When John Belizaire co-founded Soluna Holdings in 2018, it was with a very specific purpose in mind.
“We set out to develop renewable energy on the African continent,” he says. “Our focus was to find stranded renewable energy sites that were hard to develop and use vertical integration, where you build the power plant and its offtake – its use for the power – at the same time.”
While attempting to monetize such a site in Morocco, the Soluna team made an important realization.
“What we discovered was an interesting relationship between computing and energy,” he says. “Most computing can’t be done anywhere, but there’s a whole new class called batchable computing that’s highly computer-intensive and, in some cases, very energy-intensive, that can be done in remote places close to renewable power plants.”
As CEO, you have to ensure that that focus is always clear in the organization and it’s also clear for you.
Meanwhile, there’s an abundance of renewable energy resources around the world that haven’t been fully exploited because structurally and financially, it’s too difficult.
“We thought by integrating these two things and bringing them to these locations, it would be a new way to build that energy,” he tells The CEO Magazine.
They were right.
“That was OK, but in 2020 we wondered how we could take it to the next level,” Belizaire says. “Was this stranded energy problem local to Africa, or does it exist anywhere else in the world? And if so, could the problem be big enough to need this unique solution?”
As it turns out, the answer was yes.
“In fact, it’s kind of a secret problem in the renewable energy space.”
One of the drivers of the renewable energy future is the humble solar panel. Able to draw in the sun’s limitless supply of power and harness it in a variety of ways, solar panels have joined wind farms as icons of a greener tomorrow.
Therein lies the problem: curtailment. The ever-growing number of renewable energy farms and utility scale solar farm installations mean a greater supply of electricity than ever – more than grids can support. There’s also less demand.
Combined, these factors can cause network stress or even system overload through oversupply.
We’re about making renewable energy the world’s primary source of power.
Curtailment temporarily stops that oversupply, but at a cost of wasted energy. It’s believed that by 2050, more than 20 percent of renewable energy will be lost to curtailment.
Enter Soluna, which seeks to build specialized data centers designed to act as a battery to help absorb the influx of energy.
“We’re about making renewable energy the world’s primary source of power,” Belizaire says. “We want to accomplish that by using computing, which is a very fast-growing, demand-rich, scalable solution to the wasted energy problem in the world. And it’s available now.”
Building the brand
As always, attempting something that has never been done takes extra effort and a steadfast network of partners. As Soluna has embraced its formative challenge, Belizaire and his team have worked hard to build its brand as the company with the right expertise for a unique problem in the energy transition.
“We’ve done a great job at that,” he says. “And we’ve now introduced the opportunity for Soluna to go after enterprises that are looking to make their computing more sustainable. Our number one ambition is to become a leading solution provider for the renewable energy space. Second is becoming a next-generation sustainable computing platform.”
Our number one ambition is to become a leading solution provider for the renewable energy space. Second is becoming a next-generation sustainable computing platform.
The first step to achieving both is Project Dorothy, a 100-megawatt facility in west Texas.
“Out there was a 150-megawatt facility that had suffered from curtailment for the last five years, and it was getting worse,” Belizaire says. “Project Dorothy, our flagship data center, is absorbing the wind farm’s wasted energy, and it’s become our blueprint for the types of projects we’ll be doing in the future.”
Also in the pipeline are two gigawatts of additional projects of various sizes across the United States.
“Our goal is to seek investment to build more facilities co-located with renewable power plants and double our footprint,” he says. “We have about 75 megawatts up and spinning now, so we want to double our footprint every year. Most of our facilities right now are Bitcoin mining-focused so we can monetize the infrastructure investment and return capital very quickly.”
Looking for partners
Over the next year, Belizaire wants to partner with firms outside the United States to diversify the types of revenue and business Soluna is involved with.
“Bitcoin is a stepping stone, where the broader high performance computing space is where we really want to be,” he explains.
The efforts thus far have been aided by its partners, who took a leap of faith to help realize the Soluna vision.
Getting to the top of the mountain is not the true goal. It’s about mastering how to get there.
“MurtCo has been instrumental in helping us achieve our goals at our key data center projects,” Belizaire says. “They’ve been a critical partner through the entire development and construction process from early design stages to fabrication to identification and negotiation with the dozens of vendors we’ve needed.”
Likewise, engineering firm Collier Associates has lent its technical prowess to the process.
“Collier is the definition of a strategic partner,” he says. “For all our projects, they provide fantastic engineering support and peer review, supply chain management, identification of key vendors and construction management.”
As for the kind of person that would head up such a pioneering venture, Belizaire says he’s attracted to solving difficult problems.
“Getting to the top of the mountain is not the true goal,” he says. “It’s about mastering how to get there.”
Early on in his entrepreneurial career, the former Intel network architect says he came up short.
“I just felt dumb. I felt like I knew nothing about how to build a company or raise capital, so I cold-called CEOs in the Boston area and asked for 30 minutes of their time to help me learn,” he recalls.
The experiment worked. “It was one of the best things I ever did because I met some incredible people. One serial entrepreneur told me, ‘Remember one thing: laser focus’. Becoming good at one thing and doing it really well as a company is the key to success.”
In the years since, Belizaire has maintained that focus and allowed his team to draw from it.
“As CEO, you have to ensure that the focus is always clear in the organization and it’s also clear for you,” he says. “Soluna is solving the very complex problem of curtailment by focusing only on it and doing it really well. The opportunity for us is to reshape the narrative and make it clear this is really about a whole new industry. Remember, the internet had a similar narrative challenge early in its life.”