Executive Interview Series: Toshiaki Nishio, General Manager of IHI Energy Storage

Toshiaki Nishio is the General Manager of IHI Energy Storage. He was happy to share some insight into his career as an energy executive, where he sees the energy storage industry going, and what he has learned about his approach to business in his years at IHI Energy Storage.

Q: What was your first job out of school?

A: I started working for IHI right out of college in 1991.  Unlike most of my colleagues in the US, I have stayed with the same company for my entire career.  I was one of ~450 new hire employees who all started their careers at IHI.  Most of this group is still with IHI today.

Q: Wow, that’s a long history with IHI! How did you get into the renewables business?

A: When I joined IHI in 1991 I was assigned to the sales team responsible for selling urban environmental processing facilities. These facilities were part of Japan’s effort to improve the overall environmental conditions for local communities. Fifteen years later, I was transferred to the corporate, new business development team when IHI expanded its portfolio and by working with a Lithium Ion manufacturing company based in the US, called A123 Systems. Initially, my vision was to bring A123’s technology to Japan, but plans shifted in 2012 when the business went through a chapter 11 re-organization. IHI re-evaluated the direction of the market and we shifted our focus to the grid-level energy storage market in North America. We entered the market as a systems integrator, differentiated by our software and service solutions. This decision resulted in me moving my family to Boston, MA in April 2014, where I began to build a team focused on this business model. We built an engineering team in Chicago with the goal of building the next generation grid level energy storage controls platform. Two years later I moved to Chicago to further expand our investment in this technology and to also begin the early stages of commercializing and selling our technology.

Q: What was it like moving to the US?

A: Moving to the US was both exciting and challenging. One of my biggest challenges was the language barrier. While I learned English in school as a child, I rarely had the opportunity to speak it. This all changed when I moved to Boston. Having now lived in the US for 6 years, I can certainly say I am much more comfortable with English.

Q: What about the cultural differences? What is the business culture in Japan like vs the business culture in the US?

A: Business development is very different in the US and in Japan. In the US the competitive environment pushes you to move fast and make decisions quickly. If you don’t, you won’t survive. In Japan however, decisions are based on much study and analysis. Decisions are slow but thoughtful and intentional. In Japan a structured and complete plan is developed before it’s executed. In the US planning and execution is swift.Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. In the US it’s not uncommon to see a business reach 75% completion but then tail off for the last 25%. It’s in this last 25% where quality issues can really be exposed. In Japan, quality is naturally inherent in everything that is done. There is no compromising on quality at any phase of the project. My approach has been to find a proper balance in the US market, that can ensure our teams success.

Q: What do you think the biggest challenge to the ESS industry is today? What do you think it will be long term?

A: The energy industry has a 200 – 300-year history that has seen a number of different technologies come and go. While new technologies like energy storage are exciting, they must solve a real customer problem and they must be as cheap or cheaper than the current market solutions. Energy storage offers technological advantages to a market that is hungry for green solutions, which provides a good opportunity to disrupt the energy landscape considerably.When I first started in the energy storage business, system level costs well exceeded $1,000 (USD)/kWh. While we have seen these costs decrease by more than 70%, there is still more room for improvement. It’s my belief that in the next 3-5 years we will see these costs come down to levels that will make them economically more competitive with the existing conventional energy solutions we see in the market today. Just this past year we have seen tremendous growth and expansion for our business, which is influenced by the continued decline in overall energy storage system solution costs.

Q: What was most memorable experience in your career and why?

A: It’s not publicly announced yet, so I’m not sure I can share – but the announcement is on it’s way! Check back in August to hear more about our next big move as a company.