Energized By Grid Modernization Engineer Tirthak Saha

Reading Time: 26 Minutes Beyond

When preparing to interview Tirthak Saha, we saw him say in an interview that he’d once been called “tictac.”

However, by the end of the interview with us, he admitted he hoped his work would make him the household name that Elon Musk is today.

I gotta say after talking to him for a while, I believe him.

Besides being so good at his job as a Grid Modernization Engineer that he was recognized on the Forbes 30 under 30, he proved more than adept at breaking down the jargon-y barriers to entry for understanding what he does. We could have peppered him with questions all day long.

At 26, he’s already worked with NASA on satellites inspired by origami, and he is the Co-Founder and Chair of the Innovation Advocacy Network for American Electric Power.

Not all heroes wear capes, but if Tirthak did, he would probably pull it off.

I’m just very arrogant, right. You have to turn that self-arrogance into something positive. Into what people call drive. My biggest fear, to date actually, is to die without having left a positive legacy. I don’t care if it’s three people or three hundred people talking about me after I die, but I want them to say he left the planet better than he found it. If it is significantly better, that’s even better. It doesn’t matter what the magnitude of the thing I do in my life is. It matters that it’s in the right direction. And when you have that sort of a mindset, you never stop pushing, right? Because you’re always unsure. Have I done enough to be on the right side of the books?

  • 1:50 – What it means to be a Grid Modernization Engineer
  • 6:11 – Innovation through partnerships and cooperation versus competition
  • 14:58 – On how to dream big enough
  • 32:15 – Whether working in his space has left him hopeful or fearful for the future

Podcast Transcript

00:02 Andy Shore: Hey everybody! Welcome to the Heart of Business, brought to you by Benchmark. It’s the business podcast that won’t make you flatline, where we discuss what pumps life into your company.

00:14 AS: Hey everybody, welcome back to The Heart of Business Podcast. We have a truly impressive guest for you today. His name is Tirthak Saha. He is a grid modernization engineer, and he might just well, save all of us. So we tried not to take too much of his time even though Daniel and I could’ve talked for hours and hours and picked his brain on all the awesome stuff he’s working on. Before we get started, I wanna remind everyone about the Benchmark starter plan. For up to 2000 of your contacts, you can do your email marketing totally free. You get all the tools you need to get started, signup forms for your websites, social media, some simple automations to greet your new subscribers that come in through that signup forms and all sorts of great stuff. Check it out, benchmarkemail.com. Let’s get rolling.

00:58 AS: So how you doing today Tirthak?

01:00 Tirthak Saha: I am doing well. As well as you can do [chuckle] when you’re living in the Midwest. It’s raining, it’s been harsh weather. It has been pretty hot and then cloudy and gray. But yeah, other than that, I’m doing well.

01:13 AS: Yeah, I don’t miss that life. I’m Chicago born and raised and went to college at Indiana. So when I saw you’re in Indiana, I was just like, man, to go from India to Indiana. It’s just like you skipped over some awesome places here. [chuckle]

01:27 TS: Yeah, the phonetics worked out. You can’t really ask much more than that.

[laughter]

01:33 AS: Absolutely. And one of the things I saw on your website was that you’re trying to cut through the jargon-y barriers to entry for what you’re doing. So, you are a grid modernization engineer at American Electric Power. But can you tell us, in ways that we’ll understand what exactly that means?

01:51 TS: Absolutely, so basically what I do is I get to play around with the latest technology from the electrical, smart grid universe. And I keep a track of what’s coming up, the latest advances, the latest technologies, and basically I pull different threads and strings together and combine them into projects that will provide the ultimate bang for your buck in terms of making a 21st century electric grid that is more resilient, more reliable and more eco-friendly because the electric grid that you see out there today, most of it was built a century ago. And we really haven’t seen much change in the energy industry in that regard, just because there was no need for it. It was a pretty good piece of engineering and it did what it was supposed to. There were no demands, so it worked pretty well. Well, up until recently because in the last 10 or 20 years, we have seen a slew of new technologies coming up that we really weren’t expecting to be viable until let’s say 2050.

03:12 TS: For example, energy storage, solar wind, all the renewables, electric vehicles are on our roads now. So the grid is failing to support all of this because it is aging, and it doesn’t really have the capability to incorporate all these new things that people want. So most major utility companies are now looking towards the future and they’re saying. “Hey.” Hey, also stop me if I’m talking too much, by the way.

