myself out of journalism but I wasn't sure, If I'd be able to navigate to something within the energy field directly or sort of indirectly or whether I would need to stay sort of within the financial world where I had some background, you know, like financial regulation or work for mutual fund company or something like that I had no idea, so I took some classes on energy, energy economics and couple of the science for policymaker courses and stuff like that and got involved with the Energy Club, learned a lot from other people you know sort of found my way and by the 2nd semester I was at mid-career, so I was only there for a year and part of the summer, so by the 2nd semester, I was like, yeah I should really double down on this and focus on this area and so I sent myself out to Vegas to a conference that spring and I saw that the director, Rob Pratt, he's retired, but I don't know what he's doing now, was speaking at this event. I was like Massachusetts technology collaborative. I looked him up, and I was like, God, that that that would be an interesting place to work, you know, 'cause they manage the wonderful energy trust, and they're basically the creator of all the initial innovator programs and state to support local energy at the personal and Commercial level, and they were doing community brand, and they're doing well after things. So I basically jumped up on stage after he was. Done speaking and forced my weight up to him and introduced myself, and it's like, yeah, I'd like to. Work for you but. You know, just sort of pressed. The issue and this is what I'm doing at the Kennedy School, and he, I think, had actually gone to the Kennedy School as well, so that was the connection that I was able to make with him, so he remembered me and said, now OK yeah can you shoot? So a position opened up, and I applied and then went forward.
06:40 Karan Takhar
Yeah, one, I really respect the fact that you just had the courage to go up to him and was like, give me a job.
06:49 Ian Springsteel
It wasn't quite that brash, but yeah. I was like, yeah, that was great. You know I'm looking for a job. I'm at the Kennedy School, had opportunities to have over there, and he's like, well, look on the website you know, like everybody else. But, you know, it's good to make a connection with the person, hard to do; that's been the tragedy of the last few years. People aren't able to make personal connections this much.
07:16 Karan Takhar
True, and a lot of conferences have been virtual, which has made it difficult.
07:21 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, it's not the same, they may agree.
07:23 Karan Takhar
In your first role with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Will you primarily lead investments in early renewable energy projects in the state?
07:36 Ian Springsteel
yeah, it was interesting; that was an organization that had a lot of flexibility. They had some money at some initial programs they'd started. They had ongoing funding or money that would become available because her projects we move forward, so they, you know, relinquished their hold on certain funds. So there's a lot of creativity or possibility for creativity, they're like, well, how do we, how do we do this, like, we're making it up as we go along, and that's a great place to be if you have a creative mind and no preconceived notions, so at first I was joining this group that was kind of like an internal consulting group, and we would help solve. Problems or research on how to run a program better or make a performance history on a particular program, I can think, but that quickly evolved, and I got into and was able to develop programming wrecked trading. So we had all these renewable energy certificates that we had purchased, over purchasing from wind and solar and other projects, hydro projects, and so forth and nobody knew really what to do with them. We knew that we could probably sell them, so when they started coming in, I started a disposition program and started making forward trades to walk into the value and go in first wreck auctions and some poor trading I've actually sold like through your strips of them then that kind of thing so, and it drew on both my finance background, but also some finance that I had taken at the Kennedy School Ground, you know, different financial products I don't know if they still offer that class, but it was pretty good option pricing and all that says it will apply a lot of what I've learned from different areas that were helpful 'cause other people didn't have the sort that background with the bent of using it for the policy or using it for programmatic purposes and then we started a loan program for early-stage manufacturers in the state and so when you tell people, you have cheap money, and that you'd like to help them start manufacturing, it's amazing how many people come forward self-identifier is the best thing on the planet that you need to go and investigate, So it was a lot of time doing due diligence out on the street, meeting with companies, looking at the start-up manufacturing operations, you know small, you know going from Lab toYou know, small production line type operations and I'm not a manufacturing guy, I don't have that background. So we had other experts who would help us with some of that, trying to find the problems, but a lot of innovative companies, so one that's no longer with us comarca they return it, print flexible solar panels on plastic, like on film, basically and eventually they could not make it work, and they ran out of money. So it was a learning process of learning about companies and their shortcomings. We were restricted by only being able to it was venture debt, so some of it was equity-ranked. The debt could convert to equity, or we got auctions in the companies as well.
