Renewable Energy Consultant Karen Raaberg talks about the incredible potential of offshore wind turbines already in practise in Denmark, why she's helping to expand this 'clean technology' to New York State, and how working for passion over profit is always a good business move.
Tracy: You're in the renewable energy sector here in New York. Want to briefly describe what you do?
Karen: Yes, I’m working at The Renewables Consulting Group, which is a specialized expert services firm dedicated to the global renewable energy sector. It’s headquartered out of London and we have an office here in New York where I’m based. I have worked with go-to-market analyses for U.S. and European firms, stakeholder outreach, and feasibility assessment of U.S. offshore wind energy areas amongst other things. My speciality is within offshore wind as I've worked for DONG Energy, the most progressive offshore developer in the world, for the past three years in Denmark and U.K. Offshore wind in the US really seems to be taking off after more than a decade of hard work by the industry, in fact, the US just got its first offshore wind farm off Block Island, five turbines constituting 30MW. I’ve been involved in various different projects but mostly focused on market-based analysis to support European developers in the US market.
When did you move to New York from Denmark, and why did you choose NYC?
In what feels like a lifetime ago, I studied at Columbia University, NYC and always knew that I would go back if the opportunity came about. My boyfriend and I have known each other for many years and we’ve always had a common interest in our love for New York, so moving here was something we’ve always discussed. My boyfriend got an opportunity to go to NYC with his job so I took a leave from my former job and moved here with him. After some time we realized that it wasn’t going to be for just half a year, but that there was a great opportunity to stay and gain some experience here. As mentioned before, there is a lot of focus on offshore wind in NY and on the US East Coast, where there are great conditions for offshore wind, which brings a lot of new market players as well as chances to regulations and legislations, which makes it very interesting to work in the US.
You mentioned wind energy, and in particular, offshore wind. For those who don’t know much about it, can you describe what it is along with the benefits?
Offshore wind is a renewable energy. The offshore turbines are used to generate electricity. On average, a wind turbine based offshore rather than onshore produces 50% more energy. So it’s an ideal solution for cities in condensed areas, like New York, that don’t have a lot of available land space, but that have abundant water resources in shallow water close to the coast that they can tap into. The U.S. has some of the best offshore wind resources in the world, particularly along the Atlantic coast where over 1,000GW of energy generation potential has been identified. Offshore wind provides the opportunity for local and clean energy. We have seen that cost has come down steadily over the past years in Europe, amongst others due to new innovations and continuous technology improvements.
From my understanding, offshore wind is a concept that started in Denmark?
Yes it was started in Denmark; the first offshore wind farm, Vindeby, went up in 1991, and it was a very small turbine compared to what we have today, where we see 3.6MW and 5MW and some of the manufacturers are working on 7- 8MW turbines. They’re giant. There’s been a lot of technological development in the field and it’s a growing industry. But as with all renewable energies they’ve been subsidized from the state in order to be able to compete on market terms. If you think of oil and gas, they've had a lot of support from the government in their time, so it only makes sense to a certain extent that renewable industries will need support now, and the industry is still developing the technology the best it can. We're seeing that governments around the world are becoming more aware of the need for renewable energy, but increasingly also that it needs to be able to compete on market terms. Hence, there's been a lot of cost focus in the industry. For example the company I was working with before, DONG Energy, had an ambitious 2020 target of bringing costs below 100 euros per megawatt-hour, however, they just won a bid in the Netherlands to develop the two projects, Borssele 1 and 2, for 72,70 EUR per megawatt-hour. So I think it is fair to say that the industry is getting there, but it takes time and it requires enormous technological skills and development.
You made a point about government subsidies going to renewables, just as we did with oil and gas. People from across the political spectrum are starting to see this too. The former Governor of California recently said, "I don’t want to be like the last horse and buggy salesman who was holding out as cars took over the roads. I don’t want to be the last investor in Blockbuster as Netflix emerged." So we've got an old Republican saying that we've got to make this transition as well.
