#198 John O’Donnell, CEO of Rondo Energy

John O’Donnell has over 30 years of experience taking novel solutions from conception to reality across the energy, semiconductor and supercomputer industries. Prior to founding Rondo Energy, John served as co-founder and vice president of development for GlassPoint Solar, the leading provider of solar thermal energy for industry worldwide. He is also the former founder and president of Ausra, Inc., a pioneer in solar thermal and solar electric systems. 

John launched his career as the lead engineer for Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy national lab, where he designed award-winning technology to support real-time fusion experiments. He is a published author of numerous technical papers and holds more than 20 patents in the U.S. and internationally. John earned a B.Sc. with Special Distinction in Computer Science from Yale University.

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Bigger Than Us #198

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:46

John, how are you doing today?

John O’Donnell 01:45

Doing well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Host Raj Daniels 01:47

John, I look forward to talking to you. But before I kick it off, I guess better than asking, how are you doing today? Let me ask this way, instead of let me say this instead. Bonjour. Konnichiwa. And hola.

John O’Donnell 02:00

Bonjour, konnichiwa, hola.

Host Raj Daniels 02:03

Tell me your interest in languages.

John O’Donnell 02:05

I’ve had the privilege of working in a number of some of the European countries and in Chile and Japan in my career, so I have a keen interest in those languages. When I was growing up, I’m old enough that studied Greek and Latin as well. Don’t use those quite as often.

Host Raj Daniels 02:28

So would you consider yourself a polyglot?

John O’Donnell 02:34

I am nowhere near at the level of polyglot. I wish I could I cannot.

Host Raj Daniels 02:39

Do you still study any other languages?

John O’Donnell 02:41

Yes, actually. Some of the important development areas where renewable energy is of particular critical importance are in Latin American. And, of course, today in Europe where what we’re doing addresses the largest portion of European energy use. I’d like to have more time to study. It’s a little difficult in a start-up.

Host Raj Daniels 03:10

And I’m asking only because I do have an interest in languages. Working proficiency in Spanish. I grew up in London. So in London growing up French is something that’s taught in school, like Spanish is here in Texas. And so when I saw those on your bio, I was very interested. And then of course, the Japanese just piqued my curiosity.

John O’Donnell 03:30

Yeah, I had the the honor — I built a semiconductor company that began as a joint venture with Hitachi. And it was a an honor and a deep pleasure working with them.

Host Raj Daniels 03:43

So you mentioned renewable energy. Can you give us an overview of Rondo Energy and your current role at the organization?

John O’Donnell 03:50

Sure, Rondo is tackling one of the greatest opportunities and challenges of our time: transitioning the energy that is used by industry. And by industry, I mean everything from making baby food to cement, all the commodities that we use. Worldwide industry is the largest user of energy, and of the energy that is used by industry, three quarters of it is in the form of heat boilers and furnaces driving every kind of industrial process from pasteurizing milk to making glass and cement. 

That heat used by industry alone is more than a quarter of world CO2 emissions. It is a giant sector of the energy market — world energy consumption — that’s invisible to most people unless you’re in industry. The scale of it is is difficult to get your mind around. It’s an area that I’ve been working in with some of my colleagues at Rondo for 10–15 years. In our last venture together, we delivered more than half of all the solar industrial heat that is running in the world today. That was a tiny drop in the bucket. That was using an innovative direct solar concentrator technology. 

Several years ago, we put Rondo together to exploit what is arguably the greatest opportunity of our times to solve this industrial heat problem. Industrial heat has been thought to be a particularly hard to decarbonize sector. There are really stringent requirements in cost, in the temperature, in continuity and safety — there are a ton of things that are different than in the electricity sector. And the tools in the toolbox have been things like biofuels and carbon capture that are either in very limited availability, or triple or quadruple the cost of energy, or both. One of the reasons people have said it’s hard to decarbonize. 

But over the last decade, in particular, the last five years, around the world, wind and solar electricity have fallen not only below the cost of conventional electricity, but below the cost of fuel. Wind and solar power have become the lowest cost source of energy that humans have ever known in history if you look at human labor required to get a unit of energy, but they’re intermittent and they are in the form of electricity. They’re not suited to drive continuous high temperature industrial processes. Rondo is building, from one perspective, the world’s lowest cost energy storage. From another perspective, a drop in industrial boiler, a drop in industrial furnace, that happens to run on intermittent electricity to harness it to repower industrial processes.

