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Collecting experiences and moving the renewables industry forward

A desire to do it all got me to the renewables industry, and it continues to be one of my main motivations. Like the industry itself, I have grown, tripped, tried new things, and evolved over the years. As an undergraduate, I wanted to try everything: biology, chemistry, languages, anthropology, music theory, underwater basket weaving.... Environmental Studies allowed me to touch on all of those things (and in offshore wind, I suppose underwater basket weaving isn’t too far-fetched!). At that time, renewables were firmly described as “alternative,” and climate change was a fringe theory. Sticking with renewable energy given its trajectory to become much bigger in the future was one of the few things I’ve done with foresight.

When I first started in the industry, I was solely focused on onshore wind. The market was still fragile—when the PTC tax credits expired, the market would contract in a variety of ways. Now there are policies, a regulatory framework, tax credits, and a supply chain that has allowed the industry to become increasingly cost competitive and gain enough momentum to be a mainstay contributor to our domestic energy supply. One of the reasons I decided to be a consultant was it offered the potential to do more than just one thing—and now my work includes offshore wind, solar, storage, and hydrogen, directly reflecting how the industry has grown.

Energy security

Two decades in, my drive has taken a new angle: energy security and reducing global conflict. Renewable energy offers a reliable, sustainable domestic energy supply. Leveraging what I have learned in the North American market to support players in the developing world to leapfrog over importing fossil fuels straight to domestic renewables is a powerful daily motivator. Even in dynamic markets like offshore wind, the momentum and social license to develop and operate renewable energy is great enough to carry us through developing and changing market conditions. While it’s important for those of us in the industry to avoid overconfidence in our ability to transform the world with the stroke of a pen, renewable energy does have the fundamental potential to change humankind’s trajectory.

About ten years ago, I was the project manager for work DNV did for the British Virgin Islands electricity company, helping them to develop an energy strategy to create a carbon neutral grid. As a small island-nation that relied on imported diesel to generate electricity, their purchasing power was low, and ratepayers were carrying a very high cost. The country was at the mercy of the global oil market, and renewable energy provided a path to use their own resources to generate electricity.

A small multidisciplinary team—myself, a waste-to-energy engineer, a wind engineer, a solar PV engineer, and a transmission and distribution expert—went to the BVI and started exploring. We looked at schools where they wanted to install rooftop solar; remote areas with the potential for solar and storage and microgrids; we joined them in their control rooms and their board rooms and their classrooms to figure out how to combine local knowledge and our expertise to write and execute a sustainable energy policy.

By really exploring the landscape and learning about the needs of the population we were able to act as a trusted advisor and give them guidance to build projects that would work. Early on wind was under consideration, but in the end, it wasn’t a good fit. Instead, they’ve installed some residential solar, built a solar and storage microgrid, and improved their transmission and distribution system. Supporting them in achieving agency over their energy security was a very small way we could work against the long-lasting effectives of colonialism.

Empowering curiosity

What I learned from that project in the British Virgin Islands, and from many of the other projects that I’ve worked on over the years, is the power of the energy transition to not just mitigate climate change but also help communities achieve energy security. In the late 2000’s, we were “green collar” scientists eager to save the environment. We also were not representative of the communities where we were often working; we were overwhelmingly white and socioeconomically privileged. As a curious person, I seek inspiration from voices that have historically been marginalized or silenced in the wake of large infrastructure and energy projects. As a leader, my work will never be done to attract, retain, and amplify the voices of diverse talent. Working towards equitable renewable energy access requires that I remove barriers, empower, and sponsor people that represent the communities in which we live and work.

The renewable energy industry has evolved into an exciting, mainstream industry that people are now clamoring to enter. There are still some uncertainties, and it’s important for the industry to move carefully and intentionally, even as we think boldly about the future. It might be a bit of a wild ride, but I’m curious to see where we go.

3/20/2024 2:00:00 PM

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Cory Gessert

Cory Gessert

VP, Owner's Engineering & Advisory Services

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Energy in Transition