Ask Brett Galura how he got started in the energy industry, and he’ll tell you a story about how he almost didn’t and the one-day temp assignment that led to a 25-year career. The latest iteration of that career is his recent appointment as the slightly geeky but forward-looking Chief Technology Officer of Fluence, the energy storage joint venture started by AES and Siemens.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Galura arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1993 and started job hunting. Bolstered by degrees in economics and computer science, he had decided he would not work temporary gigs—until he got a phone call from a college friend who was temping at a local company. The people he was working for needed additional help; would Galura come in for a week?
“I said no,” Galura recalled, but a full-time employee at the company kept calling, the next day and the day after that, asking him please to come in, even for one day.
“I thought—what am I going to have to do to get this person to stop calling me—so I said yes,” he said. “Then I went in and it turned out to be this really interesting company, AES, with really interesting values, and people who were entrepreneurially minded. It wasn’t the big stiff corporation I had expected. The thing that attracted me was the way people interacted, and the kind of values AES espoused and seemed to actually believe in and live.”
While he was a terrible temp, Galura said, the people and values kept him on the job, and he was soon involved in setting up computer systems, becoming one of AES’s first information technology (IT) employees. From there, he grew with the company, designing and managing global IT systems, co-founding an AES wireless business, and leading the AES Energy Storage Solution Development team, where he played a key role in building the first Advancion energy storage platform.
When AES and Siemens joined forces to start Fluence in January of 2018, Galura became its Vice President of Customer Solutions, a position, he said, that “definitely gave me a closer view of what we need to do in scaling our business up, from a service and delivery standpoint.”
With his strong background in digital systems, he becomes CTO at a pivotal moment for Fluence and the energy storage industry in general. 2018 was a record year for the industry—on both sides of the meter—with energy storage increasingly recognized as adding flexibility, reliability and dispatchability to the renewables that are critical to decarbonizing the electric system. But, Galura said, for the industry to grow, technology innovation must focus not simply on ever-more advanced or cheaper versions of storage, but on solving the real-life problems of customers and the grid.
In the following interview, Galura looks back at the early days of developing the Advancion platform. He also talks about his specific expertise in systems architecture, the immediate challenges he faces at Fluence and his long-term vision for where energy storage will go.
“Eventually, it will be everywhere,” he said. “The technology will continue to grow and find its way deeper and deeper into the electric network, creating something much more robust than we have had for the last 100 years. I am always impatient; we may not know what it will look like, but it’s the path to a lot of opportunities.”
Let’s talk about the development of Advancion. What were the challenges that drove how you and your team figured out what, at the time, was a very innovative system architecture?
The early systems had these large banks of batteries all connected on one single bus, and they were very difficult to manage. You invariably had one or two or a few cells limit the usability of the entire system simply because of the way they were connected to each other. We looked at that and thought pretty hard about how you could design a better system. The simplest way seemed to be to use smaller inverters and more of them connected to smaller groups of batteries and then develop a control system that could manage all that as though it were one system. So that’s what we did.
What are your top priorities as CTO? After only one year, Fluence is a leader in the utility-scale storage market. What’s the next generation of storage going to look like, and how is Fluence going to get there?
When we founded Fluence, we were bringing together two organizations that had different solutions for different kinds of customers, and we still have that. The near-term opportunity is to move forward with a single platform that takes advantage of all the things that we learned from our collective history.
In the first year, Fluence’s focus has been on pipeline growth and scaling certain parts of our business. Consolidating to one control platform and one system platform architecture—we haven’t done that yet; but going forward it is important if we want to continue to develop. We are obsessively focused on the commercialization of technology and on solutions.
Regardless of the physical configuration of inverters, batteries, solar arrays, or even more complex systems—regardless of the structure—the software and the analytics and the tools and the machine learning capabilities weave those components into a system will be the backbone of what we’re focused on for the next several years. We will go through iterations of physical and electrical designs. Even as we evolve the hardware, the thing that is going to bring all that together is software.
What’s energy storage—and the electric system—going to look like in 5 or 10 years? How fast can the market grow?
No matter what job storage is doing, at the end of the day, it’s just shifting the time or location of power delivery. AES started on the generation side; Siemens started behind the meter with C&I [commercial and industrial] customers. The electric network has been missing a very basic ability to buffer its delivery system—and that’s what we’re doing. We’re really putting that buffering capability into the entire network, and that’s going to provide increasing value going forward.
We have the advantage of digital controls between all our “smart” devices, to coordinate how they work together, whether in an autonomous fashion or from some central dispatch. Either way you look at it, the ability for devices to act both independently and be aware of the environment around them will enable us to put storage everywhere. You’ll have storage in your LED light bulbs, for example; storage at large power plants to do some of the work that power plants aren’t so good at, to smooth out or firm outputs and inputs.
Eventually we won’t really need what we consider to be baseload types of generation. Wind and solar and other forms of renewables that don’t respond to our immediate demands as well as they might right now can eventually become one of the forms of generation that we need. We’re at the early stages of the transition; things are happening rapidly, but they are not yet exponential.
Read the press release announcing Galura’s appointment as CTO.