One of the major benefits of Community Wind projects is that they provide incremental jobs, wages and business income in communities, since ownership is retained and profits are recycled locally. In addition, the community has a significant amount of control over management of the project and there are opportunities for members of the community to have a direct financial stake in the project.

Interview - Community Winds Coming of Age

Jacob Susman | OwnEnergy


What is Community Wind?
Community Wind is a relatively new industry in the U.S. focused on developing smaller, distributed utility-scale wind farms developed and owned, in part, by members of the communities in which they’re developed. This approach to development leads to a genuine sense of community involvement. According to a study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the economic benefits that flow to the community can often be greater than the typical land lease payments. One of the major benefits of Community Wind projects is that they provide incremental jobs, wages and business income in communities, since ownership is retained and profits are recycled locally. In addition, the community has a significant amount of control over management of the project and there are opportunities for members of the community to have a direct financial stake in the project. A typical project size ranges between 5-80 MW, although they can range both higher and lower. The Community Wind industry is now growing at a record pace - an average of 76% per year - and market share is expected to increase significantly by 2012.
 
How does Community Wind compare to traditional wind development?
The most obvious point of comparison is the role of the local community in developing and owning community wind projects. In traditional wind projects, development, construction and ownership reside with companies based outside the community where the project is to be built. After NextEra Energy (the largest owner/operator of wind farms in the U.S., based in Juno Beach, Fl., where there are no wind farms), the next largest owner/operators by MW are all based outside the United States.
 
In traditional, large-scale, or Absentee projects, development decisions are often made in - and profits nearly always flow to - their headquarters outside of the United States. Alternatively, Community Wind development is carried out by local community members in a manner that is respectful of and deferential to the needs of the local community. OwnEnergy partners with these Community Wind developers to provide development guidance along with access to equipment and financing, and to ensure construction and operations are carried out flawlessly.
 
Once the project is developed and built, the local community or local developer retains a stake in the project, in addition to or in lieu of traditional land leases. This is the second major distinction from Absentee projects: Community Wind turns community members from passive participants in an outsider’s project to active participants in developing projects that community members will eventually own. This is an important distinction, because it keeps profits in the local community and in the United States’ economy, as Community Wind development partners are typically U.S.-based.
 
Finally, Community Wind projects are typically developed on a smaller scale than Absentee projects. This allows for connection to existing grid infrastructure, which requires much less costly new transmission and upgrades than traditional wind projects. It may also mean these distributed projects can get to ‘shovel-ready’ sooner than larger Absentee projects.
 
You have said that a number of factors have converged over the past couple of years to create a ‘perfect storm’ for Community Wind.  Why now?  What has changed?
Five compelling factors have converged to create what I call a “perfect storm” for Community Wind:
  • One: Our current transmission grid is straining to deliver clean energy from the rural areas where it is generated to the populous cities where it is consumed. Because Community Wind projects are smaller and more distributed by nature, utilities are able to connect the projects to existing grid infrastructure without building new lines or making costly transmission upgrades.
  • Two: Financing. Today, small is the new big. Investors want to participate in Community Wind projects because they require a smaller investment and have relatively low risk because of local involvement and support.
  • Three: We have seen a real increase in new legislation and state policy focused on growing Community Wind. Several states have implemented these policies, including Minnesota, Maine, Colorado, Montana, and Nebraska, and we expected to see that trend continue across the country.
  • Four: It’s all about jobs. Community Wind projects are proven to provide more local jobs and stronger economic benefits for the community than traditional large scale projects. At a time when this nation must create jobs and stimulate economic growth, Community Wind does both.
  • Five: There is real concern in many rural communities that wind development is happening around them, but that it doesn’t include them. Community Wind is a response to that dynamic that allows communities and their members to take an active role in the projects and to perceive greater economic benefits in turn. We are reinventing America’s economy and creating its energy future – our citizens and communities can play a critical role in setting that course.
 
How is OwnEnergy involved in the industry?
OwnEnergy partners with farmers, ranchers and landowners across the country to develop Community Wind projects.  Our partners take an active role in the development and installation process, particularly in local aspects of development around procuring wind rights, measuring wind, conducting community and local government relations and many of the commercial processes and negotiations in development. In return, our local partners receive a meaningful ownership stake in the resulting project.
 
