“The future is bleak and the future is bright.” What it’s like to be a clean energy CEO while gas prices are skyrocketing

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As gas prices continue to rise, many climate activists are hoping that the high cost of fossil fuels will lead to increased demand for clean energy sources. But Jason Few, FuelCell Energy’s chief executive officer, doesn’t anticipate rapid change any time soon.

Few operates one of America’s largest fuel cell manufacturers, operating 95 fuel cell platforms delivering more than 250 megawatts of clean power in the US, Germany and South Korea. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy in hydrogen into electricity, with pure water and heat as the only by-products. According to the US Department of Energy, they are the most energy-efficient fuel-to-energy devices. Unlike wind and sun, fuel cells can produce electricity around the clock. “Take a place like Connecticut,” Few says of the company’s home state. “Solar energy only produces electricity about 15% of the time. So 85% of the time you get electricity from the grid.”

Meanwhile, FuelCell’s tri-generation system, which Few describes as “an ultimate clean energy source,” can deliver electricity, hydrogen and water from a single platform. Toyota will soon be using the system at its California logistics facility in the Port of Long Beach. FuelCell is also developing technology to capture carbon dioxide from industrial plants.

Still, revenue for fiscal 2021, which ended Oct. 31, was just $69.6 million. In contrast, Exxon Mobil Corp. 2021 sales of approximately $285.6 billion. Like many clean energy leaders, Few is tasked with turning the global twin crises of oil dependency and climate change into a viable business. The 55-year-old CEO faces constant challenges affecting fuel cells, such as affordability, demand and inconsistent government policies.

He is well prepared for challenges. Few was the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, and he assumed command of FuelCell in 2019 during a company financial crisis, after spending decades managing companies large and small across multiple industries. Few spoke to TIME in mid-March about leading changes in transition, current clean energy challenges and why he owns three water heaters.

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This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Transformative change has fueled your career. For example, they helped AT&T introduce broadband, which radically changed telecommunications. You later became President of Reliant Energy when the company lost large amounts of money and changed fortunes. how did you do it

We lost about $90 million last year. The next year, the company made $1 billion in profit. Transformation required going back to basics and focusing on things we could control. And I’ve worked really hard to create a culture that has a competitive mindset. So we stopped referring to customers as “tariff payers” because they had the choice to do business with Reliant.

How has your previous experience in transforming companies helped you quickly lead FuelCell out of the financial crisis?

I believe in the quote, “Never miss an opportunity to take advantage of a good crisis.” When I joined the company as a member of the management team, we were trading at $0.33 a share. We had a market cap of about $40 million, significant debt and not a lot of money in the bank. We had to figure out very quickly how to restructure.

I created a clear message around the need for change. I could do things differently because the alternative – filing for bankruptcy – wasn’t a good one. As a leader in a crisis, you need to communicate two things: “The future is bleak and the future is bright. Our actions will choose one of these two paths.’

I also painted a vision of what we could be. I remember telling the team that we’re going to be a $1 billion market cap company. Today we are a company with a market capitalization of $2 billion.

Believe me, we’re not done yet. We are still on a transformational journey. We have an opportunity to play a meaningful role in changing energy supply that has a positive impact on the climate. Many people cannot show how they affect the future of human life. You can do that in this company.

You have a great task ahead of you. Why is the transition to fuel cell-based energy taking longer than you and others in your industry expected?

The adoption of fuel cell technology has been slower than we would have liked in the industry. As a company, we decarbonize electricity and produce hydrogen. These are essential in order to achieve the climate targets set worldwide.

This migration to decarbonization is driven by politics. It kept turning on and off. Utilities and industrial companies had the opportunity to make decisions about electricity generation. When policies weren’t there to drive decarbonization, decisions were often made to focus on more traditional energy sources. There must be either appropriate government policy or other supporting mechanisms. We also haven’t enjoyed the full support that technologies like wind and solar have received to scale these companies.

The energy transition probably has more momentum today than ever. Younger consumers are demanding that companies take action to decarbonize. Meanwhile, our company and other fuel cell power companies continue to do things to reduce costs. As we serve more energy applications than just electricity, we will be able to scale the volume of our production. This also helps to reduce costs. We will continue to become more competitive.

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Do you think rising gasoline prices could spur more companies to use alternative sources of carbon-free energy?

Pump prices have little to do with the switch to renewable energy. For example, we need a lot more power generation to support the electrification of vehicle transportation. Eight trillion batteries would be needed to electrify around 1.3 billion cars and light trucks worldwide. And you need a much more reliable network. But rising prices for oil, gasoline, and natural gas will certainly drive a lot more momentum toward renewable energy sources — and in some corners, speeding up the rush.

Because Russia is a major supplier of certain rare metals used in electric vehicle batteries, will the embargo on Russian oil and gas slow America’s transition to clean energy?

The fact that Russian nickel is being taken off the market is certainly a problem. Rather, the catalyst for a faster transition to more renewable energy sources lies in how people view what is happening geopolitically. In the US, people who want a faster transition to renewable energy will take advantage of this opportunity.

How Could the New $1 Trillion Infrastructure Act Help the US Fuel Cell Industry?

9 billion US dollars are earmarked for the expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure. The Department of Energy has committed to creating at least four hydrogen centers in the United States, which will be made possible by fuel cell technology. This creates a tremendous opportunity for our industry to demonstrate our ability to convert excess energy into hydrogen – and in many cases to use hydrogen as a substitute for hydrocarbons.

FuelCell has developed technology to protect the environment through carbon capture and reuse. Climate analysts say such renewable carbon processes are critical for high-emission industries to meet their climate goals. However, skeptics claim that it is too expensive. What is your opinion?

You cannot meet global climate goals if carbon capture is not part of the solution. We don’t support the critics’ opinion that it won’t work or that it’s too expensive. We are the only known company in the world with technology capable of capturing carbon from an external source such as a chemical plant and allowing that carbon to be stored. This will make carbon capture very affordable and solve the problem for hard-to-decarbonize industries.

Carbon Capture takes place today. But you need a better and globally consistent economic framework to do this on a larger scale.

How quickly could FuelCell bring low-carbon technology to parts of the world without energy infrastructure?

The increasing ability to distribute liquefied natural gas globally will allow technology like ours to be deployed in places where you don’t have infrastructure but need power. You will see this take place over the next few years.

When will the world adopt fully renewable electricity?

Most of the world today has embraced the concept of renewable electricity. But it will be at least 2050 before there are energy grids around the world, largely supported by renewable energy sources and long-lived energy storage platforms.

FuelCell is committed to “bringing the world life empowered by clean energy,” they told investors on a recent earnings call. What clean energy commitments have you made in your personal life?

We own an electric vehicle that we bought after I became CEO. But that wasn’t the point. We’ve invested in non-tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances, and extra insulation in our suburban Connecticut home. However, due to a lack of natural gas infrastructure, Connecticut’s carbon footprint is higher than it was when I was in Houston. I have fuel oil for heating.

Why not heat your house with solar panels instead?

It’s intermittent. I want to make sure we are heated at 2am when it’s below freezing outside. I don’t think I should be forced to accept that I have no power in my decarbonization efforts.

We can all contribute to improving the environment. But it will take collective action to make a real impact. Nor must we put any further pressure on parts of society that cannot afford an electric vehicle, solar panels or any energy-efficient devices. Environmental justice is important. We must make the energy transition safe, secure and workable for everyone.

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