February 16, 2021 | by Frank Hidalgo
Marc Perez, PhD is one of our speakers at our 2021 BA Conference. He will be part of the Consulting panel. Today Marc sat down with us to talk about consulting and the future of renewable energy. The registration for the conference is now open, CLICK HERE.
Marc Perez received his PhD in Earth and Environmental Engineering from Columbia in 2014.
Hi Marc! Let’s start with some consulting questions! Who is your favorite soccer team?
How many tennis balls could you fit in FC Barcelona’s stadium?
Let me preface by saying that I hate these types of questions hehe. I know you encounter them in any consulting interview. When I interview people, I usually don’t ask them these questions. In a real-world scenario, you have access to the internet. I prefer to give the interviewees a challenging question that requires research. That is a skill that I like to see in candidates. For this specific problem, I would estimate the volume of a tennis ball, the volume of the stadium and do the math.
“Working culture changes from city to city even within the same company. For instance, at McKinsey the Berlin office could be more intense than the NY office.”
What are the main differences between consulting in France and the US (Marc has worked in both countries)?
In France companies are more hierarchical than in the US.
And in which of the countries people work harder?
Although in France there are more worker protections, and there is a 35-hour per week policy, people in management and consulting work more hours than that. Working culture changes from city to city even within the same company. For instance, at McKinsey, I’ve read that the Berlin office could be more intense than the NY office.
Why does that happen? It is the same company at the end of the day.
Different offices consult for different sectors. That is going to determine the culture more than anything. For instance, McKinsey’s Paris office is focused on fashion and the SF office is tech oriented. Clean Power Research’s consulting team is renewables-focused.
When you switched from Academia to consulting, did you have to work harder?
You work so hard in pursuing a PhD that everything seems easier afterwards by contrast. I’d say it is still hard but you build the cognitive capacity to work more smartly in any post-academic pursuit.
How would you describe the culture at your current company, Clean Power Research (CPR)?
Great; collegial and supportive. The R&D/Consulting group is very creative and dynamic.
“At Clean Power Research we fund the R&D by doing external consulting”
And what does Clean Power Research do?
Clean Power Research is a software company that provides cloud services that inform business decisions, engage customers & streamline operations for utilities and the energy industry. I am involved in R&D. We fund the R&D by doing external consulting and also applying to governmental grants. R&D is the genesis for much of the software that the company develops.
Do you have an example of that?
Yeah! Solaranywhere is a software that delivers satellite-derived historical solar data and forecasts anywhere on the planet. Years ago, before it was more of a software product, clients would ask for the solar data of a specific location and we would give them those datasets. Since there was enough traction, we automated the process and built the software around it.
What is the difference between a traditional consulting company such as McKinsey and yours?
Ours is firstly a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company and secondly a consulting/ R&D organization while McKinsey, Bain, BCG and the like are firstly consulting companies.
Is your R&D sustainable on its own?
Yes, it is.
“I like putting my intellectual capital towards something that is going to make a better planet such as renewable energy.”
Not many companies have a self-sustainable R&D department. What is the key differentiating element between Clean Power Research and other software companies?
I’d say the difference lies predominantly in this aforementioned R&D/consulting → software relationship. Consulting helps us keep abreast of industry needs and trends making any R&D we do more pertinent and valuable as future software products/services.
Interesting! How’s your day to day as a senior researcher?
I have lots of temporal space to dive into complex problems and produce research therefrom: similar to grad school in that way. Relative to the often isolated nature of grad school (especially the dissertation phase), I’m much more collaborative and connected to the industry and my internal colleagues.
“At the current ~20% efficiency for monocrystalline Silicon cells, we have plenty of annual resources to meet 100% of our primary energy needs.”
What is your top career achievement?
I am proud to be working at a company that is helping the world. I like putting my intellectual capital towards something that is going to make a better planet such as renewable energies.
That is awesome! We agree that renewable energies are going to make a better planet. What are your views about fossil vs renewable?
Renewable energies are going to win the battle. One need only look at things from an available resource/reserves perspective (see below).
What would you say to the people against renewable energies?