Host Raj Daniels 07:06

Now, before we dig into the technology, I want to give credit where credit is due. Where did the name Rondo come from?

John O’Donnell 07:16

My wife is a musician. Rondo is — I think — a 17th century, 18th century musical form where the same melody comes back again and again. And as I said, we’ve been working on this problem for a while. And this is an entirely new and the definitive approach to solving this problem.

Host Raj Daniels 07:37

So I guess it’s better than calling it groundhog energy. Right?

John O’Donnell 07:42

Thank you. You know, we didn’t have that one on the list.

Host Raj Daniels 07:48

I guess we’re both of that age when Bill Murray was popular.

John O’Donnell 07:50

I had a long negotiation with a counterparty once where, at the end of the negotiations, I gave everybody a copy of that movie.

Host Raj Daniels 08:00

Well, there you go, then. Well, Rando sounds much better. Now. Can you tell us how the how Rondo actually works? What’s the technology behind it?

John O’Donnell 08:08

Yeah. So again, the challenge, the thing that Rondo is doing is taking intermittent electricity when the wind is blowing, when the sun is shining, when wholesale prices are zero or negative, and converting that into continuous high temperature heat. 

Our goal was to be able to do that at giant scale, profitably ,for customers and partners, very fast. That sets some pretty stringent constraints on, what could you do with this? There are a lot of science project innovations looking at, how do we do this? 

We found two century-old technologies. We had a breakthrough in understanding how to combine them in a new way to solve this problem. Your toaster, your hairdryer — there are hot wires, and that particular wire has been around since the 1930s. It is durable, it is cheap, it works at high temperature, and it converts electricity to heat at 100% efficiency. 

200 years ago, the steel industry figured out a coal saving innovation at blast furnaces. Every blast furnace stores heat that is captured from its exhaust and delivers that heat to preheat the air to the furnace in 100-foot-tall towers, filled with brick, on about a one-hour cycle of alternately superheated by the exhaust, and then giving up heat and superheating inlet air. We combine those two technologies to heat thousands of tons of brick to store hundreds of megawatt hours of energy as heat and then pull heat out of that brick, continuously, just the way the steel industry does, either as a continuously operating high temperature furnace, or coupled with a steam generator operating as a continuous boiler. 

So, Rondo delivers drop-in industrial furnaces, industrial boilers that happen to not fire coal or fire natural gas, but operate on intermittent renewable electricity.

Host Raj Daniels 10:31

It came to mind when I was doing research on Rondo — there are some cooking methods that involve placing wrapped meat, fish, etc. in hot sand.

John O’Donnell 10:45

Indeed, there are lots of cooking things that involve stored heat. And that’s a good example. There are initiatives. The US National Renewable Energy Lab has an initiative in storing heat in sand. Hot sand is interesting. It does not reach the temperatures that one would like for a number of industrial processes. Of course, we melt sand in making glass. So we can’t store heat in sand in order to drive a glass factory. We use higher temperature materials to store heat at temperatures that conserve about 90% of world industrial energy use. But that’s a great example, yes.

Host Raj Daniels 11:37

I appreciate it. Just as a side note, when I’m coming across technologies like yours, I like to draw a simple parallel for myself and to be able to explain it. But the question is, what material are the bricks made out of?

John O’Donnell 11:50

Brick is made from dirt, depending on the right kind of dirt. And the brick materials are made in every continent on Earth, except Antarctica, from locally abundant materials, particular high temperature brick materials that we use are different in different places. But bauxite and sand, two of the most abundant minerals on Earth, you throw them together in a same kiln that you would make cement. And you get these high temperature brick materials. There are several others as well. 

As I mentioned, one of our key criteria was, we wanted a technology that can go to giant scale. And this is a technology — the business plan has us reducing total world CO2 by 1%, 500 million tonnes a year, within a decade and reaching 15% a few years after that. And in that year, when we’re reducing total world CO2 by 15%, we are using less than 1% of the world’s cement kiln capacity. There are no material constraints in building this kind of energy storage. This is not something that uses exotic minerals of any kind.

