Spring 2024 Issue

Sustainable Solutions

W&M alumni find opportunities and challenges in the growing field of renewable energy

By Tina Eshleman
Illustrations By Zara Picken

Spring 2024 Issue

W&M alumni find opportunities and challenges in the growing field of renewable energy

Like many people around the world, Pip Decker ’04 takes steps to reduce his personal carbon footprint: He buys local organic produce, recycles household waste, drives an electric vehicle and uses a bicycle for transportation when practical. But he and other William & Mary alumni are also pursuing solutions on a much larger scale.

They are launching and advancing renewable energy projects and infrastructure around the world. They are helping companies of all sizes reach net-zero emission and sustainability goals. They are accelerating carbon capture efforts and shaping climate policy.

Countering global effects of climate change such as rising sea levels, biodiversity loss and more frequent wildfires, droughts and floods is important to Decker, co-founder and CEO of New Jersey-based Current Trucking. It’s why he launched wind and solar ventures and why he now runs an electric trucking firm.

“Growing up, I had a lot of concern about what my future would look like, and ultimately I believed we had to hit this head on,” he says. “That’s why I chose this adventure.”

'The Right Policy Framework'

While taking an entrepreneurship class at William & Mary about two decades ago, Decker studied the redevelopment of Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom district from an industrial area with defunct tobacco warehouses into what is now a lively neighborhood with offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and historical sites.

“It encouraged us to see things not just as they were, but what they could be,” he says.

Government incentives such as historic rehabilitation tax credits helped to attract development that revitalized the area. Similarly, public policy measures have incentivized development of renewable energy projects around the country, leading to cost-competitive, market-based power generation.

“When you think about it, every great project starts with the right policy framework,” Decker says. “Understanding how that policy was created was a key piece in what I wanted to do, which was ultimately get into projects that were good for the environment. How you do that brought me to my public policy major.”

During a summer internship in Washington, D.C., in 2001, Decker worked with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on legislation to enhance energy conservation, research and development. He also had an opportunity to drive one of the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — a prototype valued at $5 million.

“That set me in motion by seeing how policy is engaged,” he says. “I saw groups like Toyota and others bringing new technology to the fore, and the convergence of great technological progress and great public policy.”

Although he was just 20 years old at the time, Decker attended cocktail parties and asked the congressional representatives what they thought about the outlook for new technology being presented.

“I got to see first-run policy ideas as well as products that were coming,” he says. “I fell in love with the idea of promoting national exploration of renewable energy projects.”

To land his first job, he made dozens of cold calls to companies working on such projects. In one interview, he was asked if he had any windy land.

“I didn’t have windy land, but I told them I’d go find them some and lease it,” he says. “That allowed me to get my first renewable energy project experience.”

Decker spent 17 years developing wind and solar projects, first working for other companies and then starting his own: solar developer SunEast and then BMR Energy. Now majority owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, BMR operates wind and solar projects in Jamaica, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

The idea for Current Trucking came to Decker as he watched two men installing solar panels on a roof in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a country plagued by widespread poverty and pervasive violence. Seeing renewable projects being adopted even in challenging markets like this gave him inspiration to push into new territory to reduce pollution: heavy-duty trucking and utility vehicles. Manufacturers were starting to come out with their first models of electric semi-trailer trucks, forklifts and vans.

“I wanted to be part of that and help lead it out,” he says. “We’re servicing a need for operators who want a zero-emission solution.”

Current Trucking supplies and maintains vehicles and builds charging stations for its clients in drivers’ yards and parking lots. Since its launch in January 2021, the company has delivered the first charging station and electric vehicles for the Port of Virginia, the first charging station in the Port of Newark and the first electric bus at Denver International Airport.

In April, Decker participated in a White House Roundtable on Zero-Emission Freight Infrastructure and spoke about the Newark Heavy Duty Electric Depot Project, which he said involved multiple stakeholders coming together: “It truly takes a number of key players all pulling at the same time.” (See a related story updating sustainability initiatives at Estes Express Lines, a privately owned freight company led by Rob Estes ’74, P ’06 and Webb Estes ’06, M.Acc. ’07.) 

Among the difficulties Decker has faced are persuading farmers to place 400-foot wind turbines within sight of their homes, moving massive pieces of equipment to the top of a mountain in Jamaica and talking transportation entities into trying new technology. But he points to successes such as the Jamaica project eliminating the need for 500,000 barrels of oil each year.

“When I close my eyes at night, the wind projects are spinning. The daytime projects are producing power from the sun. Our trucks are rolling with no emissions,” Decker says. “If you start adding up the projects that I and my partners and teammates and former colleagues have done, it becomes a very large impact globally.”