I think he's absolutely right. I'm looking at this from a Danish perspective, where offshore wind has been around for almost 25 years and we in general have been at the forefront of pushing sustainable and renewable energies and technologies. So from my perspective renewable energy it is an obvious solution. It's interesting to see how Europe have been at the forefront of these technologies and also be very aggressive about what targets they're committed to setting for renewable energy. Having worked with offshore wind in U.K. and Denmark, and seeing this trend move forward here in the US, makes you realize that, while the U.S. is a bit behind Europe when it comes to the development of offshore wind, it's the same trend. It's some of the same challenges and obstacles they have to overcome to try and get offshore wind in the U.S. Some of the people I've met have been working to get offshore wind to the US for far over a decade. But now we're starting to see the industry take off, which is amazing to be a part of. The U.S. will have its first offshore wind farm up and connected in Rhode Island at the end of this year. It’s been a fight to get the first 30 megawatts of offshore wind developed in the US. Personally, I know people who have been in the industry for plus 10 years and who has fought to get this renewable energy to the US, and it's been a lot of effort to get to this point. So it's quite exciting.
To get back to the governor. I agree. You don't want to be the last person standing, but we also stand in a beneficial position here in the U.S. due to the fact that you can learn from all the mistakes that the European developers made and then go from there. And there's a pretty good relationship between the U.S. and Europe in trying to get an offshore industry underway over here.
In terms of the challenges presented to the renewable energy sector, for years the US government has been favourable to the existing extract resource sector, presenting heavy barriers and regulations for renewable energy development. How do you overcome these hurdles?
This is a good question. As I see it, you have hurdles to overcome at a federal, state and local level. All of those need to be overcome, which is no easy task and will not happen overnight. Luckily, there have been tremendous improvements at all fronts in the last 2-5 years. It’s important to understand that the energy industry is in transition.
All of the regulations regarding offshore wind that we see today are fairly new, so people have been trying to build on-the-go without previously having had a regulative framework to guide them, so there's been a lot of back and forth. But we're definitely moving in the right direction now. I think it's fair to say that this is a fairly young industry in the US.
Around the globe, a lot of people are doing tremendous work to develop renewable energy and cleantech projects, but it has been and are still in some instances a great challenge. It's a balance between what has been, and what is coming. Globally, we're not at a point where we can just say that we don't want any of our energy to come from conventional energy, because we built a society over the past hundred years on it so the infrastructure and society is still dependent on it. So we're in the middle of a transition that's moving and growing fast, and while I'm definitely a fan of the transition, it's still about striking a balance while we figure out the best way to get there.
Another big barrier in the US that can also be seen as an opportunity, is how much focus is currently being placed on job creation and securing jobs. It seems like we finally have a good understanding that renewable energy is a great provider of new jobs. You can get a lot of the individuals from other conventional energy industries that are slowing down, and transition them into the renewable energy business if you provide them the right training.
What is the term "clean tech" all about?
Yes, so it's short for clean technologies. It’s a general term for technology that aims to promote sustainability and reduce reliance on non-renewable resources. Clean technologies don't specifically have to be about energy, but they're a way to ensure that how we work today and the energies we use today are sustainable. It's a commitment to using renewable technology so that we don't exhaust our resources or make them obsolete.
There was an invention where a stationary bike that was peddled for one hour, would produce 24 hours of energy. It begs the question of why we don't have those bikes in every gym across every city, and in the fitness room of every residential building.
I think it’s a great idea to put more focus on how we can get more renewable energy and cleantech into people's homes, and what we can make them adapt to, in order to make these clean technologies part of our everyday lives. However, whenever you need to get the masses involved it is always a slower process, but the effects are so much greater. Adaption is always a process. Similar to how recycling is today a part of many household, we can do small hacks that don't require much of the individual, but has a great impact on our energy use and the environment. For example, finding source of renewable energy in homes and offices. I like to use the example of Pavegen tiles, which generates energy when people walk on them, and have been used to light everything from soccer pitches in Brazil to shopping centers in London.
How did you become interested in working with renewable energy, and why do you choose to stay in this industry?
It’s obvious that we need to find a solution to the world’s energy problems and it is fulfilling to know that I contribute to a meaningful purpose through my work. I still haven't figured out how to say this without sounding corny, but entering this field was my way of trying to do good and work with a greater purpose. Whenever I speak to people in this industry, I find they all feel the same: we can all sound corny or tacky [Laughter]. But there really is so much opportunity for doing good or doing right. It's also about being very open minded to how can we make new things work together - and I think that task is for all of us. Especially being here in New York, when you meet new people, you're constantly inspired by all these innovative, creative initiatives people spend so much time and energy on. There are so many others who are trying to do better for either their own local community or for society in general.