Host Raj Daniels 13:16

And I think that’s very, very important to point out because A, it offers you flexibility from a global perspective and B, you’re not contributing to some of the challenges that we either currently are or will be experiencing around some of these materials that you spoke off.

John O’Donnell 13:35

Indeed, that’s right. We are opening entirely new markets of quite remarkable scale for renewable energy. Decarbonizing industrial heat, but not using any of the materials in the energy storage train. We will need vast expansions in wind and solar generation to serve this, but it is an area where the profitability and the ability to go quickly in the renewable generation is really a truly remarkable opportunity.

Host Raj Daniels 14:13

Now, you’ve used this term “industrial heat” a few times. For those listening, can you perhaps name a couple of industries that — you mentioned cement, I believe, at the beginning. What other industries contribute to the use of industrial heat that people might not realize?

John O’Donnell 14:28

Sure. You buy pasteurized milk in the supermarket. That’s flash heated and then cooled to a modest temperature. There are steam boilers at the dairy facilities that pasteurize milk. You have spaghetti for dinner with tomato paste. There’s a lot more steam used in boiling down those tomatoes to make tomato paste. You fill your car with biodiesel, or petroleum fuels, or ethanol. 30% of the total emissions in making that liquid fuel was heat used in the refinery process, which today is pretty much all natural gas, all the way to very high temperature processes making cement. Everything that we touch and use is manufactured. Heat is a very large part of producing it.

Host Raj Daniels 15:26

And I appreciate you sharing that. And the reason I asked is because many times when I’m speaking to people outside of our industry or echo chamber, I find that they don’t know how to connect the dots between their everyday lives and the broader energy picture. So thank you so much for that.

John O’Donnell 15:44

Yeah, thank you, and just for scale for a moment, because it’s kind of invisible. And lots of folks understand what’s happening in the electricity sector. But I’m speaking to you from the great state of California, where today, our electricity grid has a peak load of about 47 gigawatts, 47,000 megawatts. There’s about 28 gigawatts today of PV installed, PV solar, a lot more coming. We burn more natural gas for industrial heat in California than we do for all electric power generation. 

And if you just look at the boilers and furnaces across everything from drying almonds to pasteurizing milk to making cement, it’s 100 gigawatts of new solar generation that’s going to be needed in addition to everything we’re doing in the electricity sector, just to replace that heat. If we look worldwide, the IEA wrote a report about industrial heat five years ago. 

This year, the world is going to cross about 1000 gigawatts of wind worldwide. And, by chance, also about 1000 gigawatts of solar PV worldwide. The IEA report about industrial heat, if you do a units conversion, repowering the heat used by industry worldwide is going to need 9000 gigawatts of new generation. 

So what is that, four or five times all the renewable energy in the world today? We need to build that. And we will be able to do that completely independently of electricity grids or with beneficial services to those electricity grids, and knock out, again, 26% of total world emissions in a sector that, as you mentioned, people don’t think about — most folks who are not in the industry. 

It’s not on people’s radar how enormous the opportunity is. And it’s partly because it’s been thought of as a sector that’s hard to decarbonize until we came along. And there are other people working in this sector now as well. Until we came along, there were no technologies that could take intermittent electricity and convert it to continuous high temperature heat, except one. And that’s hydrogen. 

There are lots of initiatives supporting the uses of hydrogen. Hydrogen, of course, is a critical reactant and chemical used across industry. And decarbonizing it is phenomenally valuable. But when you take electricity, and make hydrogen, and then make heat by burning the hydrogen, it takes about two units of electricity to get one unit of heat because of the losses along the way. 

So when people say hard to decarbonize, it’s because cost is the difficult thing. We would wind up multiplying the cost of energy for industrial processes by three, four, or five if we were using hydrogen. What we’re doing opens up a much lower cost path where it’s profitable today. Because as I said, the heaters in your toaster lose no energy, right? The electricity converts to heat, at no loss. 

If you put a blanket around the box, the box doesn’t lose much heat. So our technology converts electricity heat at 98% efficiency instead of 50%. So that’s the scale. People haven’t been looking at this, saying, “Look, this is the next giant wave of renewables growth that’s in this completely new sector.” We’ve done something combining these two century old technologies in this new way. That’s why it’s important.

