I was fortunate to have the opportunity to interview one of the Cleantech panelists and a 2014 UNC-Chapel Hill alum, Mr. David Nenon, for the Supply Chain and Manufacturing Track. Mr. Nenon currently works as a supply chain manager for electric vehicle battery production at Ford Motor Company. His day-to-day work consists of financial modeling, constructing analytical tools to assess risks/benefits associated with supply-side decisions, and promoting the development/usage of advanced technology. Mr. Nenon discussed how he enjoys the work he is currently conducting, finding it both fulfilling and inspiring.
Yet, Mr. Nenon’s path, however, has not always been a clearcut one. As a young student with scientific inclinations and an interest in sustainability, Mr. Nenon came into UNC’s undergraduate program with a blank slate and an open mind. Within his first year, he became involved in research in the applied mathematics lab studying the impacts of the deep horizon oil spill. He derived mathematical models to chart the ecological implications as well as prevention and mitigation efforts to effectively control these kinds of events in the future. It took time, but he eventually discovered his niche in clean technology, with a particular interest in solar energy.
Mr. Nenon gradually became engaged with the study of clean technology as he started conducting his own experiments and solving important real-life climatic situations. While the technologies were well developed in the early 2000s, political and public hesitance, as well as a lack of clear understanding of the commercial viability of clean energy, especially solar, painted clean energy as an optimistic vision for the future rather than a reality. Mr. Nenon explains that particularly after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the strong momentum of support for decarbonization efforts, now, the clean energy transition “feels more real” than only a decade ago. Clearly, the cleantech space is a rapidly evolving and dynamic area. This, therefore, allows individuals with diverse backgrounds and specialties, whether that be on the communications, technology, financial, or research side, to join this field, have an impact and make a name for themselves. Mr. Nenon believes that as we constantly push the “technological envelope” globally, we are further emphasizing the need and logic behind decarbonization.
Thus, after his undergraduate experience, he pursued his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. While there, he further explored solar energy, specifically “quantum dots,” which he describes as small semiconductors that are collections of hundreds to thousands of atoms covered with a layer of organic material. This technology can be used “for bioimaging, solar energy, catalysis, etc.,” Mr. Nenon explains. In this formative experience, he began to draw a connection between the value of fundamental and translational science. While his research, like many others that seek to expand fundamental science, may not instantly demonstrate real-life applications, Mr. Nenon comments on how the revelation of the lithium-ion battery, came out of small, yet significant, chemical experiments. Eventually, his work culminated in his final Graduate thesis, for which he received a Graduate Student Research Paper Award in 2020.
Towards the end of his graduate program, after having spent considerable time reflecting on his research and the technical laboratory skills he acquired, Mr. Nenon received an interview opportunity from a friend at Tesla for an intern role in battery supply chains. Joining full-time in 2020, he saw tremendous possibilities for the future of renewable and electric vehicle technology. Mr. Nenon honed his “critical thinking skills” from grad school to confront complex supply chain challenges at Tesla in unique ways. Thus, embracing a research-oriented mindset, he was able to overcome the status quo in business, rather than “solving the same problem over again,” he notes. One of the largest hurdles delaying the commercial viability of electric vehicle production is the sticker price. One of Mr. Nenon’s main objectives during his time at Tesla was ensuring decreased costs while maintaining quality products. Mr. Nenon realized reaching sustainability and decarbonization goals meant that the cleantech industry must be profitable, robust, constantly innovating, and accessible to all people. Thus, when the opportunity arose for Mr. Nenon to join Ford Motor Company, he saw this as the proper move forward in his career. As Mr. Nenon points out, Tesla is especially proficient at capitalizing on a West Coast market. Yet, as Ford is a more mature company whose clients reach all over the national landscape, this enables clean energy technology to broaden its scope. “Ford makes cars that people all over the country want,” Mr. Nenon says, and as such may have a strong chance to reach a more diverse group of individuals.
Looking forward, Mr. Nenon claims he will remain in the electric vehicle supply chain for the time being. Learning a great deal about the energy storage industry from leaders in Tesla and Ford, he conveys excitement about what the next steps are for him. “I am always keeping an eye out for what is bottlenecking the whole clean energy revolution – and right now I believe that to be energy storage,” Mr. Nenon says.
This article was written by Victoria Farella, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Science. She is currently an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern involved with the Supply Chains and Manufacturing panel. Connect with her on LinkedIn.