I have recently learned about and written about innovations in wind energy right here in South Carolina as I explored the research and testing facility at the Clemson University Restoration Institute in North Charleston. Therefore, I wanted to better understand how this industry has been shaped over the decades. So, I decided to reach out to Michael Payne who has had a full career in wind energy working at the National Renewable Energy laboratory, Enron Wind, and Shell WindEnergy. Michael’s career has taken him to Colorado, Texas, Panama, and the Netherlands.
ECC: When did you first become interested in wind energy?
Michael Payne: At Emory University back in the 1980’s, I was taking classes on climate change and that piqued my curiosity about renewable energy.
I was struck by this answer as I too attended Emory in the 1980’s and I didn’t come across any classes about climate change or renewable energy. However, since that time, it has become common for universities to have programs around climate change. Some of the topics covered include renewables, public engagement, education, carbon capture, use and storage, policy, law, and regulation, capacity development, engineering, and project delivery.
ECC: What was it about you that even made you interested in this course selection?
Michael Payne: I realize that am fortunate to have an education. My mother had a strong sense of obligation and had an interest in the environmental issues. She taught me to be conscious of the limited time we have on the planet and how we protect it for future generations. I began to ponder, “How do I make the most of my time here?” “How do I make a living at it?” Work is such a large time investment, I wanted to make those things came together. My personal story is one of alignment. I have always tried to align life and impact and be very intentional about the ways I spend time and energy.
ECC: Where did you first work in the industry?
Michael Payne: During my summer break in business school (at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) I worked in Golden Colorado at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). This incredible 327-acre campus is very cutting edge and hosts many laboratories as well as the NREL administration offices, The NREL was up and running since the Carter administration and in 1996 wind was the most commercially mature renewable energy source. I could see first-hand that the possibilities were endless.
ECC: So, you were hooked?
Michael Payne: Yes. My personal interest in wind energy happened through an organic process of learning, going to business school, going to conferences, and reading trade publications. I wanted to make a living and make a difference. I used class projects for socially responsible investing and renewable energy. Wind energy was rapidly growing and there were needs for my skills in 1997 as there were new products and new legislation.
ECC: Were you able to land an interesting position after business school?
Michael Payne: Absolutely. At that time Zond Corporation was a large turbine developer headquartered in Tehachapi, California. Shortly before my business school graduation, Zond was acquired by Enron forming the Enron Renewable Energy Corporation. I went to work for them which allowed me to do rotations through the program and get a solid footing in the wind business. Sales of what was later known as the Enron Wind division were $800 Million in 2001. General Electric bought this cash flow positive unit in the spring of 2002.
The industry is evolving. Some of my friends from the wind industry are moving to solar as that area is taking off. In past five years the price of solar has dropped because of Chinese manufacturing. The name of the game is how much does it cost to install the capacity. Solar also has the advantage over wind because it is not as site constrained.
ECC: What was the work like for you?
Michael Payne: My career has largely been about project development. It was fascinating to embark on the five to eight-year journeys which were needed to develop a wind farm. Each farm brings with it tons of logistic, fiscal, government issues. I enjoyed meeting the farmers, politicians, and contractors. Project development is a fun, interesting, and challenging career. My entrepreneurial background and MBA came in handy as each project is sort of like a start-up.
ECC: What observations do you have about the renewable energy industry today?
Michael Payne: The industry is evolving. Some of my friends from the wind industry are moving to solar as that area is taking off. In past five years the price of solar has dropped because of Chinese manufacturing. The name of the game is how much does it cost to install the capacity. Solar also has the advantage over wind because it is not as site constrained.
Wind onshore is less expensive than offshore. However, in countries where water is shallow enough to keep the cost of production down and the onshore land population is dense, offshore wind is an attractive solution.
ECC: What advice do you have?
Michael Payne: It is good to ask questions. What technologies are we using? What is the regulatory framework that exists? What are the hurdles that we face around cleaning up the carbon? South Carolinians will want to pay close attention to legislation regarding renewable energy. For example, barring communities and home owner associations from restricting solar panels as well as laws requiring power companies to have a certain percentage of renewable energy. These help drive the increasing growth rate in solar. People need to understand that coal and natural gas, etc., are a big blend of technologies that make up our base load and provide our energy. People love to hate the fossil industry but they don’t want to turn down the air conditioning or get out of their car and take the bus. So the company says “why am I the bad guy? You are the ones that don’t make the choices.”