We recently sat down (virtually) with Dynamo cleantech member Vrinda Inc. to learn more about their business, hear what trends they are watching in the clean energy space during this challenging year, and ask what they are excited about looking forward. I was delighted to speak with Navneet Trivedi, Vrinda’s Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, who has nearly three decades of diverse international experience in the energy space, with a specific focus on electric utilities.
Hi Navneet, could you tell us a little bit about Vrinda, who you work with, and the types of services you provide?
Vrinda is a trusted partner in the energy transition journey. Over the last six years, we have helped C-level executives in the energy & utility sector in North and Latin America to solve complex energy transition and “utility of the future” issues. Our client partners benefit from the value we bring with deeper industry knowledge and unique insights, which is a clear differentiator. Part of this is our unfiltered, unbiased, honest advice, and hands-on approach to get things done. We are invited to solve some of the most complex problems in the industry and the fact that close to 80% of our work is sole-sourced is a testament to the trust our customers have in our abilities. We are disrupting the traditional consulting model every day!
Vrinda, a proud woman-owned and operated business, was founded in 2010–2011 as a startup by a stay-at-home mom. The initial focus was to offer IT services, but in 2015 when I joined the company, we really wanted to focus on cleantech and how we can help utilities and governments as they look at modernizing the grid and integrating clean energy resources.
Vrinda helps utilities across the world to develop “Utility of the Future” or “Utility 2.0” strategy and implementation plans.
Our focus is on creating and implementing new business and revenue models and working with key stakeholders in clean energy transition. We answer the key question for our client, “Can my business make a sustainable, clean energy transition and increase shareholder value?”. We bring a lot of experience from the utility sector as I’ve worked for almost 30 years across 8 countries in the energy space, with a large focus on North and South America. We are problem solvers; we have worked with 10–12 major utilities in the US and internationally in last 6 years.
Our services range from strategy to operations. We help utilities to think and develop “Utility of the Future” or “Utility 2.0” strategy and implementation plans. We help with economic, financial, and business model analysis for implementing solar, storage, and other distributed resources. We also help with developing transportation electrification plans and demonstration projects, as well as offer simulation and analysis services. Additionally, we work with financing partners and technology providers to bring turnkey solutions to our clients.
What are the key challenges that you see with the current utility model?
We believe utilities could turn into zombies and become targets for takeover by governments/ municipal entities if they don’t adapt.
Climate change is a growing threat and the widespread transition to clean and distributed energy needs to happen quickly. The current utility model is inflexible and slow to change, but the number of issues that utilities need to address keep piling up — from emissions reduction to an increased need for resiliency and flexibility. We believe utilities could turn into zombies and become targets for takeover by governments/ municipal entities if they do not adapt and reinvent themselves. Tackling these challenges will require more decentralized energy resources, more on-site self-generation, and a distributed architecture of utility business and operations. To optimize the distributed resources, we need someone who can aggregate, balance, and dispatch energy as needed.
There are clearly two models — a poles and wires model, which will still be required for some regions, and a distributed model, which will help optimize distributed resources and improve efficiency and reliability. Utilities are hung up on the first model but it’s not the model of the future. The transition requires working with distributed energy resources and innovative technology providers. It also means that utilities need to become digital platform-providers, enabling innovative products and solutions. Utilities need to proactively identify new revenue opportunities and should be ready to disrupt their current model.
Building off that, what are some of the key trends in the energy space that you are currently watching?
The post-pandemic world is moving toward regionalization, digitization, and social transformation, which will require changes to how we plan, operate, and profit from cleantech solutions. We are discussing these challenges with our clients every day.
Our focus is on transforming business models for all stakeholders, especially utilities. They are extremely complex, inflexible, and yet play a huge role in the clean energy transition, and need to be consistently reliable for all customers. It’s not an easy task. We are specifically looking at the impact of climate change on the utility sector and what can utilities do to adapt. Resiliency and aging infrastructure are major issues that require a lot of investment.
The post-pandemic world is moving toward regionalization, digitization, and social transformation, which will require changes to how we plan, operate, and profit from cleantech solutions.
From the broader cleantech side, we are excited about transportation electrification. We are interested in heavy-duty trucks and buses electrification because it’s a low-hanging fruit in terms of climate and environmental justice impact. It is like having new Commercial and Industrial (C&I) Customers. We are heavily involved in developing strategies to move the needle on this issue.
Hydrogen is also picking up in the U.S., as many might have noticed, and we are interested in how it can compete with electrification. Hydrogen can become part of transportation in the next 5 years, and it can be a clean fuel for customers.
What was/is the impact of COVID on these trends?
COVID has changed both how we live and operate but more than ever COVID highlighted the disparity in communities around the world when it comes to social and environmental justice. As a positive outcome, people are now thinking very hard about how they can change that. We think that electrification of medium and heavy fleets could be a game-changer for disadvantaged communities, who usually live near busy highways, near factories, and facilities with lots of heavy-duty vehicle traffic. In addition, there is a greater need in these communities to get to and from school and work via public transportation. Decarbonizing transportation near densely populated low-income communities can have an enormous positive impact on social and environmental equality. It will also help offer higher quality and more fulfilling jobs for those communities, which is so important now after the pandemic.
Further, from the point of view of running a business, COVID has challenged the centralized operating model. Be it your employees or operating grid, companies realized that they can operate from anywhere. Artificial barriers created between Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) have been exposed. This will have a significant impact on how companies recruit their staff and utilize resources.
Speaking of the impact of COVID on communities, how can policymakers address it and what’s the role of clean energy?
Governments should target and invest in projects in disadvantaged communities that will simultaneously cut emissions and improve local economies, such as giving rebates for building “clean” infrastructure, which will offer higher-paying jobs and allow acquiring skills that will be useful for years to come. There are many other associated benefits of electrification, such as lower maintenance costs, for example.
We advocate for targeted subsidies for social and environmental impact, which are intertwined. There’s no need to give subsidies where people are going to invest anyway.
How do you see the role of utilities evolving in the energy transition? What do the utilities need to do to change?
A utility should be a platform provider. The product they’ve been selling and delivering for decades is less needed now because customers can now generate electricity.
But there’s a need for a platform that would enable their customers to make their choices for electricity, there should be more transparency to the customer, data should be more available, and processes need to be more digitalized. Otherwise, we will increasingly see what is happening in California with utilities going bankrupt. People are frustrated about the lack of change from utilities.
So, what are the next steps?
We believe resiliency will be the biggest challenge for the utilities and climate change the biggest risk in the next 5 years. We see a significant opportunity for the utilities to invest capital in transportation electrification, renewables, and energy efficiency. Distributed energy markets need to be formed and the role of the utilities needs to change from electricity provider to a service provider.
Utilities need to invest in understanding their customers. They have so much data, which they need to analyze and use to understand the customers’ needs better. Then they need to develop a platform where they could be a broker for the customer and could get a proactive connection.
We understand that there are barriers both from evolving technologies and regulatory frameworks. We believe that successful utilities will be the ones who are proactive, prove new business and revenue models, and help shape the regulatory landscape instead of reacting to regulatory and policy mandates.