Recharge4040: Robyn Beavers

Robyn Beavers: 'We’re trying to grow a business that can compete with our centralised fossil-fuels business'

Robyn Beavers: 'We’re trying to grow a business that can compete with our centralised fossil-fuels business'

As head of NRG Energy’s “Station A” group — a slightly secretive, Skunkworks-like operation based in a disused San Francisco power plant — Robyn Beavers has an unusual mission: to disrupt her company’s business model.

Beavers’ employer is one of the largest operators of utility-scale power-generation assets in North America, doing a massive trade in selling both renewable and conventional power to utilities.

But this king of centralised generation appreciates the tidal wave of change that decentralised generation is bringing. And last year it hired Beavers as senior vice-president and Station A founder to help figure out how it can ride that wave rather than fighting it.

“We’re trying to grow a business that can compete with our centralised fossil-fuels business,” she tells Recharge.

Much of what Beavers’ group is doing remains under wraps. But she says her team is essentially weaving together seemingly disparate threads — from rooftop solar to home-automation systems — into energy-related products of the future.

Big announcements along these lines are expected over the next year or two from NRG, which, perhaps tellingly, recently bought residential PV installer, Rooftop Diagnostics Solar.

Beavers, 33, cheerfully acknowledges the threat her team’s work would seem to pose to traditional electricity retailers. NRG’s own retail business serves more than two million customers. And the company makes billions of dollars each year from the sale of power to its utility customers.

“As we think about some of this stuff, it means we could potentially alienate a large customer base of ours.

“It’s sort of messing with the conventional model for the power industry. That’s scary for any industry.”

But the utility sector is wising up to the powerful changes coming its way faster than many observers give it credit for, Beavers believes. “If we’d had this conversation a year ago, I’d have said they were going to put up barriers and try to make our lives miserable — that my job was to compete with them.

“But in the last year, this discussion has advanced so much. More and more utilities are trying to figure out how to play in an increasingly distributed world.”

A trained civil engineer with an MBA from Stanford University, Beavers has had a sweeping career across a range of companies and technologies central to the energy future.

Having started as an executive assistant to Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, during the time they took their company public, she went on to spearhead Google’s push into renewables. She spent a year with wind turbine maker Vestas in Denmark, she’s worked in water purification and she’s worked in energy efficiency.

All of those experiences feed into her work at Station A. “I like this role because I’m required to think holistically, and look at how all these different technologies and approaches are connected to each other, as opposed to competing with each other.”

Robyn Beavers is senior vice-president, innovation, at NRG Energy

Recharge4040 brings together the world's young new-energy pioneers from the worlds of renewables technology, finance, development, social engagement and advocacy. The list includes people from major wind and solar companies, banks, investment funds, crowd-funding platforms and governments. For the full list of nominees and news about the initiative, visit the 4040 website

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