Looking at the idea of the American Dream and what drives capitalism, you learn that while money is certainly a means for living comfortably, there are people who place profit as the only incentive to work, and there are others who use their time to pursue a passion or additional reward of the greater good. In a lot of ways, the most successful people are the ones who view income as a byproduct of their passion. And you're right we do see a lot of that in NYC.
You do for sure. I had an amazing professor, Jeff Harris, when I was studying at Columbia University and he talked about this exact topic. When looking at all the great entrepreneurs through time, he said, "Of those who really did great it was never a question of money." Money was not the key focus, it was about a real want to change something or to do something for society, and change the world we're living in. It was always about disrupting the status quo. Of course, we live in the context of business, so money should be a focus of course, but it shouldn't be the only driving factor. This professor told us, "If money is the driving purpose of what you do, you're never going to do great. You can do good, but you're never going to do great." That stuck with me.
Great piece of advice. I want to talk a bit about where you're from. When looking at research on happiness, health, or the 'right' ways to live, it seems that whether it's a documentary or a book, etc., Denmark is often held up as the example to which we should model. Socially, you're ahead of us in many ways.
From my personal experience Denmark is a great country to live in. The quality of life is just very very high, but to be fair to the US, it's also easier to manage a small country of 5 million people who, to some extent, are very homogeneous. Especially when compared to the US which has so many different states, and is so large on a geographical and cultural scale. I will say that the income inequality here is still a mystery to me. It seems unjust that there can be such a big income gap in this country. I think that's probably also my perspective coming from Denmark that comparatively is almost like a small town, but there are certainly social differences. In general people's way of living is much more secure because there is a very good social security net in Denmark. Yes, we pay higher taxes, but you have free education for everyone, and free healthcare. So you're rarely left out without somewhere to fall, and you always have ways to get back up. Especially in terms of education, the studies I've read or the discussions I've had with people, education always seems to be such an integral aspect of social mobility and empowering people from all walks of life. I think Denmark really hit the nail on the head, having agreed that we need to make sure everyone gets a good education without being in debt for the rest of their lives. I'll add however, that the quality of education I received at Columbia was unparalleled to the one I got in Denmark. It was a fantastic experience, but you also pay for it. So there's always a balance.
Interviewing people in the cognitive sciences, I've learned a lot about the effects of material and emotional security: having a steady footing to jump off from. In order to be successful people need their basics covered - it gives you confidence to go out and explore and learn because you're not standing on a shaky pillar. Your capacity to focus can be used on other things.
I believe you're right. You need to have that grounding and then you can evolve from there. You see people who don't have any certainties or the security that comes from socially based support, and they struggle just to make it by. Some manage to work but it's much tougher to pursue your passion and take risks. I came from a very good base back in Denmark that was very secure in many ways, but I had the opportunity to travel from a very young age and have lived in many countries, so I was exposed to different cultures and saw a lot of alternative ways of living. It was of tremendous value and I'm very grateful for having the support and opportunity that I had and still have today.
Absolutely. You've lived in both London and the EU. What is your opinion on Brexit and how do you think it might impact the renewable energy industry?
I don't think many people went to vote in favor or not in favor of the Brexit based on the electricity or energy sectors specifically, but it has created a lot of uncertainty from a renewable energy standpoint and in general. Personally, I do think it's sad being in the European Union and seeing the UK leave, which is devastating, absolutely. But the consequences are still uncertain. The UK was a leader in getting the targets that the EU had set, and so in the European Union, the focus of localization and pushing for a green agenda will likely be affected by the Brexit. But in what way Europe and the UK can best work together to meet these targets is yet to be seen. As with all situations like these, with the challenges there will be opportunities to gain from it - whether we like the situation or not.
Absolutely and you're right with seeing that maybe there will be opportunities or new potential for growth as well. Any last comments?
Working with renewable energy has been a great experience. To see what the technology has allowed us to create for society is really inspiring. I'm just in the beginning of my journey, so when people ask what the future holds for renewable energy, I would say, "Just look what we've done in the past 10 years." We've accomplished some incredible innovation, and implemented a lot of it as well. Things are moving quickly which makes it an exciting field to be in and I am sure we will see renewable innovations we haven’t dreamed of today be part of our everyday life in the not so distant future.
Thanks Karen you do wonderful work, keep it up. It's an exciting future!
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