Host Raj Daniels 19:57

Well, speaking of combining technologies, you mentioned Glasspoint Solar. How did you make the transition to Rondo? You mentioned you have a team they’ve been working on for a while. But what opportunity do you see? And how did you make the transition from Glasspoint to Rondo? What did you see?

John O’Donnell 20:14

Well, Rondo is the sixth startup that I’ve been part of launching. My first job was building computer systems for nuclear fusion research. And that technology has slipped out a few years and sort of continues to do so. I built companies in the computer and semiconductor industries. But in 2005, I put together an innovative solar company that we wound up selling to the French nuclear giant Areva in 2009. I spent a brief time as a partner in a venture fund looking at carbon removal technologies. 

And I met the Glasspoint founders and wound up leaving the fund, and we built the company together to take another innovative solar collector technology to large-scale. But we had an end in mind. It was repowering industrial heat. We get a little way down the track. Out of that 9 million megawatts, 9000 gigawatts that I mentioned the IEA — we have 300 megawatts running. And that’s more than half of everything that’s running right now. 

But when we put Rondo together, we started with that goal. We had been working with producers of copper, lithium, aluminum, and fuels across a wide range of industry. So we understood the requirements. And we built a product, we did technology down-selection and built a product. With that in mind, based on this new reality, we stand on the shoulders of giants. What the wind and solar industry have delivered in terms of cost and ability to go to scale opens the door for this new class of energy storage to make an enormous economic contribution. 

So the transition was actually that once we’d had this technology breakthrough, we reached out and started bringing in folks from the team. And then at the end of last year, we closed a venture round with, from my view, the dream team to lead investors, Energy Impact partners, whose LPs are the electric power industry, and Breakthrough Energy ventures, the fund that Bill Gates put together to drive climate transformative technologies. 

We are growing explosively right now. We are hiring, and I’d love for your listeners to look at our website, talk to us, we’re looking across everything from the business side to the technical side. And we’re building an organization today in Latin America, in the US, Europe, and other areas of the world. That transition from those previous ventures — this was an entirely new approach. It took a while. 

We looked at many technical pathways — if you’re starting with electricity, all kinds of opportunities are open. And there are some very interesting science projects going on elsewhere in the industry with things like liquid aluminum, liquid sodium, graphite, and a bunch of different things that may prove to have value but will take five years to become bankable. One of our critical selection criteria was technologies that can be at very large scale without constraints to growth. And we’re thrilled that we found the pathway. We kind of cracked the code on that.

Host Raj Daniels 24:03

Now you’ve been involved in several clean energy endeavors. What’s your why? What’s your interest in clean energy?

John O’Donnell 24:10

I have children. I mean, it’s a little more than that. I’ve been keenly interested in energy for a long time. As I mentioned, my first job I wound up working at a fusion research lab. And folks that I worked for are now running ITER, and it’s been about an 80 year schedule slip since I was working on fusion. But transforming our energy system to a zero-carbon platform, arguably, is the most urgent problem of our times among all problems in the world. Every scientist, every business person, every engineer, everyone, this is the number one thing to be working on. 

As a world, we ought to be on the World War II footing where we had unity and transformation of manufacturing facilities. We have the tools to solve the problem and leave a world behind us that is recognizably similar to the one that we were given when we entered the world. And it also creates the greatest business opportunities of our time, to transform industrial production from being part of the problem with no pathways forward, other than ones that are much more expensive, to, oh my goodness, there are pathways where we’re saying, look, you, mister cement manufacturer, you, mister dairy operator. 

You can have a future where you are no longer a price-taker at the mercy of fossil fuel and carbon markets. You can have guaranteed locked-in energy costs that are lower than business as usual today, for the next 20 years. That’s profoundly anti-inflation in future commodities that is profoundly creating a kind of permanent wealth in the world. And so it’s an opportunity that — I tell the team here, you’re doing the most important work of your lives, and I am dead certain that’s true.

Host Raj Daniels 26:29

You know, before we started rolling, you mentioned a term which I hadn’t heard before: indirect electrification. Can you expand on that?

John O’Donnell 26:37

Oh, yeah, thank you. There’s been a lot of good study about electrification and a recognition that, as I said, we now have the tools to solve this problem. Wind and solar are now cheaper than other energy forms. But they are intermittent. A lot of this study of how will we electrify industry has assumed that to electrify industry, we’re going to have to, for example, switch to all electric processes, electric arc furnaces, heat pumps, other things that need electricity continuously. 