03:38 DM: Oh no, you are doing great. This is all incredibly interesting.

03:40 TS: Okay, so most of the utilities are now sitting down at the table and they’re rolling up their sleeves and they’re going, “Well, things are changing, people want different things than what they desired in the last century. So how are we going to recreate the grid?” And the problem with that is, it has to be done piecemeal. You can’t really take down the grid for a couple of days, and then bring it back up. So that’s some of the major challenges that we’re dealing with, we’re rethinking and reshaping the electric grid to be able to support the technologies that are coming up today and hopefully for the next century or so.

04:18 AS: Yes, that’s really interesting. And one thing I think is pretty cool, is that you’re doing it from within the industry, you see Kodak, all but disappear or see the music industry go through what they have and you’re doing it from the inside to preempt that happening when someone else just comes in and turns the industry on its ear and you’re left in the wake.

04:42 TS: Exactly, no, you’re absolutely on point. I’m glad that I have a job [chuckle] But beyond that, I have a job because the utility industry has realized, I think, well within time that things are changing and if they don’t change with this, they are just gonna go down the path of like the cab companies when Uber came or the hotel industry when Airbnb came along. And these are some of the recent examples. So, yeah, it’s a huge market, it’s a trillion dollar market and utility companies are sitting up and taking notice of this thing, and they’re employing people like me all across the country to look into, “How To Be The Change leaders, rather than the followers?”

05:27 DM: That’s excellent. I love that you used a word “I get to play with.” It’s not, “I’m working on, I am doing this.” It’s I get to play with this, this and that and try to figure that out. It’s in way that you’re being electrical engineer, scientist, and mixing this with that, to try to figure out what works. Do you see some of the big tech companies… I can see that from Google and Facebook and many of the other big companies, they’re pushing part of how we connect online to a totally new level, and it seems like they’re needing new technologies, themself. Do you guys tend to work together with some of those companies to try to innovate, or how does that work?

06:10 TS: So yeah, there’s a lot of partnerships. So more relevant example would be the company Tesla, and there in-home energy storage units, and now well they’ve also come up with the solar roofs. So that’s a big disruption in our market. For all intents and purposes, if you have the money you put in an energy storage system in your basement, and you put up solar roofs. And voila! You don’t need the utility anymore. I mean, that’s what you would think. And there’s finer points to that, but essentially that’s the argument, and that’s the way most of these corporate private entities who are coming into the market now, that’s how they’re playing, that’s how they’re marketing.

06:53 TS: So what the utility does is they say, “You know what, why do we need to be competition? We can just join hands, and create something better.” Some utilities do that better than others. Some utilities are a little behind the curve, and that’s perfectly fine. But yes, there’s a lot of partnerships going on, because we have to realize something that what is happening here is innovation. Whether that comes from the private sector, or the public sector, there is a lot of innovation going on. And innovation doesn’t happen in isolation. Tesla might know something that we don’t, and we might know something, or have the resources or something that they don’t. They have the capacity for risk that we don’t, but we also have the stability that they don’t. So I think all the large players have identified and realized that we all have to sit down at the table, because we’re all feeding off of each other, so we have to join hands. So there’s multiple partnerships like that.

07:51 AS: Yeah, that’s interesting talking about the need to work together and pool resources or information, but is there the other end of it, where you said, there’s that competition. I guess the thought that came to mind was like the space race, when everyone was trying to be the first to do something, is there also that part… Do you feel pressure in that. Do you face that?

08:12 TS: Yes. Yes and no. So I’ll cover the yes part first. Obviously, there’s the short term competition like, okay, so we hold 10% of the market share for example, company X is coming in, and they’re gonna take away 2%, that’s these many dollars, yada, yada. So that’s just how corporations function. And sure in the short term, we gotta be aware of that. But I think there’s something very interesting happening in the energy industry, which sets it apart from the space race, or any of the other great innovations in other industries. And that difference is that the definitions of things are changing.