11:03 Karan Takhar
and this was a time where cleantech investing was kind of taking off?
11:08 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, definitely. There were a lot of VCs active as well, and they would call us because they would want to start putting a little leverage into the companies. So we've been meeting with them and the company and the VCS at the same time. So it was a way for them to add capital but not dilute their overall positions.
11:30 Karan Takhar
And what were the Economics of these clean energy technologies, I mean, I was reading as I was preparing for this interview, and this proceeded 2010, but the number I saw for solar cost in 2010? Was that it came out to roughly around $5 an MW or say, it's around a little over like $1.20 an MW roughly probably varies by region, but I'm just curious as to whether the companies that you ever investing in were commercially viable and your perspective on kind of how that evolved over that time frame we started at National Grid.
12:15 Ian Springsteel
Well, you know, like. I said a lot of these companies were going from lap proof to initial manufacturing, so sometimes they were ahead of themselves and what CEOs or the salt, that's not willing to stretch the truth a little bit about where they're at, but I think many of the companies had very solid technical ideas with very real technical problems that they were still trying to solve. Otherwise, they would have been manufacturing already, But they were willing to take some risks to enter into that process to see if they could do it at scale. So there was that flow battery company premium power, there was a flywheel company called Beacon Power that actually went into production. They created several power plants that were basically frequency regulation in it's a couple of But a lot of these were very sensitive to specific scenarios within the overall renewable energy space or the energy markets. So, really high-frequency market costs, right? Well, that would give you some arbitrage for a battery like a flywheel, you know to participate in that market, but as soon as prices go down. You give more support to a lot of the concepts where there are complicated technical solutions to a problem that was transitional in the markets. Another one in Evergreen Solar State gave a cue that was not my doing. But the state gave a huge grant to Evergreen to build a manufacturing plant famously, and two or three years after they did that, evergreen fell the bankruptcy. The lesson from that is that politics drove a desire to keep that homegrown company growing here. But the technical aspects of that company were it was built for a very high-cost silicon future when panels were costing 7 to $10 a Watt. They were perfect 'cause they conserved silken to their this funny string process, where they would draw up melted silicon between two strings, so there was no waste. It was a very expensive process, and this is the Chinese, and then all regions and some other cheap energy nations started cranking out silicon ingots and new fabs and so forth. In the 2008 to 10 time frame. They had nothing, no legs to stand on anymore, so you really have to understand the underlying technologies and the market issue that there trying to address or that they're successful at and how sensitive that is to change to know how well a company is going to do like that.
15:10 Karan Takhar
It makes a lot of sense; yeah, I know during that time frame, a lot of manufacturers, especially solar technologies, went out of business once the Chinese were able to scale their own solar supply chains massively, driving down the cost. Other people are not able to compete.
15:33 Ian Springsteel
Oh yeah, it's amazing.
15:35 Karan Takhar
And the one hand, it drove a lot of people on the supply chain side out of business, but on the other also helped unleash solar developers and unlocked the economics of this clean energy industry in some ways. I would love to hear your take on that, especially since I know that you started at National Grid in 2010 and one of your responsibilities.
16:01 Karan Takhar
Or, to develop a company's energy procurement strategies for electricity and gas during that time and the subsequent years, did he find that solar and other clean energy power sources were able to become cost competitive with, say, natural gas and coal?
16:22 Ian Springsteel
So just to clarify, BIOS are kind of vague sometimes, but I work in the regulatory part of the National Grid site, working on regulatory strategy, and have since a join them; we have a whole very professional extensive energy procurement team that runs the procurement some server is responsible for energy procurement.
16:43 Ian Springsteel
I work with them in terms of the regulatory strategy aspects of energy procurement, so try not to overstate my presence there, but the evolution of cost in the renewable energy technologies, the main two, wind and solar, has been dramatic, and I did not think that in my working life that I would see solar.
17:09 Ian Springsteel
Cheaper than wind, but that's exactly what's happened. Certainly, at a smaller scale, if you're not building a 500 MW offshore wind farm right now with a 50% capacity factor, wind onshore in New England is Just not that cost competitive, but we can see solar installed for less than a dollar a Watt and see the price per MW hour.
17:35 Ian Springsteel
For those two, about equal or better for solar, and certainly for community wind applications like the distributed wind. Distributed wind costs a lot more than distributed solar T stands, so if you're talking like an MW to MW with kind of deployment, that's been a really interesting change, and a lot of parts of New England don't have that great wind.
