Chris Gould, Exelon’s SVP of Corporate Strategy and Chief Sustainability and Innovation Officer, spends his days thinking about how innovation and new technologies can offer solutions to today’s energy problems. Chris's recent trip to Antarctica gave him new insight into the important ways clean energy innovation could impact life on planet Earth. This is part two of his story. This is part two of his story. If you’re just joining us, read part one here.
Lucky Number Seven
You can’t take an expedition through the icy waters of Antarctica without doing an actual polar plunge. At least, that’s what I told myself. To do it, you jump from a short landing off the ship. You’re tethered to the ship with a rope, but there’s a lot of slack. You’re expected to get yourself back; they’ll only use the rope if you really need help.
The day of my plunge turned out to be the windiest day of the trip. I had to wait for the go-ahead, standing on the landing – dressed only in my bathing suit -- surrounded by people in five layers. It may have only been three or four minutes, but it felt like an hour. By the time they told me I could jump, I was already so cold I was more than ready.
In the water, I lifted my numb hands to make the number seven, for my seventh continent. I’d envisioned that image leading up to the trip to get myself mentally inspired. I think of myself as an immersion traveler; when I visit a country, I like to be a part of the life and culture there. By plunging into the Antarctic Ocean, I was “immersing” myself in the waters around my last continent.
Innovation Saved the Whales
When I was preparing for this trip, I thought I would encounter one thing – ice. Of course, I did, but I also found surprising sources of inspiration that seemed to relate directly to me and my role at Exelon. And not just about sustainability.
One morning excursion took us to Deception Island. From afar it looks like a normal island, but as you get closer you realize it’s a volcanic island, and you can get inside its center. There, we saw outposts of whale oil expeditions from more than 100 years ago. It was eerie, almost like the whalers had vanished overnight, leaving their clothes and boots along with the boilers and other equipment. Whale oil was an innovation in its time. Unlike other sources of energy, it was odorless and smokeless, and you could use it to light lamps. But it was expensive, so its early adopters were wealthy; it was a sign of status. Hunted almost to the brink of extinction, thousands of whales were killed, and their remains processed into oil. Thankfully, another innovation saved them -- kerosene was discovered to be a cheaper, more available source of light and whale hunting slowed and eventually stopped.
John D. Rockefeller was the first to start building factories to refine crude oil into kerosene. In 1870, his operation became Standard Oil, which grew into the world’s first multinational corporation. Later of course, lighting your home by kerosene lamp gave way to the light bulb.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to experience such a literal connection to what I do every day. Just as we can draw a path from whale oil to today’s sources of light and heat, today’s customers, just like yesterday’s, need solutions that are easily available, clean and sustainable. I found myself asking, what’s next? I get excited about the new ideas I see generated daily at Exelon.
This trip also provided an unexpected lesson on leadership. We saw some of the places where British explorer Ernest Shackleton led expeditions in the early 1900s. His ship, the Endurance, was crushed by ice and his crew camped on that ice for months until it disintegrated. Only then were they able to access their lifeboats and travel hundreds of miles further to land. Hearing the story is harrowing enough; seeing that icy terrain and imagining how he kept his men motivated under those conditions helped me truly understand what it means to be a courageous leader. With even a fraction of Shackleton’s motivation and perseverance, we can push our company and industry to new terrain.
Like No Place on Earth
The best way to describe what it felt like to be in Antarctica is -- unearthly. It’s the closest thing I will experience to leaving the planet. On the ship, they showed us an artist’s rendering of what the continent must have looked like millennia before, when it was connected to the other land masses. It was covered with green trees. If you told its earliest inhabitants that one day their land would be completely covered in ice, they would have thought you were crazy. Looking at it now makes you believe and understand how dramatically things can change over time.
Every experience on my trip sparked more questions. What will the planet look like in the future and what can we do to preserve it? What am I trying to achieve? What does the future of clean energy look like and what is Exelon’s role?
While I continue to contemplate the answers, the feeling of being somewhere that was at once on earth and at the same time out of this world, will stay with me, and my dad and brother, forever.