08:53 TS: So let me give you an example. I don’t think, and this is me personally, talking not as an AEP employee or whatever, but I personally don’t think that the utility of the future is gonna be a company that provides the electricity. It’s gonna be almost like a lifestyle company where we manage all the electrical devices that you use. Electricity is becoming more and more distributed, generation is becoming more and more spread out, there’s microgrids and stuff now. So the whole definition, that whole idea of, okay, here’s a point, here’s where the electrons are generated, here’s how we transmit them over large distances, and here are the customers who get the electrons and then pay for them using money, standardized money, all of that is changing. There’s so much to talk about, and just as I’m answering this, I’m thinking about it. And almost every aspect of the electrical industry is changing, the energy industry is changing. There’s cryptocurrency coming in where your neighbor might be able to put up solar pounds on his roof and you might be able to get some extra energy off of him, and just pay him using a cryptocurrency transaction. So who is the buyer, who is the seller? What is the market? What exactly constitutes the boundaries of the energy industry? All that is dissolving.

10:18 TS: So, what utilities and bigger companies like Google, Tesla, whoever is in the market to play, what they’re realizing is that even if there wasn’t a niche for them in the old market, in the old market what would be competition in the new market, there’s a lot more space to spread out. So yes, there’s competition, but we’re also working towards creating a new ecosystem and everyone’s finding their own new places.

10:42 DM: That’s a very interesting perspective. That was actually one of the questions that I had for you, as more and more people tend to put solar panels on, how is that gonna affect? It sounds like you pretty much answered that. But I had a follow up question as well, which is, I grew up in Spain, I spent a lot of years in Spain. And the cultural differences and the political differences are pretty big. And one thing that I noticed is when Tesla really started to grow and their stock just went through the roof, and pretty much almost, I think, one out of 10 people here in California own a Tesla. My friend in Spain is like, “I really want to but I can’t afford it.” And I was like, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll help you ship out, like gas. You don’t have to worry about. He was like, “No you don’t understand. In Spain, they apply an additional tax if you have an electric car if you have solar panels.” So my question to you, is how, ’cause in the US, it seems like we’re going towards this green and sharing and helping each other out, but how is that different outside of the US? Are more countries going towards this sharing and caring? Or are more trying to profit from this?

11:55 TS: So that’s a very interesting question. And there’s a lot of facets to it. And I do not claim to be knowledgeable about the whole political side of it to the extent where I can make a cogent argument, but just from my experience working with regulatory bodies, just within the United States and back when I was in India. So in India, the energy industry is pretty much controlled by the government, it’s centralized and over here it is decentralized and it is to a large extent privatized. So let’s go off of those main differences. So in America, the state of legislation in terms of the new energy economy, has been very, very slow to catch up with it. There’s a lot of regulations and legislations that are actually holding us back from doing as much solar as we would like to. And I’m talking about the customer side of it, not necessarily the utilities. Because the utilities frankly, will go where the money is, any big company will. If you allow us to make a decent business case, we’ll do it. But as far as the green economy and the healthy economy that you’re talking about in the energy sub-sector the US really isn’t at the forefront, it is kind of lagging.

13:17 TS: But there are other countries which are lagging much far behind. So by comparison, it looks really good here. Like India. But I will tell you this, this is just my prediction that there’s a precipice coming, and it’ll happen in the next 10 years maybe, where there will be a technological jump, where, let’s say, renewable technology will drop below a certain dollar per kilowatt hour price point. And it will be foolish, it will be very hard to make the argument against it. So what companies are doing is they’re basically waiting for that to happen, because once that happens, no one’s gonna make a legislation that prohibits that technology. For example, Spain, the government in Spain, it’ll be foolish for them to tax that. It’ll be foolish for them to impose regulations on something that becomes so profitable, that they’re gonna miss out if they’re adverse to it. Does that sort of answer your question?

14:25 TS: It does, I just hope that the Spanish governments understand that. They’ve done a few foolish things throughout the years, but knock on wood.

14:34 TS: Yeah, it’s basically the technology has to lead the change in that regard, but after a certain point it will become so self evident that government and regulations and laws will catch up immediately. That part won’t take too much time, is basically what I’m trying to say.

14:51 DM: Sure, and Dan and I are both such naturally curious persons I think we can keep just peppering you with questions along these lines. But I do wanna circle back and go back in the timeline and I watched a couple of interviews with you and talking about getting started or coming from modest beginnings and I’m just wondering how you from there or anyone in small-town USA goes from that beginning to doing the things you’re doing. And how did you dream big enough, or where did that start to get you to this point?

