Project Management Institute

Fighting the Climate Crisis One Project at a Time

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

We’ve reached the point where most people—particularly younger people—recognize climate change as a major crisis and are looking for solutions. So now it’s about finding ways to turn that good intention into innovative and impactful projects—from crafting nature-based solutions to a wholesale reimagining of how we power the world.

DAN BALABAN

We’re talking about transitioning our energy system to net zero. If we’re going do that, we need to find ways of being nimble, creative, innovative and forward-looking because otherwise we’re not going to meet our net-zero ambitions.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

As we mark Earth Day this year, it could be an auspicious one—with the pandemic adding a new urgency to the climate issue. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called it a true make-or-break moment for our planet.

A 2021 U.N. survey found two-thirds of people say climate change is a “global emergency,” and some high-profile government and business leaders are stepping up. U.S. President Joe Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement. General Motors announced it plans an all-electric vehicle future by 2035. And fast fashion giant H&M plans to be climate positive across its entire value chain by 2040.

Of course, turning that sort of big thinking into reality requires an exceptional mix of capital, commitment, creativity, as well as ambitious and innovative projects—something PMI highlighted in identifying the climate crisis among its 2021 Megatrends. We’re looking at a couple of those potentially game-changing projects today: one of the world’s largest solar projects and also an effort to equip ecosystems to heal themselves naturally.

We begin in Vulcan County, Alberta, Canada—a province that has long been a focal point of the nation’s oil and gas industry, and that is now emerging as a renewable energy nexus as well. It’s where construction is set to begin soon on Canada’s largest solar-power project, called Travers Solar—number five on PMI’s 2020 Most Influential Projects Top 10 list for Canada. The massive, 700-million-Canadian-dollar, 465-megawatt solar park was developed by Greengate Power, a renewable energy company based in nearby Calgary, and I spoke with co-founder, President and CEO Dan Balaban about how the project could help transform Canada’s electrical grid.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Looking at your company’s portfolio, you’ve done wind and solar projects, but none of the solar projects have been on this scale. What set the groundwork for this kind of huge undertaking?

DAN BALABAN

We started Greengate 14 years ago with the objective of proving out that renewables of scale can work in Canada. Our first project that we developed was, at the time, the largest wind farm in the province. The second project we developed was the largest wind farm in the country. Continuing in the spirit of proving out renewables at scale in Canada, we’ve been following the technology curves quite closely, and what you’ve seen is solar technology has come down in costs by 99 percent in the last 20 years, 90 percent in the last 10 years. And we have a philosophy of go big or go home.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Part of the allure of this site is that you believe Alberta is especially amenable to solar projects. Why is that?

DAN BALABAN

It’s pretty well known that Alberta’s got phenomenal oil and gas resources, but what’s not as well known—and is becoming known—is that Alberta also has some phenomenal renewable energy resources. We have some of the best onshore wind resources in North America, but as far as solar goes, we’re the sunshine state of the north.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

So you’ve gone right to renewables at scale. What are the challenges then? I mean, obviously you had done lots of smaller solar projects in this case, but sort of stepping up to take on something this massive on another level, in what ways did you find your project strategies stretched or found that they adapted well, etc.?

DAN BALABAN

I would agree that large projects introduce some unique challenges. So first off, finding the site and all the challenges associated with that. But we’ve got a great team with a lot of experience in this sector.

But I would say one of the keys to our success is our partnering approach. So to raise the capital and ultimately build out the project, we brought in a top-notch investor—Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners will be funding the construction of the project. They’re a top-notch renewable energy investor with lots of experience. These projects are really well suited for taking what is a really complex project, splitting it out into components and having partners share in managing the risk.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Another aspect is stakeholder management. How have you approached that issue of just making sure that the community, local authorities, residents and so forth are on board?

