SUMANI Trendster: Interview with James Robinson of GI Energy

James Robinson spoke with SUMANI about his road to and through the MS Sustainability Management Program at Columbia and how it has helped him in his current role at GI Energy, and his blog can be read here.

What is your academic/professional background?

I graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2010 after completing a 5 year bachelor’s/master’s degree in Chemical Engineering and Environmental Engineering.  My focus was on water and wastewater treatment.  After graduation, I moved down to North Carolina and worked briefly for the EPA as a pre-doctorate fellow.  I decided that the academic life wasn’t for me, so I changed jobs and worked for almost 3 years for a startup in the wastewater treatment equipment supply business, Entex Technologies.

My position at Entex was a bit of a mix between project management, applications engineering, and product design.  Entex was a small company, so I had the opportunity to do a bit of everything.  It was a great way to gain a lot of experience quickly, and I really enjoyed my time there…a few forays into drained wastewater treatment tanks aside.  The problem was, I realized that I was more into the sales, client management, and business strategy aspects of my job than I was the actual engineering.  That realization was what led me to research graduate programs, and the SUMA program at Columbia was a perfect fit, since it bridged my environmental engineering background with a more business-oriented curriculum.

What motivated you to get involved in sustainability/what specific aspects of sustainability interest you most?

I’ve always been very interested in the business side of sustainability.  At the end of the day, what is actually driving more sustainable products or corporate decisions than business?  I had a front-row experience in the wastewater treatment industry, so I had somewhat of an understanding of how public policy eventually trickles down to a wastewater treatment plant being upgraded when it otherwise wouldn’t have.  But I didn’t have much of an understanding of the other mechanisms by which industries change.

The SUMA curriculum was great for giving me a much broader picture of all of the reasons that companies and industries change, whether it’s consumer demand, operational cost reductions, etc. I think that one of the reasons that I’ve ended up in energy is that in that field we’ve reached the point, or are about to, where the more sustainable practices are actually the most cost-effective as well.  It took a lot of policy to get us there, but now there’s a real economic case to be made for renewable energy both on a utility- and building-scale.  That was a refreshing change from the water and wastewater treatment field, where the prices are artificially low, so you never really have that economic motivation.

What was your SUMA experience like? In what ways has the degree benefited you post graduation?

I would say that the most important aspect of my SUMA experience was the group work that is emphasized in every class.

As an engineer, a lot of the hard skills that were taught weren’t too difficult.  My biggest weakness was the group dynamics and teamwork aspects of the courses!  I won’t speak for all engineers, but my mindset coming into the program was along the lines of, “I tell them what the answer is, if they don’t want to listen to it, that’s not my problem.”  In retrospect: not so effective of a way of actually getting anything done!

The SUMA classes gave me a ton of opportunities to hone my leadership and team building skills; I’d say that I had more than twice as many group projects during my year and a half at SUMA than I did during my 5 years of prior education.  Those soft skills have been invaluable in my current job, and I’m sure that they’ll continue to be throughout my career.

This is kind of along the same lines, but some of the biggest benefits that I got from my SUMA experience were from the various extra-curricular events that I was able to take part in as part of the Columbia community.  For example, I participated in a bunch of consulting case competitions, led a team to the regional finals in the Hult Prize competition, and was part of a start-up team that was admitted into a free, not-for-credit incubator class in the Business School at Columbia.  Not only did this provide more of the team-building work that I mentioned before, but each of these events culminated in at least one full blown presentation in front of a judging panel.  There’s nothing like getting live public speaking experience, and now, when I’m preparing for a big client or sales meeting, it’s comforting to think back to all those presentations that seemed like a huge deal at the time, and think, I’ve done this many times before.

What kind of work you are doing right now?

I work for GI Energy, a growth-stage project developer in the energy field, focusing on distributed generation (DG) projects.  Distributed generation is anything that generates electricity or thermal energy at the site of consumption; technologies like solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, co-generation, and energy storage.  A big part of my job involves combining engineering and financial inputs in order to model the financial returns of potential DG projects, so my engineering background combined with some of the more quantitative and financial SUMA classes have put me in a great position to succeed.

What are some of your future aspirations/dream projects to work on?

One of the things that my team and I are working on now is energy storage.  The market is growing ridiculously fast, albeit from almost nothing.  This means that there are relatively few established players in the field.  That’s a great opportunity, because there’s a real chance to find a niche in the market.  The business models around battery storage are still developing, so there’s no reason that an agile company like ours can’t compete with the more established players.  It’s also really exciting, because energy storage has a huge role to play as the electricity system transitions towards renewables.  So it’s not just about bringing in work for our company, but also about playing a small part in determining how the whole grid will function in the future.

So my big goal at the moment is to help build GI Energy’s energy storage installation base, and hopefully become a major player in the field.  There are some really exciting projects in our pipeline, so I’m thinking about how to convert those, and then how to leverage those wins into a sustainable business model as the energy storage field grows.

-James Robinson, Senior Analyst at GI Energy
Columbia University SUMA graduate 2015

*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact

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