15:22 TS: Again [chuckle] I’m just very arrogant. I would be sitting at home and I’m like, “Man, I don’t deserve to be here, I deserve to be in some fancy country in a fancy house driving a fancy car.” But that’s me as a kid. And I guess everyone has those dreams and things, but I guess at some point, it just turns… You have to turn that self arrogance if you will, into something positive, into what people call drive, maybe. But definitely my biggest fear to date actually, is to die without having left a positive legacy. I don’t care if it’s three people or 300 people talking about me after I die, but I want them to say, “He left the planet better than he found it.” Which is not something a lot of people can say about their lives you know.

16:25 TS: And yeah, if it is significantly better, that’s even better. It doesn’t matter what the magnitude of the thing I do in my life is, it matters that it’s in the right direction. And when you have that a mindset, I think you never stop pushing, because you’re always unsure [chuckle] “Have I done enough to be on the right side of the books?” I guess that’s where it comes from. A little bit of arrogance on my end. And, “Can you do this? Of course, I can do this.” And a little bit of drive that comes from that. Like, “Yeah, I have to do all these things before I die.”

17:07 DM: That’s very, what’s the word I’m looking for? I admire that. I could say, it’s very impressive, from somebody of your background, taking it for that level to say, “I deserve better, to then, The world deserve better. And I wanna make sure that I leave this place, I make it better than how I found it.” That’s awesome. One other question that I have…

17:29 TS: It’s like… Sorry to interrupt. It’s like how they say you need to put on your oxygen mask first, before you can help others in an airplane in those safety briefings. It’s like that. I was just trying to put my own safety mask on first, and when I did, I realized that that same action can be used to put on oxygen mask on everyone else, so I just kept doing it.

17:54 DM: I think in part, you’ve answered a little bit of this question, but they say that it takes you at least 10,000 hours to master something. At your young age, how in the world that were you able to find enough time to really master what you do?

18:08 TS: Well, see, that comes from the book Outliers. Is that what you’re talking about? Okay, well in there, it says pretty clearly that you need 10,000 hours to become an expert, at a master of something. I definitely don’t [chuckle] think that I’m there yet, so I don’t think I’ve put in 10,000 hours of that. But I’ve thought about it because I read that book and I found it really interesting. It’s like, okay, so I have some modicum of success. And then you take away from that, the part that you owe to other people, your family, your friends, the people who have supported you, you take away the parts that are just dumb-luck being in the right place at the right time. Then what’s left with is still what you build with your hands from the ground up. So how did I do that? I’m very introspective of these things, so I was thinking about it, and I think what I did right was, in that book, when they’re talking about 10,000 hours, they’re talking about developing a specific skill or knowledge around a specific skill for 10,000 hours and then you become a master at it. My skill is not engineering though. So I’ve identified that. My skill isn’t engineering. I am definitely not the best engineer in the world. Far from it. I’m probably in the bottom 20%.

19:31 TS: But what my specific skill set is, is the ability to draw from different sources, sources that… Sources of knowledge that apparently seem disconnected and unrelated, and make something new that adds much more value than what you would have found if you had gone the conventional, traditional way. For example, when I was in school, sorry, high school, I had gone to Japan, and I had seen an origami museum, and that kinda stuck with me. And then when I went to university, Drexel University in Philadelphia, I wrote a paper on how to apply origami mathematics to solar panels on small tiny satellites, so that they can fold and fit inside the satellite. So you would think that they’re disconnected. But that’s what I do best. I take disparate, disjoint ideas, and I put them together to create something better. So I have been doing that since childhood, and I think a lot of us do. That’s what creativity is as a child. Parents watch their kids play and they’re like, “I don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” But what they’re doing is they’re taking disjointed ideas and trying to put them together. I just never let that go, that’s all I did, so I just built on that and that I think led to the 10,000 hours, so it wasn’t 10,000 hours of electrical engineering.

21:02 AS: Sure.

21:03 TS: That’s just my mode of expression of my skill.

21:07 DM: One of my favorite books is called Your Brain at Work, and in that book, they explain about how it is impossible to come up with something out of nothing, for your brain. Your brain is constantly trying to relate two things and make something out of that. So you’ve taken that to the next level by trying to exercise that, on the data. That’s incredible.