So that means that an industrial thing, when we switch it over to electricity, the peak transmission capacity of the grid, the peak transmission capacity of the power stations has to rise, and costs rise. But so what we’re doing here is using electricity indirectly, capturing it at one time very cheaply when it’s available, and using it at another time so that we can have huge new electrification without raising the peak capacity of the grid, without raising the number of generators that need to be running. And the other remarkable thing about indirect electrification is that we’re building new generation resources that power industrial loads that can be available when the grid is short of power. 

And the grid is experiencing more and more variability and price variability because of renewable serving electricity that create opportunity for indirect electrification. If there are now 2000 hours a year of negative wholesale electricity prices in Oklahoma, energy storage systems like ours that could participate in the grid could provide financial benefits, both for grid grid generators, and for local industrials, delivering them annual energy costs near zero, with indirect electrification, and what they also call sector coupling. 

There’s some really good study and work that’s been going on in Europe because of the super fast rise of onshore and offshore wind. We’re kind of at an earlier stage in a number of US regions in in looking at this, and I’m glad you mentioned that, because we’re keen to bring together both folks from the investment community, the end users, and the policy community to explore what are the futures of things like electricity tariffs, generation, and other things to enable this to go faster.

Host Raj Daniels 29:29

Something I heard you mentioned on another interview, or I may have read it on an interview you gave, is that many times we don’t realize, during this transition to electrify everything, the additional burden that’s going to be on the grid. And so I think this indirect electrification actually helps alleviate some of that.

John O’Donnell 29:50

That’s dead right. That’s exactly right. In one of our European projects, we’ll be the largest electrical load in the region. The grid operator will be controlling the charging circuits, so-called dispatching the units, just the way they dispatch generation. 

And as a result, Rondo units in the region are going to enable much larger offshore wind development in that area because Rondo units can participate in harvesting the peak power so that more baseload power can be released to the host country from that offshore wind project. 

We’re seeing in a number of areas that development of renewables serving the grid, Rondo units in that region being dispatched by the grid operator, can enable much larger renewable projects, delivering a higher fraction to the electricity grid more profitably, lower costs for electricity, consumers, and better profitability for the renewables’ developers because that intermittency and energy that otherwise would be curtailed can be absorbed and put to beneficial use.

Host Raj Daniels 31:10

That is very interesting. Now, you mentioned this is your sixth startup. So you have a lot of experience under your belt.

John O’Donnell 31:20

You meant to say scars on my back, I think.

Host Raj Daniels 31:23

A glutton for punishment, too. But what are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?

John O’Donnell 31:42

I’m stubborn. Generally, I think, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I think I’ve always thought of myself as the guy who will work on what’s not being done and look for what’s not being done. It’s very clear, lots of people understand we have this problem, these problems. And I would say one of the things — when I generalize across all the startups, I’ve started my career as an engineer, and I really am that at heart. 

The deployment of technology, I used to say to folks I worked with early in my career engineers, are the reason we don’t live in caves in the dark. What engineers have created has created vast human wealth, beyond even dreams of kings hundreds of years ago. And the market for the iPhone did not exist before the iPhone was conceived and existed, right? There are things where markets were created that are obvious markets, after the product is in place. 

There are other kinds of businesses where the market is there, and an evolutionary innovation exists to further serve that market. One of the things I’ve learned about myself is I love being at that straddle point, at the place where there’s a fundamentally new technology that can serve an existing market, but create completely new opportunities. And at some level, Rondo is the biggest step in that direction that I’ve ever been able to take.

Host Raj Daniels 33:28

You know, it’s funny you mentioned the iPhone because when you were describing how Rondo works, you mentioned the hairdryer, the toaster and the bricks. It’s been said about the iPhone that, yes, it’s a brilliant quote, unquote, “innovation,” but they put together a phone, a camera or a calculator, a flashlight and package to package it nicely. And that was the product. So this intersection that you speak of really, really resonates.

John O’Donnell 33:53

Yeah. Thank you. That’s right. Steve Jobs used to talk about three in one, yes, indeed. In here, it was a fundamental insight in how to use those existing technologies in a completely new way. And he I hadn’t, thank you, I hadn’t really considered it from that perspective. Because it’s true. We’re using heating wire, and based on its 100 years of experience, we know how durable it is, its failure rates, and the same thing with brick in a completely new application because of that combination.

