Renewable Energy Teams Are Raising Expectations to Accelerate a Powerful Transformation
Jeanette Ortlieb, PMP, Distributed Power Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa
BY TEGAN JONES
PORTRAITS BY BRANDON BARNARD
PHOTO COURTESY OF ØRSTED
Ørsted’s Hornsea One wind farm under construction off northern England
Smarter, cheaper renewable energy is on the way—and it can’t come fast enough. Power generated from next-gen clean sources is integral to stemming the impact of climate change and satisfying a nearly insatiable global demand for energy. Between 2018 and 2050, world energy consumption will grow nearly 50 percent, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates. Strong economic growth in developing countries will drive most of this increased demand, as a rising global middle class gains more purchasing power.
As many governments rethink how they meet local energy needs amid droughts, floods and wildfires, organizations are storming ahead with projects that will help increase the viability and bolster the appetite for power sourced from wind, solar, hydropower and biomass.
This year, Ørsted will complete the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the east coast of northern England. At 1.2 gigawatts, the Hornsea One project will deliver enough electricity to power 1 million homes. By the time the first three Hornsea projects are completed, they will supply enough power for more than 4.3 million homes.
The Hornsea program is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the EIA, 50 percent of energy will be generated by renewables by 2050—with wind and solar power accounting for more than 70 percent of renewables.
This overwhelming demand—paired with the plummeting cost of renewable technology—has shifted growth in the renewables sector to warp speed, says Paul Freunscht, PMP, executive director of renewable energy at technical consultancy firm GOPA International Energy Consultants GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany.
“Costs are still going down rapidly—and the cheapest form of producing electricity wins in the end,” he says. “The only thing I see that is still slowing down this effect is the existing subsidies for thermal power generation. But, to be honest, I see no chance for stopping fluctuating renewable energies at this point.”
—Paul Freunscht, PMP, GOPA International Energy Consultants GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany
The renewables gold rush will spur opportunities for project managers across the sector—and the world. Solar energy is expected to grow from 2 percent to 22 percent of global electricity generation by 2050, according to BloombergNEF. And Wood Mackenzie predicts wind power capacity will increase 60 percent over the next five years. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), offshore wind alone will be a US$1 trillion business by 2040.
The speed of growth has put pressure on organizations to scale up their project delivery—and avoid any unnecessary delays, says Jeanette Ortlieb, PMP, project manager, Distributed Power Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa. “Timelines are getting shorter, contracts are getting watertight, and you have a multitude of new players in the field,” she says.
Technologies are also evolving rapidly, which means that a lot can change between tendering and execution. Ms. Ortlieb hit this snag on one of her past projects, where her team had to replace a major supply and installation contractor at the start of construction.
Wind power capacity will increase 60% over the next five years.
Source: Wood Mackenzie
PHOTO BY GRANDRIVER/E+/GETTYIMAGES
Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California, USA
“We had to enter into rushed contract negotiations and design due-diligence investigations,” she says. While this did lead to a delay on the critical path, acceleration incentives helped the team fully recover its key milestones.
“As project manager, you need to be ready for change to happen,” Ms. Ortlieb says. “You always need to have a change management plan in place for each item on the risk register—irrespective of the potential magnitude of the risk.”
—Jeanette Ortlieb, PMP, Distributed Power Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa
Teams are finding that some carbon emissions are more stubborn than others. In sectors that aren’t already electrified—particularly transportation and industry—executives need to rethink how their organizations move to renewables.
In manufacturing, for example, the high temperatures required to create cement and steel are very difficult to sustain with low-carbon energy sources. But in November, Bill Gates-funded startup Heliogen Inc. revealed that it developed a concentrated solar-energy source that could change all that. Using next-gen computing power, the team’s pilot project programmed a field of mirrors in California, USA to focus a concentrated beam of light on a 50-centimeter (19.7-inch) receiving plate. The result? Carbon-free steam that hit over 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit). And Heliogen is working to bring that figure up to 1,500 degrees Celsius (2,732 degrees Fahrenheit). This innovation could revolutionize the emissions-heavy industrial sector, which will account for more than half of end-use energy consumption between 2018 and 2050, according to the EIA.
Renewable energy is powering career options, with at least 11 million roles worldwide, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. But the talent pool isn’t big enough to staff the deluge of clean energy projects on the way. That means people with the right skill set will continue to be in high demand, says Paul Freunscht, PMP, executive director, renewable energy, GOPA International Energy Consultants GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany.
“We have open positions, but it’s difficult to find, let’s say, qualified engineers specialized in renewable energies, speaking several languages, willing to work in development countries.”
To fill the talent gap, organizations are looking beyond sector veterans and technical experts. Mr. Freunscht says if his company cannot find renewable energy experts, it is considering searching for project professionals with related experience—perhaps from other types of infrastructure projects—whom the company can train and develop. His organization also hires experts on a freelance basis when a project calls for more specific knowledge.