21:27 AS: Yeah. And Daniel, a year or so ago went to a leadership or management conference, to bring it back to the company and came back and was talking about, there are the different essential people of every team. And one of those people was the integrator and it’s kinda not the natural leader, or the best or this or that, but the one that sees the big picture and connects all the dots and brings it all together. It sounds like that’s kinda what you’re talking about.

21:53 TS: Yeah, absolutely, that’s exactly what I was talking about. Yeah.

21:56 AS: That’s interesting. So you’d mentioned a little bit about the origami satellite and solar panels that you’re doing with NASA, and then you wound up at AEP and won their Spark Tank Innovation Challenge, and I saw that’s a billion dollar investment. Is that a responsibility that weighs on your shoulders? ’cause I got nervous looking at that.

22:21 TS: [chuckle] Alright, so this is gonna be a little bit of a long answer. Are you guys that up for it?

22:24 AS: Yes.

22:25 DM: Okay. Always.

22:25 TS: First of all, let me clarify something. It wasn’t a billion dollar investment. That was a billion dollar revenue stream, and the citation was… That was a typo or something on the part of Forbes. And I guess it never got changed, I did reach out to them. So anyway, the deed was done so it’s like, “Okay.” So now the background is… When AEP hired me, they had just started thinking about grid modernizations, and what it entails and what the various things that they wanna do in that space. They had just started, right? And I had just gotten out of school, I had just graduated. This is like mid 2016. So then they started… AEP started looking for a grid modernization engineer, or an engineer to lead the charge on that program. So I was, again, dumb luck, I was in the right place at the right time, I interviewed; my boss who is also now a very good friend, he really liked what I had to say and I had, I guess, I had a “can do” attitude, because at that point, neither I nor the company really knew what direction we wanted to go in. What was required was a sense of adventure and innovation and… Just the mindset. And obviously, the basic skill set that you would require.

23:55 TS: So they hired me, for two states, Indiana and Michigan. I was, and until very recently was the only guy doing… Actively doing grid modernization and nothing else. So, my portfolio of projects that I built up since I got hired, let’s say, November 2016, up until now, I’ve built a five and 10-year plan looking forward up until 2028 for the company for two states, Indiana and Michigan. And it’s almost 900 million dollars worth of projects if they come to… If they follow the plans that I set out. So I don’t know the exact number, but it’s somewhere in that range. So yes, it is a huge responsibility. And for about two years now, I’ve been carrying it on my shoulders. But we recently, we had an intern who recently joined the team, full time. So, I’m really happy to have her, someone to blame.

[laughter]

25:01 DM: That’s at the end of the world, right? That’s funny. Something that… I guess I see energy as a consumer, I’m not involved with that at all. I think I played with my first… Arduino? You called it, last week and I started to play with little resistors and stuff like that. But one thing I see that has really kinda got left behind was the whole aspect of batteries, from the usage of it, the storage of it and even the throwing away of it. Like, how do we properly dismantle and get rid of a battery without really contaminating? And with so many precipice, I mean those batteries have a pretty large life span, about five to 10 years, but what’s gonna happen 10 years down the road when we have all of these batteries? Is that something that you influence, or…

26:00 TS: So that’s a great question first of all. Not a lot of people focus on that rightly as you just said, that solid waste coming from energy resources, it’s a big, big issue, it’s not just battery, there’s also transformers and etcetera. But transformers have the advantage that they’re made of materials that can just be fully recycled or scrapped and made into something else. With batteries, like you said, it’s Lithium-ion for the most part and yeah, the recycling isn’t where it needs to be, so it is a problem. I do not actually work with that arena directly, but I can tell you that in that same Spark Tank competition, a colleague of mine actually brought forth a very good idea of recycling EV batteries and just general utility-grade batteries as well. So, there are people who are working on that problem actively. I’m not one of them currently, so I can’t speak to the technical details of that, but that is a big problem. And one of the ways people are trying to solve, it has to be two-part. One has to be to get the recycling methods up to par to prepare for that cliff that you were talking about, ten years from now, what’s gonna happen to all the Tesla power-walls, for example? And the other part is to invent new kinds of energy storage. So, our idea of energy storage is fairly limited, our concept of energy storage is fairly limited.

