Arno van den Berg (Vandebron): “Technology is the enabler of everything we do”
In a decade, Vandebron has grown from a renewable energy supplier to a player that guides consumers in the energy transition and electric driving and helps producers market their green energy efficiently and profitably through technology. Much of the technical and strategic knowledge for this “second chapter in the energy transition” comes from CTO Arno van den Berg, recently nominated for the Dutch CIO of the Year Award.
What is currently the most significant task facing your organization?
“Chapter two of the energy transition, that’s what we call it. For the first few years, we were completely focused on chapter one: adding more renewable energy to the Dutch energy mix, with the mission to accelerate the energy transition to 100 percent green energy in the Netherlands. That’s going very well. But the challenge is chapter two: ensuring that one hundred percent green energy is always available.”
“We are well positioned as a greentech platform on which we can build the products and services that are the answer to that challenge. Society needs to change its consumption patterns, and technology must help. “So we only consume energy as soon as green energy is available.”
What role do IT, data and digitization play in this journey, and what is your angle on this as a leader?
“A bit of a lame answer: everything! Technology is the enabler of everything we do, but the complexity is also increasing incredibly fast. One of our biggest challenges – which we are good at and need to stay good at – is keeping the complexity manageable so we don’t slow down. Instead, we need to accelerate. My role is to set the organization up for that.”
“Consumers have started to electrify en masse. For example, they get an electric car and buy a charging station from us. Only they are not yet thinking about when they are going to charge. In the early evening, there is a big shortage in the energy market. There is often little green energy available. How do you get customers to charge their car when the sun is shining, or the wind is blowing, and what kind of contract form can we offer to promote that?”
A dynamic contract like Vandebron offers, where people get a different price for energy by the hour, could be the answer. The Green Energy Predictor could also be part of the solution, where you can see what time of day the most green energy is in the energy mix. “But it also involves more complicated solutions, where we work with the national and regional grid operators,” said the CTO. “They can notify us if there is an imminent energy shortage. Then, we can switch off charging points or have them charge more slowly to contribute to the balance in the grid. The model behind that is quite complex.”
“But how do we ensure the customer understands and wants the product? You have to tell the story well and ensure the incentives are right. Customers have to be able to get something out of it; they have to be able to get a discount. It gets pretty complex fairly quickly. We have traditionally been good at that, but it must still prove itself at scale. Now, it’s only about charging points we offer, but it will soon be about heat pumps, solar panels, and home batteries.”
“One of our biggest challenges – which we are good at and need to stay good at – is keeping the complexity manageable so we don’t slow down.”
“As a leader, you must have a clear vision of where the market is going. Then, it’s about translating in small steps to how you will get there. I think that’s the important reason I’m here: to understand where we’re going and know how to get the organization to achieve success toward that vision continuously. So that the organization is successful, and so are our customers.”
What are you proud of?
“A great example is the vertical integration. We started as a party that sells green energy and, in doing so, leaned heavily on parties with specific capabilities. Step by step, we brought those dependencies in and built our core platform into a mature, vertical platform, allowing us to trade energy in the market to make the correct forecasts with our producers. In this, we also integrated our electric driving platform. We have created a unique position where we can bring people into the energy transition.”
“In addition, we are well able to come up with solutions that fit within the decentralized role that the market will play. Those solutions often have to do with smart control. An example is curtailment: we can temporarily switch off solar or wind farms at certain times to keep the yield high. Otherwise, negative prices disadvantage producers who generate wind or solar energy. We automate this completely, making it profitable as well. These things accelerate the transition; that’s what we focus on.”
What challenges do you still face as a leader, and how will you try to solve them?
“I’ve been CTO for six years. The danger is that much knowledge is attached to me, so people come to me for expertise. When it comes to the growth of the company, I am most valuable in guiding the organization to come up with certain solutions. But I shouldn’t be the one who necessarily comes up with them. I try to set up people and teams well and ensure that the teams, in aligned autonomy, can do the right things without our leadership team being involved in everything. This is, I think, typically the founder’s dilemma in a company that has been around for nine years. How do you ensure that you are in control as a leadership team without having to direct many things?”
What is your motto? Do you have any tips for your peers?
“Change is the only constant, especially in the dynamic energy market and energy transition. So you must set up your organization to be agile, react quickly, and respond to customers’ changing needs.”