Host Raj Daniels 34:28

Well, it’s said about good art that sometimes it’s the simplicity that helps explain it. And I think that’s what you’ve done with Rondo, you’ve taken these concepts that obviously, at their core, from an engineering perspective, are extremely difficult to understand. But you’ve distilled them to a point to where it’s easily convertible to most people.

John O’Donnell 34:47

Yes, thank you. One of the greatest compliments I’ve been given is that what we’re doing is boring. And I’m really glad it looks like that from the outside. We do world cutting-edge computational fluid dynamics at air flow speeds of two miles an hour. I mean, we do radiation, heat transfer physics and all sorts. It’s completely invisible, and the final product is possible because of modern super computer simulation and AI controls. But again, from the outside, it’s boring. And that’s exactly the point.

Host Raj Daniels 35:32

I agree. And I think more and more people begin to realize that boring is actually sexy, but we’ll wait for that.

John O’Donnell 35:40

Okay. Boring is the new sexy.

Host Raj Daniels 35:44

There you go.

John O’Donnell 35:45

The phrase, we’ll keep that in mind.

Host Raj Daniels 35:47

Now, let’s fast forward to 2030. Let’s say Fast Company, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, pick your publication, would write a headline or a short paragraph about Rondo. And I know as a CEO, you’ve already cast a vision out far enough. So what would you like that headline or that paragraph to read?

John O’Donnell 36:08

Gosh, that’s an interesting question. Out there in that timeframe, if I’m just a year or two ahead of plan, we will have hit 1% reduction in total world CO2. You know, that’s a core contribution. But the other contributions that I mentioned that are really at the core for us are the value that we create for customers and partners. 

I’d love the headline to be about that, about success in transforming an industry that was that was otherwise deeply struggling to cut their scope on emissions without becoming uncompetitive. 

One of the challenges is emissions shifting around the world. If we have one region that is trying to cut emissions and another that is not, will we see not decarbonisation, but de-industrialization? Will we see production moved to other places in the world where the regulatory framework is different? And I would love to see a success story, where — because what I said earlier was that the decarbonized future is lower costs than business as usual. So that industry is moving to places where renewables are low-cost, or staying where it is rather than fleeing carbon regulations. So that’s not a quick answer.

Host Raj Daniels 37:37

It’s great. But you painted a good picture there for a moment because something you said, just the game of Whack-a-Mole kind of came to mind, where if people are fleeing areas to go to places where the regulation is not as strict, then we really haven’t done anything but shift the burden. But what you’re attempting to do with Rondo, you’re really taking this global perspective on solving the problem.

John O’Donnell 38:04

Yeah, thank you. And again, it is possible. Because now, around the world, we are in this amazing new era where we have an energy source that is cheaper than business as usual. Now, that’s not true everywhere in the world. But by 2030, it is absolutely true everywhere in the world. So there are huge areas of the world where it’s true today. 

Intermittent solar electricity, with no carbon price, is about one third to one quarter the cost of oil fired heat in Saudi Arabia. It’s half the cost of natural gas in Chile. It’s way below the cost of any fuel in Central Australia. It’s 30% lower cost than burning natural gas here in California. Now, go back three months before the current geopolitical problem, and this is a tool. When we get into geopolitics — sorry to change topics — industrial heat is the single largest user of natural gas in Europe in the UK. That’s the single largest chunk. Replacing imported foreign gas with domestic renewable energy, domestic wind, and solar is a spectacular opportunity to grow local economies and make this transition not just for the climate reason, but for the energy security reason. And again, we open that pathway. So that headline might include other matters other than simple economic and climate benefit.

Host Raj Daniels 39:51

John, I’m sure you and I can go down the geopolitical rabbit hole very quickly, and you’re right. I think this very quickly becomes, as Europe is experiencing right now, it becomes a matter of national security.

John O’Donnell 40:05

Indeed. Absolutely. And this question of, how fast can we go? Lots of short-term, medium-term, longer-term matters. Again, one of the things that we’re most excited about is that we look at where is it possible to bring much more renewable electricity to that region. And there are huge clusters of heavy industry in regions where it’s very easy to bring huge amounts of offshore wind. A lot of heavy industry was located along coastlines where it was easy to bring the coal one hudnred years ago. 

