Executive Interviews: Steve Held, VP of Finance and Administration at IHI Terrasun Solutions, Inc.

Steve Held shares his unusual path to energy storage with us. If you have yet to meet him and hear his story, read below to see how he went from working in the Air Force and at Space Command to our own VP of Finance and Administration at Terrasun.

Q: What was your first job out of school?

A: In school I was on scholarship with the Air Force ROTC detachment. When I graduated, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and I stayed with the Air Force for over 11 years. My first assignment was to the Pentagon! My computer science background had me writing software and supporting what was then called the “five-year defense plan.”

At the Pentagon, I worked with a lot of senior officers which was an unusual environment for a newly commissioned junior officer. Most junior officers start their military careers at a base level, but I was living in DC and having experiences I otherwise would never have. It was 4 very exciting years, in which I went to the White House a number of times, worked on interesting projects, and met some fascinating people – including my wife! She was working as a civilian at the Pentagon at the same time.

Q: What happened after those four years? Were you assigned somewhere new? That must have been challenging with your new relationship.

A: I went to Space Command in Colorado after. The military pushed me into a decision-making stance really quickly. I asked this woman to marry me after less than a year, which was pretty quick for me. She said yes and we’ve been married for almost 35 years!

I received orders to Colorado at Space Command for 3.5 years, supporting NORAD – North American Aerospace Defense Command. They’re the ones who track Santa’s progress every holiday season. NORAD is a joint command for monitoring potential missile launches at the US and Canada.  The missile warning network was built from a group of disparate systems on the ground and oceans, as well as in the air and space. All of these systems were developed individually and weren’t tied together until tensions with the USSR heightened and there was a threat at hand. NORAD took a bunch of disparate assets and connected them together to form a network capable of keeping us safe. It was a bottoms-up design; this meant that over the years, the discipline and protocols for managing upgrades weren’t developed cohesively. One branch could make a change without considering or understanding the impact those changes would make to the whole of the newly established network. That’s where I came in – it was my job to make sure all of those changes were properly managed and communicated so that the network worked cohesively together.

It took a lot of coordination. Data and version management were important skills I learned through this work, that translate into my work at Terrasun.

Q: How did you get into the renewables business?

A: After my military career, I joined a small start-up that my friend was building, which was developing software to monitor Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS’) and gracefully shut down the attached computer in the event of a power outage. In the 80s it was really important to monitor your battery supply so that your computer didn’t shut off and lose all of your data. We built the business until it was bought by American Power Conversion, which was eventually bought by Schneider Electric. At that point my friend who started the company and I joined a new company, A123 Systems, which manufactured lithium ion batteries and developed solutions for commercial products, automobiles and grid level energy storage systems.

At A123 I met Nishio-san, now President of IHI Terrasun Solutions. IHI was both our customer and an investor, until A123 unfortunately went bankrupt. Nishio-san got in touch and asked me to join him in building a new company, focused on grid level energy storage for the North American market. The business was formally started in April 2014 and I joined in September 2014.

Q: What was the most unexpected experience you had in your career?

A: When I was in the military, my last assignment in Oklahoma, I was with an organization that flew an aircraft called the E3 AWACS – it’s basically a Boeing commercial aircraft with a radar on top, which flies around and projects a radar down towards the earth that looks for any threats and also looks after our guys, basically managing all air activity. About halfway through my time at that unit, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  This perceived threat to US national security resulted in the buildup of allied forces under operation Desert Shield and the eventual execution of battle plans called operation Desert Storm.  When I joined the Air Force, I always knew that I could eventually be placed into a military operation but never really expected it to happen to me.  After a few months in Saudi Arabia for Desert Storm I rotated back to our home unit at Tinker AFB.

Desert Storm had a lot to do with oil politics, so it’s really exciting to me that at IHI Terrasun Solutions we are contributing to the push away from oil. Independent and renewable energy enables us to be more self-reliant and brings so much value across the globe.

Another unexpected experience I had happened during my time in Desert Storm – I experienced the internet for the first time while deployed! The location I was at had computers, and I sent my first ever email from there. It was a whole new world! Prior to that my communication was all part of a structured military communications and control system. The messages we would create and send we’re all on a specific form, that had to be typed on a special typewriter, and all communications were through that one specific form. The email experience I had in Desert Storm was all part of the Defense Data Network (DDN), the precursor to the internet. Funny to look back now!

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

A: As a company grade officer (junior officer) there are special quarterly awards that you can be nominated for, and when I was at Space Command my boss submitted me for one of these. When nominated, you need to appear before a board of higher-ranking officers where you’re grilled on a number of topics, as are the other nominees. I won for Space Command, and kept going in the competition through three more levels until eventually I became HQ Air Force Space Command company grade officer of the year.  I was eventually presented with my award by the Commander in Chief of Air Force Space Command, General Kutyna. It was exciting enough to be nominated and compete, let alone move through the entire competition and win that award. It was unique too because I wasn’t an operations officer. I was working in communications and computer systems while most of the rest of my peers had a more space-oriented background.

Q: Let’s close out the interview by hearing your thoughts on the energy storage industry as a whole. What do you think the biggest change to the ESS industry has been to date?

A: Pricing, for sure. When I started at A123 in 2008 the cost of batteries was prohibitively high. And when I was leaving A123 we sold a system to IHI at close to $1300/kWh in 2013. We kept wondering when the market was going to really take off and every year people were optimistic, and each year the market was just not ready. We finally started turning the corner around 2015 and prices started coming down, and we can compete with old classic technologies. I strongly believe pricing is still key in this market today but believe that the fundamental premise we started the business on, which is software and services, will be the future of the industry.

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