• Business
  • The Leadership Brief

‘The Future is Bleak, and the Future is Bright.’ What It’s Like to Be a Clean Energy CEO as Gas Prices Skyrocket

9 minute read

(To receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)

As gas prices continue to climb, many climate activists hope the high cost of fossil fuels leads to increased demand for clean energy sources. But Jason Few, chief executive of FuelCell Energy, doesn’t anticipate a rapid shift anytime soon.

Few runs one of America’s largest fuel-cell manufacturers, which operates 95 fuel-cell platforms that deliver more than 250 megawatts of clean energy across the U.S., Germany, and South Korea. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy in hydrogen to electricity, with pure water and heat as the sole byproducts. They are the most energy efficient devices for extracting power from fuels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Unlike wind and solar, fuel cells can produce power 24/7. “Take a place like Connecticut,’’ Few says, of the company’s home state. “Solar energy is only producing power about 15% of the time. So, 85% of the time, you’re getting power from the grid.”

Meanwhile, FuelCell’s tri-generation system, which Few calls “an ultimate clean energy source,” can deliver power, hydrogen, and water from a single platform. Toyota will soon begin using the system in its California logistics facility at the Port of Long Beach. FuelCell also is developing technology to capture carbon dioxide from industrial facilities.

Yet its revenue totaled just $69.6 million during fiscal 2021, which ended Oct. 31. By contrast, Exxon Mobil Corp. reported 2021 revenue of about $285.6 billion. Like many clean energy leaders, Few is faced with turning the twin global crises of oil dependence and climate change into a viable business. The 55-year-old CEO must navigate persistent challenges affecting fuel cells such as affordability, demand, and inconsistent government policy.

He’s well-equipped to face challenges. Few was the first member of his immediate family to finish college, and he took command of FuelCell in 2019 during a financial crisis at the company, after decades of management stints at big and small firms in several industries. Few spoke to TIME in mid-March about leading transformational change, current clean-energy challenges, and why he owns three tankless water heaters.

(For coverage of the future of work, visit TIME.com/charter and sign up for the free Charter newsletter.)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Transformational change has propelled your career. For instance, you helped AT&T introduce broadband, which radically changed telecommunications. You later became president of Reliant Energy when it was losing large amounts of money, and reversed its fortunes. How did you do it?

We had lost about $90 million the previous year. The next year, the company delivered $1 billion in profit. Transformation required getting back to basics and focusing on things we could control. And I worked really hard to create a culture that had a competitive mindset. So, we stopped calling customers ‘rate payers’ because they did have a choice about doing business with Reliant.

How did your prior experience transforming businesses assist you in rapidly steering FuelCell out of its financial crisis?

I believe in the quote, ‘Never miss the opportunity to leverage a good crisis.’ When I joined the company as part of the management team, we were trading at $0.33 a share. We had a market capitalization of about $40 million, significant debt, and not a lot of money in the bank. We needed to very quickly figure out how to restructure.

I created a clear message around the need for change. I was able to do things differently because the alternative – filing for bankruptcy – was not a good one. As a leader in a crisis, you have to communicate two things: ‘The future is bleak, and the future is bright. Our actions are going to choose one of those two paths.’

I also painted a vision for what we could be. I remember telling the team that we’re going to be a billion-dollar market cap company. Today, we’re a $2 billion market cap company.

Believe me, we’re not done. We’re still on a transformation journey. We have a chance to play a meaningful role in changing how energy is delivered that positively affects the climate. A lot of people can’t point to how they’re having an impact on the future of human life. You can do that in this company.

You have a big task ahead. Why is the transition to power based on fuel cells taking longer than you and others in your industry expected?

Adoption of fuel-cell technology has been slower than any of us in the industry would’ve liked. As a company, we decarbonize power and produce hydrogen. Those are essential to achieving climate goals that have been set globally.

This migration to decarbonization is being driven by policy. It’s been on again and off again. Utilities and industrial companies have had the opportunity to make choices about power generation. If the policy wasn’t there to push toward decarbonization, oftentimes decisions were made to go with more traditional energy sources. There has to be either adequate government policies or other supportive mechanisms. We also have not enjoyed the full level of support that technologies like wind and solar have gotten to help scale those businesses.