DAN BALABAN

That’s I think another really important contributor to our success. We take stakeholder relations very seriously. We believe in engaging early, engaging transparently and engaging widely. We also believe in these projects being a win-win for the company and the community, and tremendous economic benefits that are going to be provided to the local community: about 100 million dollars of municipal taxes contributed over the life of the project, millions of dollars to local landowners, lots of local jobs, over 500 construction jobs will be created for this project.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

You’ve made a few substantial changes to the project, even before construction has begun, such as changing to a different type of photovoltaic module and even changing the physical orientation of the modules to a different direction. What sort of process did you follow to make those changes to the project specs?

DAN BALABAN

It’s an ongoing, iterative process. Development is a process that takes several years at minimum. We’re also operating with an environment, a technology environment, that’s constantly changing. Solar module costs are continuing to come down. The tracker technologies continue to be more reliable, and their costs continue to come down. So you have all these things that are constantly changing, and as we’re moving through the development process, we try to build flexibility into our approach so that we can continue to advance the necessary design elements and permitting elements of the project.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Is that difficult to pull off? It makes perfect logical sense that you would want to leave yourself the opportunity to plug in the latest and greatest technology, but just given all the engineering and so forth, how much process do you have to build in to make sure that you can actually accommodate a change like that?

DAN BALABAN

The shortest answer is it is very complicated, and that’s why a lot of companies are unable to pull off projects of this sort of scale. I’d say for us, what’s absolutely key is that we’re nimble. We need to be able to respond to changes and pivot quickly. We need to be innovative. We need to find solutions to problems that come up along the way, project development related, design related, but also commercially. We need to be forward-looking. We need to anticipate—to use a Canadian phrase—anticipate where the puck is headed as opposed to the other way around.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

There’s a different dynamic with solar that I haven’t really thought about before, but you just hinted at it, which is if you’re looking at electric vehicles for example and the ways that the battery technology is becoming more and more efficient. I mean, that’s been a knock against solar is that we seemed to have stopped getting breakthroughs in terms of the efficiency of the panels, but you just mentioned that the flip side is that the cost of panels is plummeting. How does that make your work different than some other areas of sustainability innovation?

DAN BALABAN

I think it makes it very exciting. We’re in a world where we’re transitioning from molecules to clean electrons. We’re transitioning from an energy system that was primarily built on burning molecules to produce our energy and the pollution associated with that, to an energy system where we’re creating clean electrons from wind and solar. Transmitting those clean electrons into the vehicles we drive. Storing those clean electrons in big battery banks for when we need them most. It’s a really very exciting transition, but it’s one that requires an understanding of technology and a willingness to very rapidly change one’s preconceived notions on something.

Views on solar three years ago no longer apply today. Same thing—the views on solar today will no longer apply in three years. We constantly see this decline in cost, and I think it opens up opportunities for economic projects in places where we hadn’t considered them before.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

It’s also interesting because usually when you get to that place where, all right, the benefit of the technology is starting to become a little bit more fixed, but we’re figuring out more efficient ways to make the thing. I mean, that’s a sign of a more mature industry, but I don’t get the sense with solar that it’s mature in the sense that the opportunities have been fully explored and exploited, right?

DAN BALABAN

We’re in the infancy, I would say. The big innovation that’s on the horizon—that I think is going to be a gamechanger and is going to result in a step-change in terms of the amount of renewables we can see on the grid—is battery storage. So, the challenge that exists in the power sector today is energy can’t be stored at a large scale in a commercially viable way. So, in real time, generation needs to match load. So when you turn your lights on in your bedroom, there’s somebody in a control center that needs to make sure that there’s enough generation on the grid to meet that. But with energy storage, what you can do is you can take solar energy or wind energy when it’s being produced in abundance and the grid doesn’t necessarily need that abundance, store that in batteries. And then during cloudy days or days when it’s not windy, discharge those batteries and then what you’re turning renewables in is to something that looks much more like baseload generation. And if you could do that, then ultimately, we can get to net zero.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Renewable energy is only one way to help protect our planet. Another that’s gaining traction is nature-based solutions—efforts to support ecosystems in ways that allow nature itself to contribute both to environmental and to societal well-being. One example is CityAdapt, a project by the United Nations Environment Programme that’s underway in three cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Leyla Zelaya, the national coordinator for the CityAdapt project in San Salvador, El Salvador. Leyla discusses how teams are working with local stakeholders to execute these nature-based solutions, or NbS, and how they’re helping the city mitigate the effects of climate change.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

So why did the United Nations Environment Programme choose this specific region for the CityAdapt project? And why use nature-based solutions?

