ScottMadden’s Chris Vlahoplus discusses what he’s seen and learned after nearly 30 years in the industry, and why he’s taken a pragmatic approach to impacting climate change.
Congratulations on your recent retirement and transition. You’ve been in the industry a long time—28 years at ScottMadden alone. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the course of your career?
When I started out in the late 80s and early 90s, it was a staid industry. The utilities were vertically integrated for the most part, and there was little attention given to it by graduating students or technology-oriented or entrepreneurial folks. Today, that has totally changed, not only in the amount of interest from both the clean energy and sustainability sides, but also as a result of technological disruption and the rise of distributed resources. This industry has amazingly become the place to be these days—so, the opportunity for multiple players to get involved has been one of the biggest changes overall.
Of course, this big change happened over the course of several periods of change. In the old days with large, central station generation, there really were fewer choices for the customer. Some of the biggest initial changes came with the deregulation phase, which entailed the splitting up of the generation and wire companies. This created the competition that enabled the opportunity for things like wind and solar. Then you had the Enron phase, where everyone was about power marketing and generation assets.
Change has been a persistent theme in the industry lately—what has it felt like to you?
Up to this point, the industry had always been about big players, big assets, and long-time horizons. Now things change so quickly that it’s harder to keep up. When I became clean tech lead about six years ago, there was still a little skepticism—is solar real, or is it just subsidies? I’d say just within the past five years we’ve seen a wave of change. The electric industry has become more decentralized and democratized, allowing new players to come in. There are still barriers, and it’s not easy—we still have an electric system where you have to live with your investment decisions for a very long time—but the pace of change is unlike any I have seen.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I was an engineering undergraduate and did my graduate work in nuclear engineering. After school, I worked for three-and-a-half years in the nuclear industry. I left to get my business degree and I thought I’d get out of the industry, but by chance I found myself back in when I joined a consulting firm that focused on utilities. For the better part of 20 to 25 years, I helped nuclear operators improve their performance. I know there’s some disagreement about nuclear, but over the years we’ve helped our clients improve their economic and operational performance, and as a result the nuclear industry on the whole has done a fantastic job of increasing the output of their carbon-free electricity.
When ScottMadden asked me to take over the cleantech practice several years ago, it felt natural. I took a different route in the industry than most people, but for me it’s been a pragmatic one. Our clean energy practice includes renewables, as well as nuclear, and—on the flip side— energy efficiency and demand management as key things that are going to get us to where we want to be. If we are really going to impact climate change, how are we going to do it? It’s going to be through a combination of traditional and new technologies, large and small scale.
The cleantech industry as we know it is maturing, but how was it seen 30 years ago?
The foundations of it were there, but the industry didn’t have an identity at the time. There has always been a focus on energy efficiency and there was activity on the edges in renewables. Thirty years ago, clean energy and renewables were not the highest priorities the industry was looking to adopt. But 30 years ago, the economics and sustainability drivers were also not where they are today.
Going forward, what are some of the challenges facing the industry as it evolves?
One of the things the utilities are good at is operating at scale. So, the important thing now is, once you’ve found a technology that works, ensuring it can be deployed at scale. It’s actually an interesting dynamic and tension right now. All these cleantech resources are finding ways to work their way in, but ultimately, it’s about maturing enough for the utilities and larger players to bring them to scale. I think that’s where a lot of the debates are in our industry.
With solar for example, now you’re seeing utilities working them into their long-term resource plans, but it’s been a maturity curve. Early on, you may not be comfortable with the technologies, then you add some government incentives and some outside players willing to take some risks, build some solar farms, and work out the kinks until they get pretty predictable. It took all of this to get to where we are now with more of these being scaled through the utilities. It’s a challenge, but it’s important to me in cleantech to create a win-win for both the new entrants and the utilities so that we can scale cleantech technologies. We’re always thinking about how to take these innovations and make them part of the system, because until you do that you’re just playing at the edges.
Can you talk more about your current role as Internal Advisor at ScottMadden?
It’s a transition from my previous day-to-day. It’s probably safer to call it “semi-retirement,” because I’m still involved with the firm. One of the reasons I chose the title was to signal that I’m not focused externally. Having worked this long in the industry, I’m now able to spend more time internally, mentoring and coaching our younger consultants, as well as supporting some of the more senior ones. I’m also contributing to white papers and bringing my experience to various projects.
Typically, you get so busy with work that you always have things you want to investigate further but simply don’t have time to. I’m planning to take this time, over the next year or so, to think through some of these things and add value as a mentor and thought leader.
Thanks for your involvement with the Cleanie Awards. What do you hope to see as a judge?
I had never judged an awards program before last year, so I’m looking forward to seeing this year’s submissions. To me, the best of the best doesn’t have to be sexy. Instead, I am looking for the ones that have created a space and are really solving a problem. I look at it from the perspective I bring, which is which companies or individuals have the potential to make an impact in a big way? That’s the bottom line.
Is there anything you’re reading right now that you’re really enjoying? It can be industry related or not.
The Prize by Daniel Yergin is really fascinating. Yergin is a well-known expert in the energy industry. The book takes you through the history of the oil industry, including boom and bust cycles, and there are some interesting parallels to things that are happening today. It’s helpful to have historical context as we go through some of these large transitions to see how our predecessor industries went through them and how they did or did not adapt to growing pains and change.