Solar Developers: Masters of Many

November 17, 2022

A single solar project site can take anywhere from three to ten years to go from initial concept to an operating solar farm. Many solar sites never advance to become operational energy production facilities. Solar developers, the project conceptualizers behind originating the project, must coordinate with a range of stakeholders from energy users and utilities to permitting authorities and neighbors.  Solar developers must therefore be multidisciplinary, resourceful, and steadfast. They envision the future they want to realize and work methodically toward it, often in the face of unfavorable probabilities.

Solar developers are typically well-rounded individuals who know how to build relationships, interpret laws and regulations, manage and negotiate contracts, understand and communicate technical information, analyze financial models and most importantly have an innate ability to remain committed and optimistic in the face of uncertainty. Come meet some of our team and the many paths they have taken to allow them to excel at this unique and challenging job.

1. Building Relationships

Relationships we build with the landowners who host our projects are often our longest partnership throughout a project’s development. Landowners are consulted frequently throughout the project lifecycle enabling them to see project changes and challenges firsthand. A project’s success, therefore, depends on open communication and trust between landowner and the developer.

Marni Carroll, Chief Development Officer, has a Master’s in Environmental Management and an MBA. She has worked with hundreds of landowners developing wind and solar across the country.

“My favorite part of this job is the one you do not need a degree for--standing in a field with a landowner and listening to their stories. Most of the landowners we work with have been farming their land for generations. It’s a great feeling knowing that the income from our solar facilities will allow the land to stay in their family for generations to come.”

2. Interpreting Laws and Regulations

Understanding local land use regulations like zoning codes enables a developer to determine the potential for various properties to host solar projects. Developers also use these laws to determine project characteristics like allowable energy output, financeability, and constructability.  

Steve Griffith, Director of Development for the Eastern United States, has a Master’s degree in urban and environmental planning and worked in comprehensive plan development prior to joining OneEnergy. This has allowed him to think cohesively about the interaction between clean energy development and municipalities’ long-term growth plans, which has been particularly useful in working with townships and counties in rural corners of New York and Illinois. 

"Based on its application, solar can offer myriad benefits to local communities. From a development perspective, it’s critical to understand a municipality’s long-term objectives (e.g., sustainability, agricultural conservation, economic development) to site, structure, and frame the project such that it adheres and contributes to achieving those long-term goals.”

3. Contract Management and Negotiation

Solar developers need to know how to hire surveyors, engineers, title companies, and many others. In addition, there is the need for hiring these subject matter experts which requires contract negotiation skills. Negotiations also extend to permitting agencies, utility companies, landowners, suppliers, and eventually the contractors.

Gavin Berg, VP of Development for the West, has a B.A. in Communications and English from the University of Wisconsin and previously co-founded his own wind business. His degree and experiences have enabled him to secure three power purchase agreements and numerous other contracts for projects OneEnergy is currently constructing in Colorado.

“When we look at community infrastructure projects, such as a solar project, all we usually see are the modules, trackers, steel, and wires. What is forgotten is the contributions made by so many people throughout the project’s lifecycle. What I enjoy about developing solar projects is that it is a people business. Building connections and negotiating with stakeholders is one of my favorite parts of the job.”

4. Understanding and Communicating Technical Information

Developing a solar project typically requires multiple approvals from local, state, and federal agencies covering a wide range of disciplines such as aviation safety, wildlife protection, stormwater management, cultural resources protection, wetland protection, and more. Identifying project constraints early in the process is essential to productive coordination with these agencies and even if agencies provide the needed approvals, project developers must identify these issues and communicate their solutions effectively so that appropriate design, financing, insurance, and/or construction measures can be completed.

Kate Larkin, Director of Community Solar, began her career as an environmental engineer supporting remedial investigations and strategic compliance planning for manufacturing clients. She uses her deep understanding of regulatory frameworks and cross-agency coordination to help communicate and execute multidisciplinary solutions like pollinator friendly habitat at OneEnergy’s solar sites in Maryland, which helped address concerns for both wildlife protection and stormwater management.  

“I remind myself often that finding solutions is a job half done. Effective communication is the critical part of our work that dictates what we can execute and build. It’s incredibly rewarding when your explanation of a complicated topic clicks for a regulator or landowner, because you communicated clearly and concisely.”

5. Financial Modeling

Accurately forecasting the total Capital Expenditure and Operating Expenditures are building blocks to a viable project.  Additional costs due to floodplains, visual screening, site remediation, interconnection expenses, mineral rights, property tax and other unique site features can make or break a project’s forecasted returns. Developers need to understand how these factors interact to influence the financial viability of their projects.

Eric Udelhofen, VP of Development for the Midwest, started his career in the wind industry where he was a Financial Analyst and developed financial models to forecast solar and wind project financial returns. He draws on those experiences to understand which levers can be pulled while developing projects that are cost-effective, productive and long-lasting, while quantifying the cost savings to utilities and Renewable Energy Credit customers like those in our Butter portfolio.

"One of my favorite things about developing solar projects is the ability to envision a project before it exists, and communicate with all of our partners about the benefits that a well-built project can bring to our project partners and communities. Understanding the financial side of solar helps balance this goal with ensuring that the projects we’re developing are cost-effective and provide as much benefit as possible to our customers.”

6. Commitment and Optimism

All the pieces of the puzzle must come together to construct a solar project and project developers must remain optimistic, even when it feels like pieces are missing. The deep commitment to transitioning our economy towards clean energy drives our developers through the challenging times.

Forrest Howk, Associate Director for the Midwest, has an MPA in Environmental Policy. His first career was in scientific academia, where he conducted field studies of endemic birds, then helped the Makah Tribe and Nature Conservancy evaluate localized climate change impacts on tribal resources in Washington State. Transitioning careers from a science background into renewable energy required an initial leap of faith, hard work to see it through, and a little bit of luck. This recipe has served Forrest well in learning how to develop new projects, strategies, and markets for OneEnergy.

"Ultimately, the job of a solar developer is to make something happen that hasn’t happened yet. The path to change is never the same, but it often includes variables outside your control, long periods of uncertainty, and several unexpected twists and turns. Learning how to navigate that path while maximizing projects’ likelihood for success is a fascinating challenge and a lifelong endeavor that I look forward to further exploring with OneEnergy.”

7. Sharpening the Saw

Lastly, the ability to disconnect and refresh the mind, body, and spirit is an important aspect of being a great developer. Taking time out to "sharpen the saw" makes us more effective and focused on what matters most.

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