LEYLA ZELAYA

We know that 80 percent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean live in cities. These cities have grown and developed excessively quickly and, in many cases, have degraded nature, creating environments for living that are poorly adapted to human needs.

The negative effects of environmental degradation and the consequent threats to the well-being of urban communities are exacerbated by climate change. The implementation of NbS to reduce the vulnerability of cities is really a cost-effective and low-risk solution for integrating adaptation to climate change into social and economic development plans for cities.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So, for example, why did San Salvador make sense as one of the cities?

LEYLA ZELAYA

San Salvador is a medium-sized city located in a mountainous area that has a very special ecosystem that has had rapid urbanization and limited urban planning. It is very sensitive to floods and landslides due to the disorderly construction of the city and the consequences of urbanization, such as the deforestation of key areas for water infiltration and the management of urban space, waste management and water resource management.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What initiatives are teams working on, and how’re you collaborating with stakeholders in the community?

LEYLA ZELAYA

This collaborating with local stakeholders—we are working with them since the design, implementation and monitoring of the NbS in our project. We have examples ranging from the selection of coffee species to be planted, the team of women responsible for the community garden and a community member in charge of the meteorological station setup as an early-warning system. So, it’s very important, really, the participation of stakeholders in our project.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

You’re training farmers, community members and local governments to continue using these solutions. Are they shadowing your teams on projects, or is it more formalized training?

LEYLA ZELAYA

Both of them. For example, the farmers that work in the coffee plantations, they received trainings about best practices of agriculture, some of the interventions about infiltration ditches, how to make a better intervention to include planting coffee plants and forested trees. So it is like learning by doing.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Do you face any challenges in getting governments to embrace nature-based solutions as opposed to more traditional, engineering-focused ones?

LEYLA ZELAYA

NbS are not replacing gray and technical solutions per se but work efficiently when combined. NbS should not emphasize replacing gray solutions but instead try to integrate with them, as nature can play a much stronger role in tackling these challenges and make urban and rural ecosystems more resilient to change. Another challenge is the successful implementation of NbS requires an understanding of that territory beyond established administrative limits, and that is why there are also collaboration platforms with other governments or municipalities or territories.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What effect has the project had on the community in terms of San Salvador residents, the people you’re working with and the environment

LEYLA ZELAYA

Two years after it started, this project, the infiltration ditches—one of the interventions that we are executing in the coffee plantation in the upper side of the urban micro-watershed—have reduced surface runoff, which can cause erosion and flooding, and have improved coffee productivity due to the plants near these ditches having wetter soils.

The community perceives really the improvements or changes that the NbS interventions have produced. So they are motivated to participate in the implementation. One of the things that we are really proud, it is they can relate how these measures, developed locally, can affect the city. I think it is one of the successes that we have with our stakeholders in this project.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Some project leaders might not be thinking about the link between their projects and the environment. Why should they think about climate change?

LEYLA ZELAYA

Right now, we have to consider climate change scenarios as one more variable in the project. It is not a probabilistic scenario. Here in San Salvador, we have said that 30 years ago maybe we have heavy rains only one in a year, and last year we have three hurricanes here in San Salvador. It is not usual; it wasn’t. So we have to include in every project really as a variable.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

The sheer scope of the battle against climate change can seem overwhelming. But whether it’s the organic and targeted approach of CityAdapt or the go-big-or-go home philosophy of Travers Solar, project leaders are out there making a difference—protecting our planet, one project at a time.

NARRATOR

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