October 24, 2012

ENVS Blog: ENVS Alum Navigates the Wind Energy Industry

Jack Murray (‘11) landed a job as an analyst a wind energy firm after graduating from Lewis & Clark.

Jack Murray (‘11) landed a job as an analyst a wind energy firm after graduating from Lewis & Clark.

After graduating from Lewis & Clark in December with majors in Environmental Studies and Economics, I decided to head towards the more urban pastures of New York City. Initially moving towards positions in finance, I decided to focus on entering the renewable energy space. Through persistence and a significant amount of luck, in the spring I found a position as an analyst at a wind energy consulting firm and have been learning the industry since. 

If you’ve happened to read the news in the last 6 months, you would be forgiven for believing the renewable energy sector is in trouble and sinking fast. This past year we’ve been haunted by the ghost of Solyndra and a growing number of solar bankruptcies, bilateral trade wars over photovoltaic panels and wind turbine towers, the expiration of major financial incentives on the state and federal level, and an uncertain future for a key tax credit that has brought the large wind industry to a grinding halt.

This has inarguably been a tough year for the renewables sector, with the complexity of the issues surrounding these events rarely making it further than politicized headlines and partisan soundbites. However, there’s a lot to be excited about, particularly on the small-mid sized generation scale that the firm I work for focuses on. We consult on “behind the meter” or distributed generation systems for homes and facilities to offset some or all electricity consumed on site. These systems participate in net metering, meaning the property owners pays their utility only for the difference between that produced vs. consumed. This distributed generation scale is patently different than the large wind farms you see across the country that sell wholesale electricity to utilities, competing directly with sources from coal, hydro, nuclear, and natural gas.  

The political and economic climate for distributed generation is very favorable and has proved resilient to the shocks affecting utility-scale renewables. These smaller systems benefit from generous state incentive programs that offer significant support to reduce the costs of installation. The firm I work for manages the resource assessment program for the Energy Trust of Oregon, which offers one of the most attractive incentive programs in the nation. The solar world benefits from similarly favorable incentives as well as a range of innovative financing programs that offer clean electricity at a lower cost than what you would otherwise pay through your utility.

In my daily role I wear many hats, from crunching meteorological data to analyzing tax equity structures to coordinating with overseas development teams. I am happy to say that my experience at Lewis & Clark has prepared me well for understanding a complex and constantly evolving industry that requires depth and breadth in equal measure. The most interesting observation from an Environmental Studies perspective is how infrequently the subject of climate change comes up - the main motivation of every project I’ve worked on is how to produce energy to hedge against rising utility costs. Environmental benefits are secondary to economic feasibility, and a project will only get off the ground if an Excel model says it’s possible.

I would encourage any student interested in the renewables space to get involved on any level they can. While the challenges facing renewable energy penetration are significant, there continues to be immense progress towards implementing economically viable sources of clean energy across the world. Continued penetration will only happen through understanding the barriers to implementation and finding innovative ways to tear them down.