17:59 Ian Springsteel
Despite what we think of as being a kind of windy era, onshore wind is not that great offshore wind is tremendous, and there were just a few true believers, I would call them, who saw the future for the offshore wind And the way we're expressing it now, and I remember one of those people was he had a whole bunch of general roles, including Secretary of Agriculture at one point in the state. Greg Watson was a great visionary and voice for the Patrick administration and wind in general, which really pushed for Cape Wind and other aspects of the laws we have now. He was one of the early voices that I listened to and said, yeah, this will be incredible, only confirming it can happen, but there are so many issues with the large-scale wind doing work, being able to construct it, and the whole issue with how our energy markets work in New England, so National Grid itself doesn't own any generation. We actually don't know generation; we were deregulated and sold all the generations back in the late 90s. So that separation occurred with energy restructuring when that was all the rage, you know, 22 - 24 years ago. What we do is enter into contracts indoor offer tariff-based programs to support So and other resource procurements, but there were often, while we might use the global energy certificates for our purposes, oftentimes you're selling them into the market for others to use, and we just sell the energy into the ISO market cause of the way energy is procured in Massachusetts, every state procures energy for retail customers a little bit differently, or has regulations, they're a little bit different, and only in states where you still have vertical integration of utilities, which is really nowhere in the whole Nort East that I can think of, you have to go down to, like, Virginia. Yeah, maybe Delaware somewhere and think don't work, but you really have to get out of PJ before you see utilities that are still heavily vertically integrated where they own all their own generation, and it's been an interesting trend in that Massachusetts has built a lot of solar through its solar support programs, but I've been involved in all of them since their inception or shortly thereafter, even negotiating round, but running them or just helping design the tariffs behind them, and so forth, some of it has come that up very high cost would probably pay two or three-four times as much for solar on mass than they do in some other parts of the country, both because of better soon because of the current model, so when do you finally woke up and decided to start investing in solar? they just went out and procured hundreds of megawatts of it at the cheapest price possible and put steel in the ground and hooked it up to their system. They didn't worry about Individual programs, and they have some with distributed solar support as well, but It's not as, and the bulk of their solar, they just went out and bought and a much better price than we could buy it.
21:34 Karan Takhar
So the reasoning because they primarily bought from large utility-scale developers, whereas you guys National Grid are in a way prioritizing rooftop solar, which tends to be more expensive than this larger-scale solar farm.
21:51 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, the way it evolved in Massachusetts and a number of other New England states. This is through net metering and through the other solar support programs on top of net metering; they created what's called the S tracker solar rack program in Massachusetts other states followed suit. New Jersey as Knestrick program New York did a little differently with grants and then the northern well in states like but it snows all the time appeared we're not going to do solar, so they're just they don't do a lot slower up there in New Hampshire, in Vermont, well they do in Vermont, but they don't do it through the same expensive type programs that we, So but with net metering, Massachusetts went on a particular group and said we're going to allow virtual net metering, so you build a solar farm field somewhere, and the credits can be used to transfer to somebody else, Bill, and it's the most aggressive for progressive type of net metering in the country. Not even California has such liberal net metering policies, which led to a lot of development, but it did. So at a cost in that, you know, there's this exchange of credits, and there's you know, some last value there, and all the projects were smaller than they necessarily need it to be there like. One or two megawatts in scale. This made it approachable for smaller developers to get into the game and create a local industry which we don't necessarily have the space to do. We may be learning more to do 1500 MW systems the way they can in the South and southwest. They're much more cost-effective, but it was a particular policy and administrative pathway, but they took that add a lot of support from local industry and involved people from many different walks of life, both development and finance communities, but also people who are off-takers and in participating list towns big effort at signing up towns to save money on their energy bills, so eventually instead of addressing underlying problems with high energy costs or providing better state general revenue support to towns to pay their bills. They created this sort of backdoor tax cut, if you will, or revenue support for them by allowing net metering and virtual net metering for towns to save some money a lot of politics involved and a lot of particular nerdy Energy policy pathways that you have to follow to figure it. All out, but it's been interesting, that's for sure.
24:36 Karan Takhar
I saw that in regards to the national grid's operations in Massachusetts specifically, about 11% of electricity in 2021 was supplied by solar and about 9% from winds.
