In this new GTM series, we're asking people in cleantech to tell us what their jobs are like. We hope the series can serve as a source of information and inspiration for recent graduates, professionals planning their careers or anyone who wants to transition into the industry. We also hope it makes cleantech opportunities more visible and accessible to those groups who are underrepresented in our growing industry, including women and people of color.
So you're thinking of becoming a renewables developer?
Solar, wind and energy storage projects are going up across the country, creating tens of thousands of jobs for the people building and operating them. But where do such projects come from in the first place?
Meet K. Harley McDonald, senior business developer at Avangrid Renewables. Avangrid is a utility group based in the Northeast whose renewables arm is one of the country’s biggest owners of wind and solar farms. In her role, McDonald works with teammates to originate renewables projects, convince local communities of their value, and steer them through a permitting and design process that can take years.
It’s a job that requires diligence and patience, but the payoff can be big: getting to see a new clean energy project rise from the ground.
What do developers do each day?
There is no average day, McDonald says. “In some ways, it’s just managing the little things that add up to the big thing. It really depends on where your project is in the process.”
In the early stages of a project, McDonald negotiates with landowners to secure a site — a process that can take around a year. Once the land is under control, she works with environmental consultants and permitting agencies, assessing everything from how a project may affect local wildlife to its visual impact. That can take another year or two.
If a project looks like it’s going to pan out — and not all do — McDonald works with engineers to lay out the wind turbines or solar panels, and with meteorologists to analyze the level of power generation that Avangrid can expect from a site. Eventually, the company will look for a buyer for the power and make a final investment decision on whether to go ahead with construction.
And that’s just one project. A developer may have multiple projects on the go at any given time; McDonald currently has five solar projects in her pipeline for Avangrid, all of them in Arizona and California, with an average size of around 200 megawatts.
The job may require significant amounts of travel, depending on a project’s phase and how things are going. “I don’t travel as much as some developers,” McDonald says. “I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve realized there are times when you need to have face time and other times when an email or phone call will work fine. But in a busy time, especially when you’re doing permitting and public outreach and hearings, you could easily be out traveling once a week.”
What skills, traits or education do renewables developers need?
Project developers come from a broad range of backgrounds, and McDonald — who holds a master's degree in archaeology — is a prime example of that diversity.
Her first career as a field archaeologist took her to shipwrecks in the Caribbean and Mayan sites in Belize, working for clients like oil companies that needed to make sure projects would not damage cultural sites. Eventually, she took a junior position with Spanish wind developer Acciona, switching to Avangrid four years later as her career progressed.
“The big learning curve was the complexity of developing these projects,” she says.
“My first project was a wind farm in coastal California, just outside of Santa Barbara. It was right next to a military base, so it was extremely complicated. It was very controversial. The environmental impact document was big, long and detailed. There were a lot of public hearings; it was appealed; there were lawsuits.”
“I was overwhelmed,” McDonald laughs. “Had I started on a wind farm in Texas, my experience would have been vastly different.”
There is a variety of potential entry points to a career in renewables project development. “You could have a background in engineering, in biology, in economics," McDonald says.
“You definitely need to be someone who is self-motivated. You need to be able to be given a task, then go off and do it. You need to be able to manage your time and priorities on a long list of to-do items — a very long list.”
Developers must be capable of digesting huge volumes of detailed technical documents. Verbal and written communication skills are vital, from developing relationships with community members to updating distant teammates on a project's progress.
Patience and a level head are also key. When a project hits a wall, successful developers find a way to regroup and work around the problem. McDonald’s experience with her first wind farm helped prepare her for more challenging projects down the road. One such project — Avangrid’s 131-megawatt Tule wind farm in rural San Diego County — began development work in 2004 and didn’t finish construction for another 14 years.
“That project is my legacy, at least so far,” McDonald said.
“The challenge with that one was [that] it’s located in multiple jurisdictions. I had to permit it through the Bureau of Land Management, the state of California, the county of San Diego and the Bureau of Indian Affairs because it was partially on tribal land. The environmental impact document evaluated my project along with two others that were being developed, and it took two years to write — at over 11,000 pages.”
Is the industry changing?
Of course. In many parts of the U.S., renewables projects progress more rapidly than they used to. In a state like Texas, a wind farm may move from origination to completion in as little as three years, McDonald says. The more projects that get built in an area, the smoother things tend to go.
“It’s really hard doing the first project in area where the community knows nothing about it. And it’s almost harder to do the second project, because there’s a lot of lessons learned they want to implement for the second project — if anything, they get more conservative.”
Things tend to get easier as communities grow accustomed to wind and solar farms in their midst and the local benefits they bring. When McDonald started, renewable projects were still a relative novelty. Today there are around 180 gigawatts installed.
Even in communities without direct experience, “people know what you’re talking about now. They may have friends or family they can call and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this? Has this been good for your community?’”
Another shift is the steady tilt away from onshore wind and toward utility-scale solar, with the latter expected to be a substantially bigger market through the 2020s.
There are similarities to developing wind and solar projects, but some important differences too, McDonald says. With their spinning blades high off the ground, wind projects have a bigger potential impact on bird and bat species. But wind projects use up little ground space, allowing landowners to continue growing crops or livestock; that’s not the case with many solar projects.
Would you recommend the career to a young person?
“Absolutely, no question,” McDonald says. The renewables industry is growing and there’s no end in sight, as more utilities, states and cities set ambitious multidecade clean energy targets. Wood Mackenzie expects the U.S. to add another 160 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity over the next five years alone, and new avenues are opening for developers, such as offshore wind.
“I’ve only worked for two companies in this industry, but I have a lot of friends who work for other companies, and from what I’ve seen there’s really good job stability. Different companies have different cultures, but I’ve generally found myself working with smart, interesting, fun people."
What’s the best part of the job?
“My favorite part is my least favorite part, and that’s the variety,” McDonald says. “There’s never a dull moment. In some ways, you wish you could just have another project that’s the same as the one before it, so that you know exactly how to do it. But it never works out that way.”