Yet the energy transition today probably has more momentum behind it than ever. Younger consumers are demanding that companies take action around decarbonization. Meanwhile, our company and fellow fuel-cell energy companies continue to do things to reduce costs. As we serve more energy applications beyond just power, we will be able to scale the volume of our production. That will also help bring down costs. We’re going to continue to get more competitive.

(For coverage of the future of work, visit TIME.com/charter and sign up for the free Charter newsletter.)

Do you think soaring gasoline prices could spur more companies to adopt alternative sources of carbon-free energy?

Pump prices have very little to do with a move to renewable energy sources. As an example, we need a lot more power generation to support electrification of vehicle transportation. You would need eight trillion batteries to electrify the approximately 1.3 billion cars and light-duty trucks around the world. And you need a lot more reliable grid. But rising prices for oil, gasoline, and natural gas will absolutely drive a lot more momentum toward more renewable energy sources – and in some corners, accelerate the rush.

Will the embargo on Russian oil and gas slow America’s transition to cleaner energy because Russia is a major supplier of certain rare metals used in electric-vehicle batteries?

Russian nickel being taken off the market is certainly an issue. The catalyst to move faster to more renewable energy sources is more around how people view what’s happening geopolitically. In the U.S., people that want to see a more rapid move to renewable energy will leverage this opportunity.

How might the new $1 trillion infrastructure law help the U.S. fuel-cell industry?

There’s $9 billion dedicated to expanding the hydrogen infrastructure. The Department of Energy has committed to creating at least four hydrogen hubs across the U.S. Those are going to be enabled using fuel-cell technology. That creates a tremendous opportunity for our industry to demonstrate our capabilities to convert excess energy into hydrogen—and use hydrogen as a replacement for hydrocarbon in many cases.

FuelCell has developed technology to protect the environment through carbon capture and reuse. Climate analysts say such carbon renewable processes are critical for high-emitting industries to meet their climate objectives. However, skeptics contend it’s too expensive. What’s your view?

You cannot achieve global climate goals if carbon capture is not part of the solution. We don’t support critics’ notion that it’s not going to work or is too expensive. We’re the only known company in the world whose technology has the ability to capture carbon from an external source like a chemical plant and allow that carbon to be stored. That will make carbon capture very affordable and solve the problem for hard-to-decarbonize industries.

Carbon capture happens today. But you need a better and globally consistent economic framework to do it on a larger scale.

How soon might FuelCell provide low-carbon emission technology to parts of the world without energy infrastructure?

The increased ability to distribute liquified natural gas around the world is going to enable technologies like ours to be deployed in places where you don’t have infrastructure, but you need power. You’re going to see this take place over the next couple of years.

When will the world adopt completely renewable electricity?

Most of the globe today has embraced the notion of renewable electricity. But it will be at least 2050 before you have energy grids around the globe largely supported by renewable energy sources and long-duration energy storage platforms.

FuelCell is committed to “enabling the world to live a life empowered by clean energy,” you told investors during a recent earnings call. What clean energy commitments have you made in your personal life?

We are an owner of an electric vehicle, bought after I became CEO. But that was not the impetus. We’ve made investments in our suburban Connecticut home around tankless water heaters, energy-efficient appliances, and extra insulation. Yet because of a lack of natural gas infrastructure, the carbon footprint in Connecticut is higher than when I lived in Houston. I have fuel oil for heating.

Why don’t you instead heat your house by installing solar panels?

It’s intermittent. I want to make sure we have heat at 2 o’clock in the morning when it’s below freezing outside. I don’t think I should be forced to accept not having power in my effort to decarbonize.

We all can play a role in trying to improve the environment. But it’s going to take collective action to have a real impact. We have to also not create more pressure on parts of society that can’t spend money on an electric vehicle, solar panels, or all energy-efficient appliances. Environmental justice is important. We need to make the energy transition safe, secure, and practical for everyone.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com