24:53 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, it's getting up there, so we're on the 4th generation of solar programs in mass. Now Massachusetts has the most solar deployed per square mile. In any state, including Hawaii in the country, we have more to go. You know the 2050 Pathways technical report that the stage is put out to support its net zero future vision, and this isn't Baker administration. They indicate that we're going to need another, I believe it's 13 or 14 gigawatts of solar to meet our needs and have it meet that serve 25 to 30% of the energy supply by 2050.
25:38 Karan Takhar
And how gigawatts are there currently of solar?
25:42 Ian Springsteel
At about 3 in 2020
25:44 Karan Takhar
25:45 Ian Springsteel
I think it's 17 gigawatts total, so it gets up to around 20 gigawatts, but that's if you believe that load is going to double from electrification and so forth a lot of moving parts with that projection, like how much electrification of transportation and heating we see. I think that's really where the energy is looking ahead. That's where the energy transition is, is now, and what's next. It's really about how do we successfully electric electrify areas that aren't dominated by fossil fuel still and how do we create that transition for buildings, which are notoriously slow to turn over in a steady way, and how we address the technical challenges of heating in reliability in a Cold climate like this gas is pretty reliable.
It flows, and as long as we buy enough of it gets to people, and they can heat their homes and businesses, but heat pumps and so forth can be less reliable, and the electric system is not as reliable; I think it's the gas system because of storms, and because of the way it's constructed to provide that kind of constant energy flow, if we undergrounded everything like the gas system, we have a lot better liability.
27:09 Karan Takhar
I saw that National Grid is now attempting to integrate renewable natural gas combined with hydrogen to help address that bigger issue that you just mentioned when deciding to integrate those two energy sources to help achieve its net zero 2050 vision; we see a continued rule for gas and gas system and provide writing lower carbon or carbon-free energy in the future, sourcing all of that carbon-free gas is a big challenge.
27:48 Ian Springsteel
It's no doubt a technical challenge to create sources of supply in that way. Right now, it seems cost prohibitive, but I think we're in kind of the same space with heat and the gas system that we were with the electric system back in, in 2000 or 2002 or something where people looked at solar, at $13.00 a Watt installed and we're like that you're Smoking something, man, that is not, that is not going to happen in our lifetime. You know that. It's ridiculous. And wind people could barely put up a 50-kilowatt wind farm wind turbines in California and get paid for it through the 80s and 90s, and now we have 10 MW Machines going up in the ocean, So a lot of change, a lot of technological evolution has happened, and I think the same will happen with the gas side is people apply themselves to it, and we create incentives, and we create the right regulatory structures to make it happen. It's one of the things we're promoting is a renewable fuel heating standard, which would be similar to NRPS for electricity, but it would be on the gas side, so we would be required to purchase a certain amount of terms of renewable gas every year, but there would be an added dollar value for that that could then be used to help pay for that that gas from those sources, Now develop and create the infrastructure in the industry needed to create all of that gas and hydrogen and to apply more science, too, and innovative minds to creating hydrogen cheaper there's a lot to juice them.
29:34 Karan Takhar
I'm curious on the regulatory front. Are there any particular initiatives beyond the one you just mentioned in terms of attempting to integrate more renewables and also hydrogen and this renewable natural gas Fuel source? Are there any more regulatory strategies that come to mind that you're particularly focused on right now?
30:03 Ian Springsteel
I think the advent of those sorts of renewable heat standards will be really helpful. Whatever we can do at the base level as well in terms of using excess electricity to create hydrogen will be really useful. It's really the cost; it's the fuel which is Interesting, but it's how efficient is that whole process, and that's where the basic science comes in, then the support the Dewey provides other research institutes and so forth that can help really push that ball forward, so I think that's really critical.
30:39 Karan Takhar
How about the electricity front?
