November 1, 2016

Energy Career Trek 2016 student blog: Visiting Gravity Renewables

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

During Fall Break of the 2016-17 school year, the Nicholas School Energy Club sent fifteen graduate students from the Nicholas School of the Environment, Pratt School of Engineering and Fuqua School of Business to Denver, Colorado, as part of the club's annual Career Trek. Coordinated by Master of Environmental Management (MEM) students Leah Louis-Prescott and Eleanor Johnstone, the event was supported in part by the Duke University Energy Initiative.

Below is a student's account of one of the eight companies and agencies included on the trek. Read the others.

Gravity Renewables

By Liz Finnegan
Master of Business Administration Candidate

It's not often remembered that water, and particularly hydro assets, are generally one of the oldest forms of renewable energy that human beings ever harvested: that water falls as rain into reserves which is piped through to powerhouses, powering massive turbines which can generate electricity almost instantaneously. Many of our hydro assets are old—some over 100 years old—and many are small and placed all over the US. With the Fuqua School of Business, the Nicholas School of Environment and the Pratt School of Engineering, we visited Gravity Renewables, a company headquartered in Colorado that synthesized all of these fields into a business model operating small hydro renewable energy projects.

Gravity Renewables is small—so small that they had to rearrange the office so that our entire group could fit. But with that small size was a large and very warm welcome. The team was generous with educating us on the value of hydro assets within a portfolio of renewable energy solutions. 

Gravity specializes in retrofitting small powerhouses for greater efficiency. Three factors have played a role in the company's rapid growth: 1) hydro can flexibly function as both a baseload energy source as well as a responsive peak power source; 2) the availability of RECs (Renewable Energy Credits); and 3) their expertise in upgrading these assets.

Gravity recently acquired a hydro plant near Duke University in Saxapahaw, NC. Our team had the remarkable opportunity to visit the site in advance of our visit to the HQ in CO, and talk to the team running the plant about the improvements made to the site.

The team at Gravity was young, full of energy and passion for renewables and for the environment. Their office in Boulder was beautiful and central and lined with framed certificates commemorating every one of the hydro assets they'd acquired. The team threw in a little humor that summed up the universality of Hydro as they saw it—that the slogan of renewable energy should be "stronger together"—and that renewable energy like Gravity's small hydro projects would be what helped the American energy industry to "become great again," a line which prompted some good-natured laughter post-election.

While Gravity itself is only just getting off the ground, the team's good spirits and welcoming attitude endeared the company to our group and we left far more educated about hydro than we came in. 

Read about the next stop on the Career Trek: Simple Energy.

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