And those industrial centers become major early action opportunities to speed up or de-bottleneck the renewable electricity development that’s already underway. And couple it to very rapid transition of the industrial infrastructure, where you’re not replacing your factory with some other industrial process. You’re just dropping in a new furnace or dropping in a new kind of boiler, and you’re building out the electricity infrastructure. But when we’re done, we’ve now taken a big step further down the path of cutting our total net national dependence on natural gas, whether it’s domestic or imported, and replacing it with domestic renewable energy. 

It’s absolutely a security matter. And it can be done. Now that when we’re on this kind of footing, how fast can it be done? Well, are we going to take two and a half years to issue a permit for the next stage of a project, or two and a half months? We’re starting to see a real acceleration in work that people have been trying to do anyway. And it’s appropriate in this kind of setting. It was appropriate anyway, for the climate reason, of course.

Host Raj Daniels 42:06

Let’s hone in for a minute on those numbers you just gave regarding years versus months. People might not understand what the differences are in the delay. And I heard you mention something regarding the interconnection cues. Can you give an idea of why use those specific numbers?

John O’Donnell 42:22

Oh, sure. Yeah, I think a developer friend told me that mid-continent, I think, if you’re in Oklahoma, the average time from application to online is on the order of 10 years. Here in California — it’s been published a few times — the average interconnection delay from first project application to online, connected to the grid, for solar projects in California, is now about seven and a half years. That’s partly because you’re building a new solar project. Its peak generation is happening at the same time as all the other solar projects. And that may not be well-coupled to the times of load. Lots of reasons. 

And there have been numerous articles in the press about, despite our urgent need, wind and solar development are slowing down. As I mentioned, the California example, 28 gigawatts have on the grid today. Repowering the industrial loads, 100 gigawatts of total new generation needed. Around 40 or 45 gigawatts of that industrial load can be built not connected to the grid. 

That is, large, renewable generation that’s just directly powering Rondo units. The Rondo unit includes all the management — this is part of the AI controls and things — of local generation resources that are not connected to the grid, precisely so that from application to online can be two and a half years, not seven and a half years, just in how long it takes to finance and build it. And so that’s part of moving rapidly. And ultimately, those projects could have grid interconnection and release some of their electricity. But we really see this as this opportunity to go fast because not only are we not adding stress to the grid, we don’t even need any connection at all.

Host Raj Daniels 44:27

That’s amazing. Now, last question, and we kind of joked earlier about scars on your back. But if you could share some advice, and this could be professional or personal advice, words of wisdom, recommendations with the audience, what would it be?

John O’Donnell 44:43

Well, the first is that being part of identifying, seeking out opportunities to be in the businesses that are driving this transition, and are making big steps — we’re fortunate that what we’re doing is a big hammer. But there are, across all of business, all of the economy, there are a ton of things to do in lots of sectors. To me, that has to be the guiding light. We need wartime mobilization, to leave a world to our grandchildren. A child that’s born today is 28 years old in 2050, we talk a lot about 2050. 

People who are born today are mid career. As a parent today, for someone who’s going to be 28 in 2050, what we do right now is absolutely transformative to their life, not just their children’s lives. And it is also this time of unbelievable and spectacular business opportunity. And the thing I would say is that people talk about A versus B, everything is going to stop and then something else is going to — it’s very clear that people talk about an energy transition or evolution. Transitioning how petroleum is produced. Transitioning how gas is produced, as at the same time as those things are replaced. There are opportunities everywhere in the economy. There was an American architect named Daniel Burnham who was an inspiration to me. He said, “Make no little plans. They have no power to inspire men’s minds. Make big plans.” I suppose that would be the one.

Host Raj Daniels 46:31

John, the idea of “make big plans” is a great place to end. I really appreciate your time today. I wish you continued success with Rondo energy. And I look forward to catching up with you again soon.

John O’Donnell 46:46

Thank you so much, Raj. It’s a great pleasure.

Thank you for listening. If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media, where you’ll find us under our Nexus PMG handle. If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send me an email at BTU@nexuspmg.com, or contact me via our website, nexuspmg.com. And while you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech, green tech sectors. Bigger than us is a Nexus PMG production.

Raj Daniels

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