Clean Power and Business Sense Converge at Vestas
WIND IS INDISPUTABLY a major component in the future of energy for the planet. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy sailing for the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbine technology. With an expanding foothold in Colorado… read article at ZMags.com
Web Extra: A Conversation with Vestas Americas
Featuring Chris Walter (MBA ’08) and Roby Roberts, SVP of External Relations
VESTAS IS THE WORLD’S LEADING wind-power manufacturer, with 39,000 turbines active on five continents. We caught up with the Senior VP of External Relations, Roby Roberts, as well as recent Leeds graduate Chris Walter at the Portland, Oregon headquarters of Vestas Americas. Walter is currently in phase one of a two-year rotational program during which he will work out of two other offices internationally.
Portfolio: Roby, how much collaboration does it take to make wind power work?
Roby Roberts: One of the early wind deals I did—I worked for Scottish Power originally then—we did a deal with Shell. The turbine manufacturer was Mitsubishi. The Shell guys were from Holland and Britain. The lawyer was Stanford-educated, but from the Ukraine and lived in Texas. And it was all of us putting this wind project together. You’ve got to be able to communicate past culture; understand different cultures, different companies. And then be able to put these very complicated deals on the ground.
P: So is the business of sustainable energy getting tougher?
R: Gone are the days of “if you’ve got a good idea and a little money, go for it,” at least on the wind side. These are logistically giant projects that are extraordinarily expensive and the technology is space age stuff. You’ve got to pull all that together to put out these big competitive products at a competitive price. It’s good for the consumer, and good for the planet, and hard on us trying to stay ahead! But that’s the nature of global competition.
P: Chris, you’re working on cash flow for Vestas… Is there an aspect to sustainability that has to do with the flow of money—and with people and profits?
Chris Walter: Yeah, Vestas is a profit-making entity. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t making money. I find it interesting because we are a sustainable company working in a sustainable energy field. But if you really look at what we’re doing, we’re a large equipment manufacturer. We build huge turbines that produce power and we sell them to energy companies. The fact that it fits in ‘sustainability’ is really nice, but at the end of the day, it has to make money. I think most renewable energy technologies will always hit the hard wall of truth: if it’s not profitable, it’s not going to work, no matter how creative it is.
P: Roby, I’ve read that some groups complain turbines harm populations of bats: is this eco-nitpicking or do you take such concerns seriously?
R: Everybody likes an irony. You know, even the cleanest technologies are going to have environmental impact. That’s just the nature of the media, of humanity, to point out irony. Our technologies have been built on the foundation of environmental stewardship and sustainability, so we are obligated as an industry to make sure that our impact is minimized in every sense possible. So we need to—and do—take any of these environmental impacts very seriously. We have, as an industry, the Wind Wildlife Institute, where we’re working with bat conservancies to investigate turbine design and operations to do everything we can to minimize impacts on bat populations.
P: You’ve touted the business potentials of Vestas, but I see you do have a genuine concern for the planet, in a more holistic sense.
R: Well we have to. Climate is certainly a huge driver in our industry. We cannot afford to put as much carbon into the atmosphere as we have been. And wind is the most environmentally friendly, scalable technology available today. And so this is our time to really make an impact on the climate dilemma that faces the world. I think we’re poised to do that.
P: Is sustainability glamorous? Do they have awards ceremonies—tuxedos and trophies—for companies doing good things? Or is it a daily grind, a battle against the status quo, a thankless job?
R: All the above! About two years ago I went to the Gorbachev Green awards and there was a green carpet with all the cameras. And I sat next to—gosh what was her name? She won the Oscar for Monster—Charlize. And the guy who was in Titanic.
P: Leonardo DiCaprio?
R: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know… Who has time for this stuff?! From the Hollywood perspective they’re all there. And when we go to Chamber of Commerce meetings everybody wants to talk about clean air… and we’re in Congress right now: people do want to sit down and talk to us. So certainly we are the flavor of the month and there is a lot of glamour in this sector right now. But a lot of it is drawing out one project at a time: manufacturing products that work. When you have 39,000 turbines worldwide with about 25,000 of them giving you real time data to take care of… and your customers expect you to deliver on schedule to meet the contract: that is a grind-it-out job. These turbines are often in the middle of nowhere. Climbing those towers in winter when it’s 20 below and the wind’s blowing: there are some not-very-glamorous things!
P: Chris, how impressive are these machines up close?
C: I climbed a turbine about two weeks ago and I was standing on top of a nacelle right between the blades—over 200 feet high. I was going to wear my C.U. hooded sweatshirt and snap a picture, but I left it in the car!
“Colorado has done all the right things: from what the regulators are doing for emissions to the legislature’s renewable energy standards.”
P: Anything you miss about Boulder?
C: Everything! [Laughs] That’s an easy question. I absolutely loved Boulder. One of the hardest things about taking this job was that I’d have to move. I was born in Boulder but grew up in Boston till I graduated from high school. Then I moved right back, did my undergrad at the University of Colorado, and then did what they call academic incest and got my MBA from the same program.
P: Roby, you’re also on the Leadership Council of RASEI (Renewable & Sustainable Energy Institute) at CU. Why is Vestas so active in Colorado?
R: Colorado, from a governmental perspective, has done all the right things: from what the regulators are doing for emissions to the legislature’s renewable energy standards. And then the governor’s commitment to clean energy has made it a perfect place for a business like us to locate. And we haven’t been disappointed.