27:33 TS: I’ll give you an example. We hear a battery and we go “Okay, a cell. With chemicals in it and two plates.” But did you know that aluminum has the greatest energy density of any material on earth? Just the metal, you don’t need to any chemicals or anything. So if you strip away the oxidized layer on top of the aluminum and basically you put in water, it releases hydrogen which can then be put into a fuel cell for electricity or you can just burn the hydrogen for fuel, and it’s a totally green 100 percent renewable process. The only problem is, that stripping away of the barriers, the oxidized barriers very few people have been able to figure out how to do that in an economic way. So recently, I got put in… I was reached out to by a startup in California called Trolysis and they asked me to be kind of their guide, the voluntary advisor kind of position and they’re doing this. So I was very interested, that’s why I signed on. Because I really feel like… Like I said before, our definitions have to change of “What is a battery?” And, “What is distributed energy resources? What is the electric grid? Does it have to be point-to-point? Does a battery has to be a single piece of chemicals and anodes and cathodes?”. So yeah, it’s two-fold.

29:07 DM: That’s good, it’s exciting to see. And I like what you said there. We have to think of battery as not as we know it today, but how can we change it entirely? What’s that new thing? Here is a question for you, is wireless charging going anywhere? [laughter] ‘Cause I don’t feel like… I have a friend that he got the new iPhone and he got a wireless charger to go with it and then he found out that because he has the case, it doesn’t work and he just gave it to me, he said “Look, I can’t use this.” And I charged and I was like, “This isn’t wireless at all, I’m still connected to the wire.” Is this an intermediate step to something bigger?

29:47 TS: It definitely is an intermediate step to something bigger and that’s the case with any fringe technology that you see. So basically, this is a general rule of thumb that I use and it’s worked out pretty well. Anything that you’ve heard of in the last five years for the first time, that is obvious… That is always an intermediate step. So, if you hear of a new feature, like some dazzling new feature on a new phone, wait till the next one to buy it.

[laughter]

30:19 TS: That’s what I always say. So it’s worked out pretty well. Right now I use a Google Pixel 2. That’s why I didn’t buy the Google Pixel 1, although I really wanted to. And yeah, it’s kinda worked out. But anyway, my point being, yes, wireless charging is coming big time. There are certain problems with it that may… We may have to look for other definitions of what wireless charging could look like. There are certain physical limitations to making a wireless charger that is very effective, but it’s also very small, just because of the physics of it. But there’s been some research that’s being carried out as we speak, where they send satellites up into the atmosphere, for example, and these satellites have huge solar panels on them. And up in space, the efficiency of solar panels is much greater because it’s direct, without the interference from the atmosphere. So they capture all that energy, they convert it into… I forget it. I think it’s microwave radiation, and they send down those microwave radiation beams down to earth, where they’re collected by a plate and converted back into electricity. Now, imagine if those plates were put on every home, then, can you imagine a world without wires and poles? That’s what that would look like…

31:44 AS: That is pretty cool.

31:44 TS: But my point is that to get to that satellite technology, that’s being, R&Ded right now the first shitty phone charger had to be made. You know what I’m saying? Like…

[laughter]

31:54 DM: Yeah I know exactly what you’re saying, I’m experiencing it, I’ll tell you that.

32:00 TS: Yeah exactly. So yeah, there’s developments in that space that are being made. Again, I’m not directly related with it, so I’m not a subject matter expert, that’s the limit of my knowledge in that space. But I know people who are working on it directly.

32:15 AS: That’s interesting. We’ve got a few more questions for you before we let you go back to saving the world, but just talking about… You obviously have a view of what’s coming down the pipeline. Does all that make you hopeful or fearful for the future, knowing whatever environmental or resource issues we may be facing now?

32:33 TS: It makes me both, because, I’ll tell you why. To use one of my favorite quotations, “We are changing but not fast enough.” And I hope that the pace picks up, and I hope that the opposition to trying out new things, and the resistance to change wears off a little faster than it is doing so now, but things are changing for the positive. That’s the good part. They’re not regressing as such, especially, at least in the technology world, it isn’t. There’s a lot of advances being made. In the renewable energy sector, for example, someone recently patented a spray-on solar panel. So that’s pretty cool. You can apply it anywhere you want now, you don’t have to be restricted by the shape or space of your roof. So technology is moving in the right direction, I’m just fearful that it’s not moving fast enough. And that we need some kind of big, big paradigm-shifting push. That precipice that I was talking about, I think it’s coming, I hope it comes soon.