30:41 Ian Springsteel
To get where we want to go out to speak in the region, New York has done a very nice job of offering contracts and creating the support needed to develop solar and wind; they do it centrally, through nice, sorta just their energy. Let's see and charge it out to customers through the electric bills, but it's a system that's worked pretty well off the support; now can the projects actually get built so, you know, there are questions there not per meeting about system congestion we have a lot of concerns in New England generally about congestion on the system, meaning saturation of too much-distributed energy in certain areas and requiring the reconstruction, like very expensive reconstruction of a lot of infrastructures to make it work properly, So we've been facing that, and I deal with that quite a lot it's hundreds of millions of dollars of reconstruction of the system and of substations and protection schemes and so forth, to allow hundreds of megawatts of generators to connect in distributed ways, so one of the things that we're trying to advance is more transmission connected solar, and I used it. Yeah, ten years ago, 15 years ago, I was dead set against transmission, and so I'm like that, that's stupid, that's like chocolate and beer, you know, they just should not go together. That is just a bad idea, You get a lot of losses if you're not offsetting load, you know, there are so many inherent negatives about it, but one of the big positives is that you could, if you can, find a place to build 100 megawatts of solar you can build it all at once, put around the transmission system that's part of your energy supply, and we're not going to get to 20 gigawatts of solar in Massachusetts, If we don't start talking more aggressively, and in other states as well, especially where space is at a premium on the eastern seaport if we're not thinking in more radical ways about how to procure end source renewable energy, like building 1000 megawatts in the ocean. Just go do it, you know, please, you have to think big sometimes.
33:05 Karan Takhar
And that's supposed to be with the current model, which is building these smaller solar.
33:10 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, three to five megawatts around distribution summary distributed because it creates a lot of congestion on the distribution system, and batteries storage has been a huge story in flux over the last couple years because certainly new programs both clean peak standard in Massachusetts, but also the Yeah, I see New England has a very good market product for storage so that there's some support out there that people are interested in and that they want to build storage, but it creates a lot of its own problems. It sucks upload unless it's connected with PV, and it creates the same kind of congestion issues. It's exporting that pecan, So we're wrestling with that as well. Both forms of distributed generation or distributed energy resource create challenges, and so the more you can connect at a higher level to the transmission system to create the backbone backup and energy flows where they're needed in bulk, the you can do it cheaper It's perhaps easier to connect, You're going to get more connected at once people who see a very distributed future or log the test wall in our homes and use our cars to cook our dinner and so forth I would say that the centralized energy system is not going anywhere that quickly? We need it because it's very expensive to integrate the kind of energy that we want, and long-term studies say we but to do it at a distributed level and to have the kind of reliability that people want to be able to heat their homes because you don't want the power going out if you don't want to run out of your Tesla battery pack when it's ten outside and your heat pump stops working.
35:07 Karan Takhar
We need a combination of.
35:08 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, it's a hybrid approach, and there will be a role, I think, for the centralized electricity system for a very long time, and I think there's going to be a role for the gas system as well, and we really aren't to replace the kind of Btus that we provide to the gas system through electricity or through any other means.
35:30 Karan Takhar
Especially given that transporting gas through pipelines is much more efficient than transporting electricity through power lines.
35:39 Ian Springsteel
And it's just super reliable when people need it; as long as you can get it in at the other end, it will arrive where people need it is just very energy dense. The word I was looking for is Yeah, and gasoline is the most energy efficient, right, of the common fuels that we use and very hard to replace in terms of convenience and reliability.
36:03 Karan Takhar
Thank you, Mr. Springsteel, for your time. The last question is, are you optimistic about the future of renewable energy integration, the RPOs that Massachusetts put out into 2015 at zero targets via National Grid, and what you foresee is like the main challenge to get there?
36:23 Ian Springsteel
Yeah, I think technically, I'm very optimist, and I think we have the core technologies that we need to create a renewable electricity future. I think the challenge on the gas side is lowering the cost, and we've seen success in that on the electricity side, so probably see a lot more success on the gas side. I think we're approaching an issue with the electrification of transportation and heat that's much more around affordability than it is around achievability. We can do a lot of things, but we may be paying 50 and 60 cents a kWh for it, and that's going to be very hard to transition people off of gasoline and put them dependent on a single fuel that's very expensive going forward, and income distribution being what it is, it's hard for a lot of people to pay their bills today a lot of people have to make choices, which is really unfortunate, despite assistance programs, low-income rates and so forth, So I think one of the biggest challenges we have is we can continue to load up the system with programs and incentives and so forth, but we will have to address costs if we're going to have a market-driven transition to clean energy in the future.
37:42 Karan Takhar
Thank you for your time, really appreciate it.
37:45 Ian Springsteel
Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed the episode. Check out the episode description or show notes For more information on our guests. See you next time.