On the Level with Michelle Bowen, EDP Renewables
June 18, 2019
Michelle Bowen is an Originator at EDP Renewables North America (EDPR NA), a leading global renewable energy company with wind farms and solar parks throughout North America. In her role, Michelle helps companies, cities, states and utilities meet their sustainability goals through the procurement of renewable energy from EDPR NA’s facilities. In this Q&A, we got Michelle’s take on what’s accelerating and standing in the way of renewable energy development in the U.S.
The growth of wind and solar development has been explosive over the past five years. What were the key drivers behind that, and what do you see as the biggest drivers of growth in the next five years?
Two words: cost reduction. The cost of wind and solar technologies has decreased dramatically over the past five years, by 23% and 73% respectively since 2010, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Buyers know that procuring renewable energy is a way to lock in record low energy prices for the term of the agreement.
We’ve also seen growing interest in renewable energy procurement from non-traditional buyers, such as commercial and industrial (C&I) entities. I thank those first C&I customers for being real innovators and paving the way for future C&Is to procure renewable energy. Today, procuring renewable energy seems like the status quo for sustainability-minded companies. Procuring renewable energy via a power purchase agreement (PPA) not only secures affordable, long-term energy, it also helps a company build its brand and meet sustainability goals. It’s really a win-win.
To date, much of the C&I procurement announced has been by buyers with large loads. I think one of the biggest drivers of future growth will be that smaller buyers will want to get in the game.
On the flip side, what will be the biggest barriers to renewable energy development?
Our grid is changing quickly, and renewable energy is inherently an intermittent resource. In order to manage high levels of renewable energy on the grid, we need grid operators to demonstrate leadership in managing the grid and to make use of innovative technology. Without that, it will become more time and money-intensive for renewables to interconnect to the grid and add more clean energy to our system.
In 2018, more corporations entered into power purchase agreements than ever before. Do you see that trend continuing in 2019 and beyond? What will need to change for more companies to participate?
I think there was a strong push in 2018 for corporations to sign deals for wind farms with anticipated commercial operation beginning in 2020, as these may still qualify for the full federal tax credit. I think the trend will continue, as more corporations see the benefits of entering into a virtual PPA and also as they attempt to lock in federal tax credits before they step down.
That said, the majority of renewable energy procured to date has been from a handful of companies. For more companies to participate, I think we need to make it easier for companies to procure energy, and particularly, for companies to procure small amounts of energy from large projects. This is essential to enable companies who either have small load or are just stepping into the renewable energy space to secure long-term, affordable clean energy from large projects that may benefit from economies of scale. The challenge is on both the supply and demand side, as it has historically been a lot easier for developers to sign an entire project to one or two companies as opposed to dozens.
What technology or grid infrastructure will need to be developed to support a 100% renewable energy future?
Our grid infrastructure needs to be nimble enough to quickly respond to the intermittency of renewables. A smart and interconnected grid is more adaptable to changes in the weather and can more seamlessly integrate different technologies. We can achieve this level of flexibility with existing and new technologies. One change that we can make now is to have a more interconnected grid with transmission lines that connect the different regions, so that power that is undervalued in one may be sent to another where there is more demand. Some power markets are already moving toward integration, which will immensely help the development of renewables.
Climate change headlines are full of doom and gloom. What gives you hope?
We have a grave problem on our hands, and we are not on track to solve it. We all have a responsibility to reduce our impact on the environment, and we have the opportunity to do so both at an individual and a corporate level. I find hope in the steps we’ve taken to-date, be it by switching to renewable energy, foregoing the use of single-use plastic, or simply remembering to turn the lights off.