gb&d: You’re the senior vice president of innovation at NRG Energy, one of the largest power companies in the US. What does your job entail?
Robyn Beavers: I founded a new innovation group called Station A, which is essentially an internal start-up. We took our name from a retired, circa-1890 power plant in San Francisco, which is also where we located our office. We do product development, which includes business strategies for those products. Right now, we are developing solutions for a more distributed, interactive electrical grid.
gb&d: Isn’t the electrical grid made up of huge, multistate infrastructures? Are you talking about rebuilding it?
Beavers: We aren’t trying to rebuild the grid but provide alternative and compatible infrastructure that can improve environmental performance, reduce outages, and become more resilient for end users. Perhaps the best analogy is how computing formerly was based on a mainframe system, but of course computing since went in the opposite direction, smaller and diffused.
gb&d: So how does that happen?
Beavers: It’s about creating a distributed generation system. We think a microgrid can connect people with things like rooftop solar, storage, and micro-combined-heat-and-power generators to use their unused power generation. The goal is to create a real market to distribute surplus supply when the demand is there.
gb&d: That sounds disruptive—to both the business model of a company such as yours as well as within states where energy regulation might get in the way.
Beavers: There is a lot to be worked out from the policy side and the financial side. That’s part of what we do. As for the disruptive nature of how it would affect traditional energy generators and distributors, we are in a time when everything is a threat. So we’ve decided to actively take a disruptive approach. The existing power infrastructure is impressive and old, and old doesn’t always work so well. We are taking a long-term view even though it’s unclear who it will help and who it will hurt.
gb&d: Female civil engineers are unusual. Are you a natural disrupter?
Beavers: There were only two women in my engineering class [at Stanford University], and often in my past jobs, I was the only woman in the room (Beavers has worked for Google, the Department of Energy, Vestas Wind Systems, and DEKA Research). But a majority of my team at NRG is women. All engineers want to get to the solution, but I think women engineers have an appreciation for complexity and ambiguity. We can find the elegant solution even when it is not the simple route. Women are good at dealing with chaos.
gb&d: Has being a woman ever made it hard to sell ideas to senior management?
Beavers: I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve always worked with amazing leaders who trusted what I gave them.
gb&d: You speak on the roles technologies play in sustainability. In particular, you cite work you’ve done in third-world countries and what you learned from those experiences. How can advanced societies learn from places where electricity is hard to come by?
Beavers: Global companies like Google don’t just work in advanced countries. The trick is to come up with smart solutions that work in new and old markets. I learn best by doing, which is what we did in India where we built solar hot-water capabilities for an office there. What they get to do is leapfrog older technologies and go straight to newer systems.
gb&d: How feasible is this microgrid idea, both technologically and financially?
Beavers: We are in the prototypes phase with tons of trials going on. Not just by us, but in government, universities, and big companies. The goal is to productize it, which includes gaining cultural acceptance and participation.
gb&d: So other companies are buying into this “go small” idea with energy grids?
Beavers: Everyone is headed in that direction, and it’s getting competitive! When I helped Google implement rooftop solar on their corporate building in 2006, the big news was that it was one of the largest corporate installations in the world. Now the news in the industry is that smaller residential rooftop solar systems is one of the fastest growing categories—which works with microgrids.