Wind and Water

Charles J. Natale M.A. ’82 knows how difficult it can be to go first. As former president and CEO of environmental and engineering firm ESS Group, he guided environmental studies for the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the continental United States, known as Cape Wind.

Located in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts, the project proposed in 2001 was to include 130 wind turbines across two dozen square miles, producing electricity to be transported to the mainland via underwater cables. The project received all the needed state and federal approvals, but opponents cited concerns about the effects on property values, tourism and wildlife. Ultimately, financing for the project fell through and the developer ended it in 2017.

Now, more than two decades after the Massachusetts project’s proposal, Natale sees conditions being much more favorable: “The public’s perception of a Cape Wind-type project has turned 180 degrees.”

He points to Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, scheduled for construction starting this spring, with 176 wind turbines being built 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. Natale served as a technical and regulatory consultant to Dominion in the early planning stages of the project, which is expected to generate 2.6 gigawatts of electricity — enough to power up to 600,000 homes when completed in 2026.

The Virginia project has several advantages over Cape Wind, he says. One is that the turbines are located farther from shore than the Massachusetts project, which was 15 miles out and thus, more visible. Technological advances have made it possible for a longer transmission system.

In addition, when Cape Wind was developed, the largest wind turbine was 3.2 megawatts (MW), Natale says. “Now, we’re seeing projects off of Maryland and Virginia that are up to 16.5 MW and we expect the near future will bring 18-20 MW offshore wind turbine generators. Larger capacity generators result in more efficient wind energy capture and fewer units being installed in the seabed — hence reducing potential overall environmental impacts.” 

With more projects like this in the pipeline, he sees an important role for William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“VIMS is already playing a significant role with the help of Dominion,” says Natale, who serves as vice president of the VIMS Foundation Board. “We expect to play a larger role as well, because once these offshore energy resources are built, there’s very comprehensive and rigorous environmental monitoring that goes on, particularly for fishing and fish habitat-related aspects.”

Prior to the start of construction, the institute has been helping Dominion to conduct a Resource Characterization Study of black sea bass and channeled whelk so that any impacts to the species can be monitored, says Joshua Bennett, vice president for offshore wind at Dominion Energy and a fellow VIMS board member.

“VIMS is using their vessel R/V Bay Eagle, as well as two local fishermen, to conduct the study, which is a great partnership with the fisheries community,” Bennett says, adding that VIMS is also doing an economic analysis of fisheries-dependent use of the area.

Natale says he expects VIMS’ students, faculty and research vessels will continue to be involved in the project.

“We’ll be doing fish surveys. We’ll be doing water quality monitoring and shoreline resiliency monitoring,” he says. “All the things that we do and teach and share at VIMS are front and center here on a project in our own backyard. So we’re really excited about it. Virginia is going to be in a good spot to showcase that this technology can really work.”

A Dynamic Industry

Darpan S. Kapadia ’95 has seen substantial growth in the renewable energy sector over the past two decades. When he joined LS Power in 2004, the energy infrastructure company had 30 employees. Today, nearly 400 people work at the New York City headquarters and corporate offices in New Jersey, Missouri, California and Texas, with hundreds more working on various projects and affiliated businesses.

LS Power, which invests in, develops and operates renewable energy and energy transition projects and platforms, had been a client of Kapadia’s when he was a vice president at Goldman, Sachs & Co.

“They were thinking about shifting the strategy of the company, and that made it a good fit for me to join and help them evolve the business,” says Kapadia, who advanced from his initial position as head of strategy to his current role of chief operating officer. “As the sector continued to evolve and grow, we’ve done the same.”

When the company was founded in 1990, its focus was building natural gas-fired power plants. In the mid-2000s, LS Power started building solar projects in California. In addition to its current renewable energy sources — utility-scale solar, wind, hydro, battery storage and natural gas-fired projects — the company operates 780 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that deliver energy to population centers.

“As the grid evolves from one that’s built around fossil generation to one that’s built around renewable generation, the transmission part of the business has to adapt as well, because the location of those supply sources are different,” Kapadia says. “You need a holistic set of tools, from supply to transmission to distributed solutions, to transition the economy.”

To help balance the volatility of energy sources such as solar and wind, LS Power began developing energy storage facilities using batteries and acquiring pumped-storage hydro projects to ensure that electricity is available when it’s dark out or the wind isn’t blowing.

“When you have a sector that’s changing this quickly, you identify problems and then focus your people and your capital on those problems,” he says. “We’ve been tackling all these parts of the ecosystem as we’ve seen the opportunities arise.”

Opportunities often come with challenges. Among those are maintaining both reliability and affordability while transitioning from one set of technologies to another.

“If you compromise either of those two, you’re going to lose the support of policymakers and people for the transition,” Kapadia says.

Projects sometimes encounter opposition from property owners and interest groups, as happened recently with a powerline project in Maine.

