Climate Stories Episode #12: Vehicle to Everything - Claire Broido Johnson (MBA 2002), Chief Operating Officer of Fermata Energy

Like many of our Climate Story subjects, Claire Broido Johnson (MBA 2002) first became interested in climate change and environmental science at an early age. Growing up near the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside of Chicago, she dreamed of being a physicist. Instead, she has focused her career on executing “pro climate business solutions.”

As the COO of Fermata Energy since March 2022, Claire is bringing operating expertise to a company that sees cars as “batteries on wheels.” Fermata’s bidirectional vehicle-to-everything (V2X) charging platforms can turn electric vehicles (EVs) into revenue centers, extend the value of EV fleets and provide a solution to the electricity grid. As Claire explained, “This approach is new. It’s different from how people have thought about the mobility industry.”

She described the concept as “Park it. Plug it. Profit.”

Fermata Energy is the first company to be commercially deployed in the U.S. for light-duty vehicles, the first to earn UL 9741 certification in North America, the first to earn OEM (original equipment manufacturer) approval for battery health, and the first to earn revenue for fleet customers from utilities.

“We’re in the education business since we’re offering a new service,” Claire explained. “We sell electric vehicle chargers (bidirectional DC offboard chargers) and the platform associated with those chargers and make a profit off of those platforms. Going forward, we will be selling a software platform to monitor and control buildings and electric vehicles.”

For now, Fermata Energy is focusing on EV fleets, not residential EV owners, in cities in six states: New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Colorado and California.

  • For example, last January, Fermata Energy announced the results of a demonstration project in which climate-tech start-up Electric Frog Company provided an all-electric Nissan LEAF to the Burrillville Wastewater Treatment Facility in Rhode Island. The results showed that this first-ever electric vehicle (EV) to support the New England electric grid earned more than $4,200 by participating in a utility demand response program.
  • In August, Revel, an electric mobility and infrastructure company in Red Hook, Brooklyn, announced a demonstration project in partnership with Fermata Energy and clean energy developer NineDot Energy to deploy a bidirectional charging system that can both charge electric vehicles (EVs) and discharge those EVs to send energy stored in their batteries back to Con Edison’s grid in NYC.
  • And the New Hampshire Electric Co-op is experimenting with a transactive energy rate that will enable members to partner with the co-op, supplying energy from their EV batteries when it is most needed, and charging up when demand — and prices — are low. The technology is Fermata Energy’s.

Indeed, news about EV fleet experimentation is everywhere. Just before Thanksgiving, the pizza delivery chain Domino's announced plans to put a fleet of 100 custom-branded Chevy Bolt electric cars on the road, growing to 855 by the end of 2023. Domino's called it the "largest electric pizza delivery fleet in the country." The company’s goals are two-fold: to help reduce auto emissions and make the fleet more climate friendly, as well as to “help boost driver recruitment.” Analysts said the Domino’s announcement is a reminder that corporate fleets are a key early driver of EV adoption.

Claire and Fermata see those fleets as potential electricity resources that are not currently being used. In September, Nissan was the first EV manufacturer to announce its approval for the Fermata Energy FE-15 charger, a bi-directional charger for use with the Nissan LEAF in the U.S. The announcement said that “usage of the approved charger will also not impact the LEAF's battery warranty.” And Claire estimated that “one Nissan LEAF can earn $3,000 to $8,000 per year for owners by plugging in and returning electricity to the grid during peak hours.”

She continued, “Since most cars are parked 95% of the time, why not make money from them? We are hoping that the financial incentives in the new Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) help us underscore the importance of EVs as a solution for the grid to reduce electric loads.”

However, Claire admitted that full EV adoption is a long way off, in part because of the slow growth of EV manufacturing. “It's hard to find EVs to buy right now. There is high demand and not enough supply. If you wanted to buy a Nissan LEAF or any other EV right now, there is a long waiting list.”