Take a look at the spheres below: the renewable resources available to us on this planet (annually) are larger than what’s still in the ground in the form of conventional reserves. The volume of each sphere below corresponds to the annual renewable resources and finite fossil fuels. Keep in mind that most of these resources are directly derived from solar radiative flux in one way or another. Most notably, fossil fuels are mostly derived from plants grown with the power of the sun in the Carboniferous and Devonian eras 300-400 million years ago--before bacteria and fungi had evolved the capability to digest lignins. It’s inevitable we will go directly to the source.
“The main challenge that renewable energies face is that you have to either build seasonal storage, which is expensive and has a high environmental impact, or roughly double the renewable capacity so even on a cloudy winter day enough energy is being produced.”
What would you answer to: “Solar energy is pricier than non-renewable energy”?
In most places across the planet this is no longer true and this will only become more evident as costs continue their inexorable decline. This is the turnkey PV Capital cost curve ($/kW) from 1975 to present derived from IEA data. Note the logarithmic scale on the y-axis.
Exponential decay in costs is continuing to this day: 10x drop in costs over the past decade. NREL forecasts with their Annual Technology Baseline, turnkey prices of $330/kW for utility-scale by 2050 (we’re around $900/kW today).
What is the current efficiency of solar panels? Do you think we will ever reach ~100% efficiency?
No, there’s the Shockley–Queisser limit to contend with for a single p/n junction. With multi-junction cells, we can exceed the limit but this adds to cost, of course given increased manufacturing complexity. Take a look at the spheres above again--even at the current ~20% efficiency for monocrystalline Silicon cells, we have plenty of annual resources to meet 100% of our primary energy needs now and well into the future.
What is the main challenge of renewable energies?
You get way more energy in the summer than in winter with solar, especially as you move away from the equator, and the opposite is typically true of wind. You have to either build seasonal storage, which is expensive and has a high environmental impact, or roughly double the renewable capacity so even on a cloudy winter day enough energy is being produced. The latter is now called implicit storage because it has the same balancing effect.
There is a company that is at the forefront of electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage: Tesla. Are they the company of the future?
Their product is beautiful and slick. They are doing great. EVs are going to be the future, but it’s hard to predict whether Tesla will be the leader--all will depend on how strong an entrance is made by the entry of other car companies. Every major automaker has EVs in the medium or short-term pipeline now so competition is about to heat up.
We should have bought Tesla stock a couple of years ago!
And Bitcoin! (laughter)
“Find a mentor in the field whose footsteps you’d like to follow in. Don’t be afraid of rejection--you can’t win if you don’t try.”
We have enjoyed learning about renewable energies. Now let’s focus on your personal journey. How did you become a consultant?
I had done independent consulting for years (during grad school and afterwards) and the R&D/consulting group at CPR seemed like a natural fit.
When did you start thinking about leaving academia and going into consulting?
Going into academia, having been in industry before, I was confident I wanted to return in order to have a bigger positive impact which seemed less possible in academia. Obtaining tenure, from what I gather from friends that have gone through the process is slow and painful for most. This latter point was the proverbial nail in the coffin for me.
Was it difficult to transition from your PhD into consulting?
I was already doing consulting before so that part wasn’t challenging. What did take some adaptation was re-entering the corporate sector: getting over the impostor syndrome that many grad students experience was a slow (and ongoing) process.
Last but not least, what advice would you give to PhD students and Postdocs that want to follow your steps?
Network! Find a mentor in the field whose footsteps you’d like to follow in. Don’t be afraid of rejection--you can’t win if you don’t try.
Finding the right mentor seems to be a commonality among all our guest speakers. With that we conclude the interview. We are so grateful that you agreed to be part of our annual conference, Marc! We are looking forward to meeting you again at the conference.
Disclaimer: This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author's employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.
Marc Perez, PhD will be joining Beyond Academia on February 26th at 11.00 am. For more information and to register CLICK HERE.
Frank Hidalgo is a 5th year Chembio (with Data Science emphasis) PhD student at UC Berkeley. If you would like to be part of our speaker series, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.