LightSail layoffs impact its energy storage business

Approximately 15 people, one-third of its workforce, were let go from energy storage startup LightSail Energy, according to sources close to the company. The layoffs were generally on the non-tank side of the firm.

Rebecca Motola-Barnes, Chief of Staff, "company culture guru" and "Director of People Operations" at LightSail, confirmed that layoffs had taken place.

In December of last year, LightSail's Chief Science Officer Danielle Fong ("devoted to the art of invention," according to her bio) appeared on a panel at GTM's 2015 Energy Storage Summit and explained how the compressed-air energy storage (CAES) technology her startup was developing demanded better, cheaper storage tanks to make the above-ground, containerized CAES system pencil out financially. LightSail was working with spun carbon-fiber tanks and new construction techniques.

I suggested that if this whole energy storage thing doesn't work out, the company could pivot to building tanks for the multibillion-dollar container industry.

Fong laughed it off -- energy storage was the prime directive of the company.

According to a February article in the Wall Street Journal, that's exactly what the downsizing company is now doing. The business now "consists of two main elements: an energy-storage component, for which the product is still in development; and high-pressure-storage tanks for natural gas and industrial gases, which it plans to sell primarily to logistics companies that distribute and recover natural gas and to compressed-natural-gas refueling stations. LightSail expects to ship its first such tanks in the next few months." 

LightSail has raised more than $70 million from the venture arm of French Energy giant Total, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, and Innovacorp, in pursuit of a CAES system that doesn’t rely on underground caverns as a storage medium. LightSail says its use of spun carbon-fiber tanks has allowed it to solve the cost problems faced by SustainX, which was using traditional steel tanks. LightSail also claims that it has come up with a way to capture and store both the mechanical energy and the thermal energy used in compressing air by injecting a cool water mist into the compression chamber as the air is compressed, reducing the heat that is generated during this step. When the captured pressurized air is released back through the system, the heated water is re-infused into it, allowing that heated air to return more energy.

Despite the millions raised and aspirational language that abounds at this Berkeley-based startup, this is the second round of layoffs at the firm in two years.

SolarCity names Jon Wellinghoff as chief policy officer

SolarCity Corporation named former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Jon Wellinghoff as its chief policy officer.

Wellinghoff was the longest-serving chair in FERC's history, leading efforts to integrate solar and wind resources into wholesale electric markets and ensure that resources like demand response and DG were given an opportunity to participate. Wellinghoff also served as General Counsel at the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, as well as serving two terms as the state of Nevada's first Advocate for Customers of Public Utilities. Wellinghoff most recently served as a partner at the law firm Stoel Rives. Wellinghoff is still finishing up at Stoel Rives, but we'll speak with him about his new role later this month. 

Wellinghoff made a presentation in 2012 that was notable for its vision of more rational energy-pricing markets and its practical graphics. "A Day in the Life of the Grid" revealed that the FERC commissioners get the smart grid and the necessity "to unleash the information and unleash the power" of the American electrical grid, as Wellinghoff put it. His presentation gave an hour-by-hour snapshot of wholesale utility pricing across the Midcontinent Independent System Operator.

UBS writes, "We think this move demonstrates SolarCity’s renewed commitment to a more mainstream and credible policy effort after recent setbacks in Nevada.  While we're unclear what Mr. Wellinghoff can do in [Nevada], we certainly expect the former Chair to prove a key force in [maintaining] the status quo in other jurisdictions nationally. The next 1-2 years are likely to see a number of key policy decisions at the state level and we expect SCTY to be increasingly active in both high-volume states and areas the company doesn’t operate in, in order to avoid unconstructive precedents. We expect the [residential] sector to continue to add more mainstream utility executives as it seeks to adopt a less combative approach."

Michael Horwitz, formerly with RW Baird, is now a partner at Greentech Capital Advisors.

BayWa Solar Systems, a U.S. solar wholesale distributor, added Daniel Marino as its chief commercial officer. Prior to joining BayWa, Marino was senior VP of Sales at Yingli Americas.

Kelly Griswold was promoted to VP of business development at Sungevity. 

Steve Olszewski, currently senior VP of operations at Spruce, will take over from Matt Melius as COO. Olszewski was previously a senior VP at Discover Financial Services.

Sara Rafalson was promoted to director of policy and new markets at solar project financier Sol Systems

Laura Franceschini is now program manager for data center sustainability at Google. She was previously program manager at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.  

Albert Liu was promoted to director of battery technology at Atieva. Atieva started out in 2007 as a VC-funded battery pack developer with a founder from Tesla and VC funding from Venrock. But last year, Atieva revealed that it was engaged in a large-scale electric-vehicle effort in Silicon Valley.    

Tassos Golnas, former director of performance analytics at SunEdison, is now technology manager at the Solar Energy Technologies Office at the U.S. Department of Energy, ManTech. 

From last week's column:

In early March, SunEdison's long-time CFO Brian Wuebbels left that role to join YieldCos TerraForm Power and TerraForm Global as CEO. Last week, Wuebbels, one of the architects of SunEdison's current multibillion-dollar edge-of-bankruptcy dilemma, resigned as president and CEO and as a member of the board of directors, effective immediately. According to a release, TerraForm's board has formed an office of the chairman, led by Peter Blackmore, an independent director and chairman of the firm, to lead TerraForm Power on an interim basis.

Veteran venture capitalist John Doerr is moving away from his management role at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers to become the firm's first chair. Doerr wrote in a blog post, "As I become chair, our tenured partners -- Ted Schlein, Beth Seidenberg, and Mary Meeker -- will continue to lead with a new generation of managing members -- Mike Abbott, Eric Feng, Wen Hsieh and Mood Rowghani." Doerr has worked at KPCB since 1980. Kleiner's many cleantech investments include Bloom Energy, Nest, Opower, Proterra, Amonix and MiaSolé.