In late November, in the aftermath of the COP 27 meetings in Egypt, a number of reports amplified Claire’s observations.

  • The research firm BloombergNEF found that “As of midyear, there were 318 fully electric and 145 plug-in hybrids on the market globally. There were 84 models available in the U.S. in mid-2022, up from 59 at the end of 2020.”
    • Bloomberg also reported that the global fleet of EV cars, trucks and buses currently stands at over 1.54 billion vehicles, up slightly from last year. The growth rate is positive but slowing, with the fleet expected to grow by only 1% in 2022.
  • Moody’s reported that the Nissan LEAF is one of the few EVs even close to being affordable.
    • The LEAF, which starts at $27,800, and the Chevrolet Bolt, which starts at $25,600, generally sell for under $40,000 (before tax incentives) — well below the EV average of close to $65,000.
  • S&P Global Mobility released findings that Tesla controls 65% of the U.S. electric vehicle market, a sharp drop from 71% last year and 79% in 2020. Tesla's model range is expected to grow to include Cybertruck in 2023 and eventually a Roadster. But the Tesla model lineup in 2025 will be largely the same models it offers today.
    • However, Fortune reported that Tesla shares hit their lowest price since November 2020 because of a host of investor concerns. They include: CEO Elon Musk's Twitter distraction, China's lockdown of millions in Guangzhou, and a recall of 300,000+ Teslas due to a taillight glitch.

The auto companies themselves had multiple EV announcements in late November:

  • Nissan reported developing a new solid-state battery, described as a breakthrough for the EV movement. Solid-state batteries can store twice as much energy as conventional EV batteries — potentially doubling a car's driving range — and can charge in one-third the time. They're also safer and cheaper, which would help bring down EV costs.
    • Over the next decade, Nissan aims to introduce 23 electrified models, including 15 all-electric vehicles.
  • General Motors announced multiple entries in pickup, SUV and luxury segments that represent about 70% of EV industry volume, including the Chevrolet Silverado EV, Blazer EV and Equinox EV, the Cadillac LYRIQ and the GMC Sierra EV. Five GM assembly plants in the U.S. Canada and Mexico will be building EVs.
  • Japan's Mazda Motor Corp unveiled a $10.6 billion spending plan to electrify its vehicles and said it was also considering investing in battery production.
    • The company also raised its sales target for electric vehicles (EVs) to up to 40% of its total global sales by 2030, as automakers worldwide spend billions of dollars to ramp up battery and EV production in the face of tougher environmental regulations.
    • Mazda followed similar announcements by Toyota and Honda, which have been criticized by environmentalists and green activist investors for being slow in electrification.

For all the EV fervor, Claire noted the long shelf-life of the combustion engine vehicles that consumers are currently driving. She predicted that it could well take 30 years for all vehicles in the U.S. to be EVs.

“I’m not a patient person. I like doing and executing,” Claire said with a laugh. She worries that corporations aren’t moving fast enough to address the climate crisis. “The incentive structures are not set up to force people to change how they act. There’s an implementation gap.”

However, Claire is used to tough challenges. As a Harvard undergrad, she helped launch an environmental action committee. Working with faculty and staff, she collected some 2000 signatures to create the environmental science and public policy concentration. In 1995, she was among the first to graduate with a B.A. in environmental science and public policy.

Her subsequent career has followed those passions.

Prior to joining Fermata Energy, Claire served as a co-founder of solar energy services provider SunEdison, which developed the groundbreaking power purchase agreement for the solar industry.

She was the managing director of the $10 million Maryland Momentum Fund, which invests in Maryland early-stage companies. And in 2009, she joined the Obama Administration. Claire is especially proud of her work, overseeing the Department of Energy’s deployment of $11 billion in Recovery Act funds to scale renewable energy and energy efficiency programs throughout the United States.

“I want to create a business that makes money for our shareholders and cares about the environment. You can make money while doing good for the planet.”

She adds: “Global warming is about math and science. It shouldn’t be a political discussion."

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.