For example, an organization expanding into a new market will need project professionals who can adapt quickly to local regulations, business practices, cultural differences and languages, says Ben Yoon, PMP, project manager, Bloom Energy, San Jose, California, USA. Ensuring that required documentation, technical guidance and recommendations align with local customs and are provided in the local context and language keeps projects running smoothly.
“Everything we do here has to be replicated in other markets, per local rules,” Mr. Yoon says. “You just have to be flexible so you can meet all the requirements of the local government and tap into the market.”
—Ben Yoon, PMP, Bloom Energy, San Jose, California, USA
Then there’s the politics. Organizations need project managers who have the communication, leadership and negotiation skills needed to maintain local support for renewable energy projects.
Long-term plans that are cocreated with as many stakeholders as possible give projects the team-rooted support needed to withstand shifting political winds, says Francisco Goncalves, PMP, project manager for Energy Cities, a European nonprofit city network, Brussels, Belgium.
“You need to increase the feeling of ownership regarding the projects,” Mr. Goncalves says.
Keeping all stakeholders engaged reduces the growing pains that come along with making the major changes required to incorporate renewables on a larger scale. For instance, communities are playing a more active role in energy production, which has flipped the script for regulators and energy infrastructure teams.
“This is a major change in the normal top-down approach on the energy governance, which is normally very focused on supply,” Mr. Goncalves says. “If we don’t support cities and give them capacity building and the skills to deal with this issue, it will be very difficult to accomplish the goals that were set for 2030.”
In the transportation sector, energy consumption is projected to increase nearly 40% from 2018 to 2050.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
Innovation is also needed to reshape the petroleum-hungry transportation sector, where energy consumption is projected to increase nearly 40 percent from 2018 to 2050. Commercial shipping alone accounts for more than 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The International Maritime Organization aims to reach 50 percent of 2008 emission levels by 2050, but shipping companies likely will need better technology to hit that target.
Fuel-cell technology offers one promising alternative. In September, Bloom Energy and Samsung Heavy Industries launched a project to design and develop commercial freighters powered by solid oxide fuel-cell technology. Swapping out the heavy fuel oil these ships use for fuel cells charged by liquid natural gas could reduce the sector’s emissions by 45 percent.
But innovation is a moving target, with teams often learning as they go. And that requires a more iterative approach, says Elton Soares, PMP, project coordinator, GE Renewable Energy, Florianopolis, Brazil.
“We are required to be more agile each year because the projects are changing very fast,” he says. “Sometimes your customer doesn’t know everything they want in the moment they hire you. So you have to prepare and get approval of incremental work.”
—Elton Soares, PMP, GE Renewable Energy, Florianopolis, Brazil
While resistance to change is still common, organizations are taking more confident steps toward low- to no-carbon energy sources. Investing in clean energy is now a smart bet—rather than a choice that requires prioritizing the planet over profits.
“Once you have a benchmark project of a carbon-free power plant, or another technology, you will see other companies do as you did, because people like to copy what is good, what brings results,” Mr. Soares says. “The idea that being carbon-free is not feasible is now being undone.” PM
Renewable energy megaprojects on the horizon promise to provide clean power to millions of homes around the world.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT, BC HYDRO, ØRSTED, AND POET. BOTTOM PHOTO BY AKSPHOTO/ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS
Site C Clean Energy Project
Location: Peace River, British Columbia, Canada
Capacity: 1.1 gigawatts (GW)
Sponsor: BC Hydro
Budget: CA$10.7 billion
Challenge: Tracking progress can create human risk. So the team uses drones to collect data to monitor work—and compare real-world construction to engineering schematics. The technology helps teams see “how the work is progressing over time and just sheer scale of various aspects of the project, such as the powerhouse,” says Neil Kelly, PMP, director of project controls, risk and services, BC Hydro, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Location: 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) off the coast of Yorkshire, England
Capacity: 1.2 GW
Budget: Not available
Challenge: Spanning more than 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) of the North Sea, it’s the world’s largest offshore wind farm. Each of the project’s 174 wind turbines is 190 meters (623 feet) tall—and takes 12 hours to install.
Location: Shelbyville, Indiana, USA
Capacity: 80 million gallons (303 million liters)
Budget: US$160 million
Challenge: Delivering benefits will be a challenge after the U.S. government exempted several refineries from a requirement to blend gasoline with ethanol, reducing demand for ethanol by about 4 billion gallons (15.1 billion liters). As a result, Poet had to close one of the four other ethanol plants it operates in Indiana.
Ladakh Solar Farms
Location: Ladakh, India
Capacity: 7.5 GW
Sponsor: Solar Energy Corp. of India
Budget: INR450 billion
Challenge: The project is being relocated after India’s wildlife department said the original site is the breeding ground of several protected wildlife species. The proposed replacement site gets heavy snow in the winter, which limits highway access for six to eight months each year.