Brent Perry: Under a spell
After founding and running two energy storage companies, you might think Brent Perry, CEO and founder of PBES, had seen it all in that field. But batteries still hold a little bit of magic for him, he tells Stevie Knight.
He explains that on a practical level, “if you have an engine, that’s your energy defined right there, you can never take out more”. But, he says: “Batteries are different: you can take ten times that rated power if you need it... and you can still find ways to use it never thought of before.”
Likewise, he was convinced there was just as much latent energy hidden in the market, despite being told in the early days of Corvus that the marine industry had no place for batteries. In response he put his mind to ‘rewiring’ industry thinking. “We were not big. But I realised that you can change attitudes if you can define the terms in which an industry talks. Words are really important, and we had to redefine the glossary.” So, he says, “I often stayed behind at conferences to listen to people, even if there was no way they were ever going to be buyers...because if you can find out the terms that tie these different parties together, then you have a way in.”
Of course, it has still taken commitment and faith in the calculations to be one of the first to offer these largely untried energy solutions. “You have the idea, but then you have to make it happen. Of course there’s some nervousness.” Despite that, Corvus racked up an impressive list of innovations, including of course Scandlines’ ship Prinsesse Benedikte, with a 2.6MWh installation that “started us up that curve of acceptability”, says Perry.
While the company had completed a few smaller projects it was a “huge jump” to propel a 14,800 tonne vessel from a battery array. He describes seeing it silently sail away from the quay, completely under electric power for the first time as “a breakthrough moment”, adding: “Of course we knew it could do it, but it was still amazing to see it actually happen.”
He still thinks it is worthwhile sharing the magic. While playing host to a group of bright young battery experts he grabbed the chance to show them around Prinsesse Benedikte: “However smart you are, however much you understand the theory, when you look at the size of the batteries and see them moving a big, industrial piece of metal like that, it changes whatever it was you thought you knew.” A willingness “to go out and slay dragons” is the result.
Despite the highs, his personal trajectory has been less than smooth: Perry parted ways with Corvus “after friction at boardroom level” around development goals. In retrospect he says that despite all his knowledge, he had a lot to learn about a wise use of energy: his own.
“At Corvus, I was kind of stampeding over people, I got things done by pushing,” he admits. So, while he says it was excruciating, after two months he realised they had done him a favour. “Getting out meant I was given a fresh sheet of paper... so right at the start I said, I am not going to be that guy anymore, we are all going to work at sharing responsibility”. Plan B Energy Storage, now known as PBES, “was so named because it was my own alternative, my ‘plan B’...”
Although it’s meant a change in attitude (still occasionally a "work in progress") he’s happy that he’s no longer a one-man squad; the team reflects a passion for the work and even that “evangelist” tendency.
Despite this new impetus, the practicalities have not been easy. Although Perry had gleaned a degree of financial acumen from setting up Corvus, doing it all over a second time was still hard on his own pocket “as banks and financial institutions aren’t ready for battery businesses like ours”. As a result “finance is either really expensive or non-existent and government grants are almost as difficult”. He’s honest enough to add that he’s still not sure if living on very thin means for a couple of years “has been entirely worth the pain”. However, as far as the enterprise itself is concerned he says “this time I had a lot more understanding... and a completely different focus”.
There have been some recent, notable moments. Being asked to speak at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP) underscored his certainty that the time is ripe for energy storage innovation: “This is the first time that I can remember that people’s voices and big, corporate objectives have lined up and are calling for the same thing.”
But Paris also made him realise people in the wider sphere are often out of touch with just how fast industry is responding to the environmental challenge. “When I talked at the COP21 event I just scrolled through some project presentations to outline what we’ve been doing. There was a lot of surprise – people just didn’t know that this kind of thing was already happening.”
Given these sometimes sharp lessons, he is clear that aiming at financial survival is simply not enough. According to Perry “your profit goal - the monetary reward - has to equal your value goal, what you believe in. If that’s true, you have harmony... But if it isn’t, it will eventually compromise the long-term growth of the business”.
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