33:49 DM: Do you have an intuition as to what that is? Since this is a field that you’re savvy in, is there something that you feel like is harming the growth or the speed, the most? Is it the political views around it, is it the security, what is it that you feel needs the biggest push?

34:13 TS: Oh man, I’m gonna say something now, and then like 20, 30 years later, when I’m on Fox News interviewing with someone, someone is gonna bring this up, and gonna be like, “Look, you said this.” But anyway, lemme try. It’s a very tricky business, trying to predict the future, but… So there’s two questions I heard in there, and correct me if I’m wrong. The first question is, which one do I think requires the biggest push, and which part is going to make the biggest push in my opinion, right?

34:46 DM: Mm-hmm.

34:48 TS: Okay. So the one that requires the biggest push is undoubtedly legislation for renewables. There is no doubt in my mind that legislation right now is very regressive, very backwards, and yes there are advances being made, but we’re still very fearful of change. And there are several reasons for that, some cogent, some not, but we need to make a big, big, big push. We need to have representation from the scientific community in the legislation, in the representatives of who are making the legislations, we need to have more people who know what they’re doing, especially in the field of technology, to go out there and make their voices heard. We tend to be a very isolated society, the tech world. We talk big, but there’s very few of us out there actually trying to make change in that political environment. So there’s that.

35:52 TS: And the thing I think will make the biggest leap forward in terms of technology is storage, energy storage. Because it, by definition almost… Like if I had to bet money on it, by definition almost, the one piece that is holding back other stuff is energy storage. Like, why can’t you use solar panels at night? Not because the sun isn’t shining, but because your battery isn’t large enough to hold all of it and isn’t cheap enough for the average man to use. So the problem isn’t the solar panel, the problem is that we don’t have that battery technology. So I just think if I had to bet money on it, just by definition, I think energy storage needs to be the first one to make a massive shift forward.

36:38 DM: Awesome. Yeah, I was blown away, ’cause our house where I live, they have solar panels on it, and I turn on all the lights at night and my roommate is like, “Well, man, you’re just gonna waste… ” I was like, “No, we got solar panels.” He was like, “It’s night time. They don’t work.” I was like, “Doesn’t it store energy for the nighttime?” He was like, “No, it just uses it all up.” It blew me away, I had no idea. So yeah, I see that.

37:00 AS: Yeah. That’s interesting. I want to ask you a little bit about the Futurist Archives. With all this work you’re doing, you needed another outlet to write? Or was that part of wanting a legacy and putting your name on something?

37:16 TS: Yeah. So I’ll tell you guys the story of how it got started and… But basically, the motivation behind that is very non-scientific. I wanted to be a writer and an artist when I was growing up. And the arrogant side of me will tell you that I was pretty good at it, too, but don’t listen to that side of me. [chuckle] So I started that, because I just wanted like a… I wrote things here and there, and I put them in diaries, and I lost them, but then I was having a conversation with my mom actually over Skype and she asked me, “Hey, so what is this artificial intelligence that I keep hearing all about? What is it? Are they robots?” I was like… Well… And then I tried explaining it to her and then I realized that I couldn’t. It’s a very hard concept to accurately and truthfully depict to someone without making it sound jargony.

38:19 TS: So then I said, “You know what, mom… Wait till next week, I’ll write something up and I’ll send it to you.” So I wrote something up and I sent it to her, and she got it. So I was like, “Okay, so there is a need for this.” I mean, it’s not like a business idea because there’s a lot of people doing it, but I just wanna do it, A, for fun because I like writing, it gives me a creative output. And B, if there’s other people like my mom who want to come onto my site, and read stuff from my perspective that’s all the much, all the better. But, yeah I essentially started writing it for my mom and then it kind of grew and people liked it, so I just kept writing. I haven’t written in a while, though, ’cause I’ve been so busy, so…

39:02 AS: Yeah. And painting too. I just saw some of your art online, it’s awesome. You say you’re not arrogant about that, but [chuckle] I think you can afford to be. I enjoyed your blog post and the art was pretty impressive as well.

39:15 TS: I appreciate that, thank you.

39:17 AS: So, we haven’t talked too much about being on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list. What kinda doors has that opened for you since that happened?