For its part, OwnEnergy manages the development process from start to finish. This includes a heavy emphasis technical, legal and commercial development processes such as siting, resource assessment, interconnection, permitting, power marketing, turbine procurement, financing, construction and operations.
 
Also, OwnEnergy is active in trade organizations, such as AWEA’s CWWG. We are a vocal advocate of Community Wind and rural economic development. We are frequently asked to speak on Community Wind by government, finance, industrial and other industry groups.

What kind of projects do you have in development?
We have over 25 projects in various stages of development across 14 U.S. states. Our first project is expected to go into construction in 2010. We have another four projects that we expect will be positioned to receive the Treasury Department’s grant in lieu of ITC in 2010. We expect to install approximately 200MW/year, beginning 2011.
 
How were you involved in the Small Community Wind Expo and how did it turn out?
OwnEnergy was instrumental in establishing the Community Wind Working Group (CWWG) of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). When AWEA decided to proceed with its first-ever Community Wind conference, the organization asked me to act as co-chair of the conference. I was involved in designing the program, selecting session chairs and speakers, driving attendance at the conference, and serving as strategic advisor to the conference organizers on Community Wind.
 
The conference planning committee had anticipated approximately 800 registrations. The end result was more than 2,100, a great success for Community Wind that truly signals the segment’s position as a growing force within the broader industry.
 
Is Community Wind benefitting from the Economic Stimulus Package in the US?
Yes, but not enough. The grant-in-lieu of ITC creates a short window of opportunity for all wind projects. It enables those projects to be completed without having to find a buyer for the tax credits these projects throw off. The federal government will exchange those credits for a grant in an amount equal to 30% of the project’s costs, if it goes into construction before the end of 2010. This benefits all wind projects, including Community Wind.
 
To date, the major benefits to Community Wind have really been felt at the state level. Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Maine all have programs in place that drive utilities to pay more for power generated by Community Wind projects. We need similar binding legislation on a federal level. This should come through the Energy Bill, which is presently making its way through Congress. The Bill should include a RES multiplier for Community Wind projects, or the 3x multiplier currently included in the RES for distributed projects <2MW should be expanded to 20MW. The RES in the Energy Bill should also apply to all utilities serving 1mmMWh of customers or more, not 4mmMWh, as currently worded. This will compel more rural electric cooperatives and municipalities – the natural buyers of output from Community Wind projects – to purchase wind power for their customers.
 
Is the industry sustainable without government support?
In the medium-term, as technology costs come down, the value of clean energy goes up, and the specific value of distributed power generated locally is realized – yes. Near term, wind energy, in general, and Community Wind, in particular, still needs government support. In any of these cases, it always helps if global markets for conventional energy (namely, oil, gas and coal) are high and financing costs are low.
 
How can readers learn more about Community Wind opportunities both from the business opportunity side for companies and the implementation side for potential users?
The following organizations have excellent information and resources available: American Wind Energy Association, Windustry, 25x25 Alliance and National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Readers can also visit OwnEnergy’s website at www.ownenergy.net

Jacob Susman
Founder and CEO, OwnEnergy

Jacob Susman has ten years of investing and business development experience in the field of renewable energy. Jacob has led OwnEnergy since its inception, including recruiting and managing the team, raising capital, establishing the brand, sourcing new business, developing projects and generating revenue. 

Before founding OwnEnergy, he was a founding member of Goldman Sachs' Alternative Energy Investing group, where he was involved in Goldman's investment in Horizon Wind Energy and co-led a portfolio financing that was named Project Finance’s N.A. Renewable Energy Deal of the Year. Prior to that he served as Project Manager for the AES Corporation, working on a team that developed one of the largest power plants in Spain—named European IPP of the Year by Euromoney. Jacob also led AES’s efforts to develop a Spanish renewable energy business, which included negotiation of more than 1,000 MW of wind energy investment opportunities. 

Jacob holds an MBA from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he led a team to the finals of the Business Plan Competition with the concept for OwnEnergy.

Jacob lives with his wife, Jodi, and two daughters in Brooklyn, New York. They are active in the local community and are avid skiers.



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