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RES Americas -- Aiming for a transition

UNITED STATES: Susan Reilly, head of one of the US's top renewable-energy firms, talks to Windpower Monthly about the need for carbon reduction and a clear energy policy, and why RES Americas is more focused on onshore construction and transmission lines than entering the US offshore sector.

Susan Reilly: “When you build wind farms,  you get the knowledge and experience of what is needed” (pic: AWEA)
Susan Reilly: “When you build wind farms, you get the knowledge and experience of what is needed” (pic: AWEA)

Susan Reilly, president and chief executive of RES Americas, is one of the wind industry's most prominent female leaders. Her list of job titles includes: deputy CEO of UK-based parent RES Group, a leader in Europe's offshore sector; president of RES Canada; and chair of the board of directors of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Educated in Scotland, Zambia and Uganda, and a former head of strategy for a large European utility heavily involved in wind power, she comes to the US with a passion for wind's role in the future of reduced carbon emissions.

RES Americas, which has built 9% of the US's operational wind capacity, will probably not be involved in the country's offshore sector before 2030, she says. "I wouldn't rule it out, (but) we see expanding renewables onshore as more cost-effective (in the US)," she adds.

After that, will RES Americas enter the offshore sector, to help the US meet the Department of Energy's (DOE) scenario of 35% wind power by 2050? "I think it's reasonable for offshore in that timeframe to have a role," says Reilly, who worked for 13 years at Scottish Power, including a spell as group strategy director when she helped grow the UK's largest wind business at the time.

Since 1997, RES Americas has developed, built, owned and operated wind, solar and storage projects in the US. The Colorado-based company has a renewable-energy and storage construction portfolio of more than 7GW.

As a top-tier company, RES Americas is unusual in offering turnkey development services to others, such as utilities, without owning the projects themselves.

Strategic focus

While ownership may be more risky, it can also offer greater returns, but Reilly says: "Like any business we need to decide strategically where to focus our efforts. Our strengths are in development, design, construction and asset management."

Large companies such as RES Americas are well-positioned to get good pricing from turbine makers. "They have the track record to allow for more favourable financing and seem to have the streamlined operations to lower operational expenditure," says Dan Shreve, a partner at Make Consulting.

RES Americas' prime geographical focus is the US. During this year and next it is both developing and constructing over 800MW wind farms, including the Origin, Keechi, Longhorn North, Border, and Pleasant Valley projects.

Reilly notes that the US lacks a consistent energy policy and says she hopes the DOE's re-examination of the technical feasibility of reaching 20% wind by 2030 will at least produce a roadmap. "With some focus we can get there," she says. "We need 10GW a year to get to the 2030 goal." Given that the US installed 13GW of wind in 2012, it is possible, she suggests.

Wind's potential for reducing carbon emissions was a key focus of her launch as AWEA chair. Relating that to RES Group strategy, she says: "We need to completely redefine how we generate, transmit and consume energy across the world. We will transition away from fossil fuels. We want to be a leader in this transition."

Reilly welcomes the proposed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limiting carbon emissions from existing fossil-fuel generation. "It's moving things in the right direction," she says, noting that the EPA has said that states can use renewable energy for compliance. "We're going to have to do a lot more in the US." If the rules were approved, they would encourage regulators to have a dialogue with the wind industry to discuss how effective wind can be, she believes.

On the subject of a carbon tax for the US, she says: "We need to incentivise and motivate the US to reduce carbon. There's a number of possible (ways of doing that). I'm not advocating for a particular policy at this stage." But she adds: "The time for debating carbon control is over. It's time to knuckle down. We need energy policy in the US to reward forms of energy that emit no carbon."

Reilly cites the report Risky Business; The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, published in June, which looks at the financial challenges of not dealing with climate change. The co-chairs of the project are Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Henry Paulson, treasury secretary under George W Bush; and activist billionaire Tom Steyer. "When the ex-treasury secretary likens the climate crisis to the financial crisis, business leaders and legislators should take action to ensure policies are in place to address the crisis with more urgency," she says.

Why is she optimistic for wind having a role in carbon reduction? "We've already built a major industry that can be part of it," she says. "As a Brit coming (to the US) three or four years ago, I have seen a real move here towards action on carbon."

RES Americas' other geographic priorities are Canada and Chile. Regarding Canada, she says: "The next two years offer good opportunities for wind and solar in several key provinces. There's less visibility beyond that, so a softening in the market is possible after 2016." In Chile, she notes that RES Americas has a development office in Santiago as well as a local development partner. "Our focus has been largely to advance our pipeline of wind projects and to look for opportunities in solar," she says. The Santiago office oversees RES's business elsewhere in Latin America.

Knowledge and experience

Unusually for a wind farm developer and builder, RES Americas' portfolio includes 860 kilometres of overhead and transmission lines. "When you build wind farms, you get the knowledge and experience of what's needed. That's a market that we can address," explains Reilly.

Is this the start of something that RES Americas might become more involved in? "We think (transmission) will be a growing market," she says. "It's definitely something that we're skilled in." Indeed, much new transmission will also be needed for the US to achieve the DOE's wind scenarios. "We need to be smart about the investments," she says.

Interstate electricity

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) has already approved policy changes that have contributed to significant progress in planning and paying for transmission, she notes. "Less progress has been made, however, in permitting interstate transmission lines. It would be helpful to provide a more robust federal back-stop authority for Ferc in this area. Ferc has the ability to permit interstate natural gas pipelines, but not electric transmission."

What of the well-funded opposition to wind power in America? "There are negative consequences for wind energy," she says. "You find that in all walks of life, people who have an interest in the status quo resist change."

She returns to climate change, an important point for Reilly, who is a non-executive director of the Helios Foundation, which promotes sustainable, affordable energy in Africa. She believes that the US could make a huge difference if it were to lead. And she has hope.

"I've seen how you can break through and achieve a transition," she says, referring to Scotland, which, in spite of being a small country, still has a goal of 80% renewables by 2050. "It makes me optimistic."

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