39:25 TS: So, like the energy industry is a pretty old one in terms of the average age of people who work inside it and I’m trying to bring some paradigm shifts to it and to kind of change the way people look at things or change the way people do their jobs. And it’s always a rough, uphill battle to do that in any industry, but especially in the energy industry, just because they’ve done things the same way for over 100 years, it’s all the more difficult. And me being like, what, I just turned 26, right? No one would have listened to me, even if I had all the right ideas. But what this does is, it lends a hell of a lot of credibility to my voice. So it’s not about specific doors that it opened, it’s not like you get a cash reward with that or you get access to some secret party, nothing like that. [laughter] It’s just something to add to your calling card. Like, “Hey, I’m Tirthak Saha. I’m a Forbes 30 Under 30.” And then people start listening to you, like, “Okay, he’s been vetted by someone centrally, so he must know what he’s talking about. Let’s hear him out.” I’m not saying you have to agree with me, and I’m not saying I’m 100% right all the time, but it gives me the chance to talk, at least.

40:51 AS: Yeah, very cool. And you’ve mentioned Tesla a bunch of times in the conversation. And I think it’s kind of a natural fit in terms of energy and power and those things. But where does it go to from here? Is your name gonna be the next household name like Elon Musk or are you gonna be the one that does it and changes everything?

41:13 TS: Oh you bet…

41:14 AS: Is that the goal? [laughter]

41:15 TS: Oh you bet. Yeah, absolutely. [chuckle] No… So for personal goals, I tend to not make very long-term goals because life has a habit of kicking me in the shins pretty much every time I’ve tried to do that. But yeah, yeah. But if in the next five years, I have been able to create a product or an idea or a project that really helps improve the quality of life of people, and at the same time, move our environmental consciousness, and decision-making towards the right direction. I feel like I would have been successful. I’m not in it for the name or the fame, I don’t think anyone is. I don’t think Elon Musk did it to become Elon Musk. That’s just a side-product of you doing your best work on any given day. The people who actually plan for that actually never make it, so I’m not planning for it.

42:16 AS: Yeah, I agree, I listen to the You Made It Weird podcast with Pete Holmes all the time. And a recurring theme lately has been just like, if you do it to get into it for the money or the fame, you’re never gonna last. Like, if you don’t have that drive if you’re not hungry, and that just has to be the entire fiber of your being, you’re never gonna make it to that point anyways.

42:35 TS: Yep, absolutely. An actor doesn’t become an actor to win the Oscar, he becomes an actor to act, and then if his acting is really good because that’s what he loves doing, then he gets the Oscar. That’s a byproduct, not the goal.

42:50 AS: Yes, I agree.

42:50 DM: There’s the… I think a story that probably you may know about but they don’t know about, is the Wright brothers. And that there was a competitor to the Wright brothers and his drive was money. And he had a ton of backing, a ton of publicity and when he failed, you would have thought that, when he wasn’t first, you would have thought that he would have worked with the Wright brothers, he totally threw the whole project out ’cause he wasn’t first, he didn’t make the money, he didn’t care anymore, and that was it. So you can really tell that passion and drive for the better, to change something that you really care about is always gonna go above and beyond what money can do for you. So yeah, that’s really good.

43:31 TS: Right. Yeah, no, absolutely. You’re talking about Samuel Langley, right?

43:35 DM: I don’t even remember his name, that’s shows how…

[laughter]

43:39 TS: Yeah, I think he was like a government paid project. Yeah, you’re right, his story’s the one I remember. So I’m pretty sure it’s Sam Langley, but yeah, absolutely, you’re right, you’re on point. Yeah.

43:52 AS: Well Tirthak, I wanna really thank you for joining us. This has been an incredibly eye-opening and enjoyable conversation and we really liked talking with you and could probably go on for hours if you let us, but we’ll let you go. Before we say goodbye, I wanna give you a chance to let everyone know where they can find out more about you.

44:10 TS: Yeah, so I really appreciated the chance to be on this podcast, so thank you guys for inviting me. I had a great time actually. And you can find out more about me or my work on tirthaksaha.com. That’s just my personal website, I do update it once every 50 years. So, be on the lookout for that. But other than that, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active there. A lot of people reach out to me if they just wanna have a chat or discuss something that they have rolling around in their head, so I’d be more than happy to do that.

44:48 AS: Awesome, very cool. I wanna thank you again, and before I ask you to help me generate 1.21 gigawatts to get a time machine so I can make 30 before 32… Well, thank you again, thanks everyone for listening and we’ll catch you next time.

 

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