“We always listen and engage very closely with the communities and the local policymakers to get their support,” he says. “From my perspective, that’s one of the exciting things about this business, because you’re adding something to the system that didn’t exist before, and creating jobs and tax revenue and along the way you’re bettering those communities.”

Kapadia serves on the board of directors for several companies LS Power has invested in, including electric vehicle charging company EVgo Inc. and renewables and battery storage platform REV Renewables LLC.

The former economics major and class president also serves his alma mater as vice chairman of the William & Mary Foundation Board of Trustees. Last year, he made a $1 million gift to the Career Center Student Internship Fund that allows at least 100 undergraduates per year to receive up to $5,000 each for unpaid or underpaid applied learning experiences.

Kapadia sees renewable energy as a promising field for William & Mary students to pursue, with growth opportunities in business, science, engineering, research, government and policymaking roles.

“The industry is a fascinating one because it’s constantly changing, and that rate of change has been accelerating over the past 10 years,” he says. “But also, our work has a real impact on the environment and communities. It’s a combination of the dynamism of the industry and the impact you can have that’s made it really fulfilling.”

Managing Risk

Like Kapadia, Kristen Hamel ’12 works for a company that develops and operates renewable energy projects. In her role as associate director of market risk management at San Diego-based EDF Renewables North America, she ensures that its wind and solar farms, storage facilities and electric vehicle charging centers are operating efficiently and profitably.

Originally from St. Louis, Hamel was drawn to William & Mary for its strong academic reputation as well as its golf program. She started out in public policy, but pivoted to a finance degree after spending a semester in Washington, D.C. After graduation, she worked as a management consultant in Washington before pursuing a master’s degree in international economics at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.

“My current role within EDF is very much like being an internal consultant, helping to provide analytics, research and strategy recommendations for our renewable portfolio,” she says. “Being able to pull on my undergraduate degree in finance, and then combining it with the work I did in grad school in economic research, is the perfect blend of both of those.”

Among the risks she analyzes are the effectiveness of evolving technology, how reliably and cost effectively renewable energy projects adapt to a changing power grid, and fluctuating renewable procurement goals set by state and federal governments.

From a policy perspective, thinking has shifted from limiting or taxing carbon emissions to providing incentives to develop renewable energy projects, says energy expert and economist Allen Fawcett ’97, director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute — a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland in College Park.

Through investment tax credits included in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, for example, “there are a lot more carrots in the form of how we are incentivizing the clean energy transition and making sure that the technology change we need to see is coming into place,” says Fawcett, former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Economics Branch. “When you look at the market, you see the huge expansion of wind and solar technology. There’s a long history of support that has driven down the cost of these technologies.”

Hamel would agree, citing rapid expansion in solar projects over the past five years.

“We’re seeing a lot of solar growth all throughout North America, starting first in California several years ago but now making its way across the country from Texas to New York, Ohio to South Carolina,” she says. “There’s a lot more interest because the technology improvements and policy incentives are promoting continued growth of utility-scale solar.”

A subsidiary of the main utility provider in France, EDF Renewables operates in 22 countries, supplying power to utilities and to corporations working to meet sustainability goals.

“At the core of it, I feel like we’re doing something good for the planet by building more renewable energy projects that reduce carbon emissions,” Hamel says. “I’m excited to see where the technology continues to grow and develop.”

She is also encouraged by the increasing number of new college graduates choosing careers in renewable energy.

“When I joined EDF about seven years ago, I was one of the younger people in our company at age 28,” Hamel says. “And now we’re seeing a whole younger generation enter the renewable workforce. That’s been a cool shift to see.”

Accelerating Carbon Removal

Ryan King ’03 had always wanted to work in sustainability, but as someone whose primary focus is developing and marketing new companies, he found limited room to explore that work.

When he launched food delivery company Hello Fresh in the United Kingdom in 2011, for instance, he ensured that biodegradable material was used in packaging. He had received an MBA from London Business School earlier the same year and he built the startup after joining Rocket Internet, a company that incubates and develops web-based business models.

“Many companies have sustainability programs, but it’s not the primary aspect of the work that they do,” King says. “I wanted to find something that could grow and that was 100% focused on sustainability.”

He found that opportunity a couple of years ago when a business school friend introduced him to Jim Mann, then CEO of the Future Forest Co., which plants trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. King liked the idea, but he didn’t see it as a growth business. Then, Mann told him about a plan to create a new company with a mission of broadscale carbon capture through a groundbreaking method called enhanced rock weathering.

“He said, ‘Actually, what we want to do is make the planet fit for future generations through this new way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.’” King signed on to become the chief commercial officer for the new London-based venture, called Undo, which split off from Future Forest.

The concept is to speed up a naturally occurring carbon capture process by spreading crushed silicate rock on agricultural fields, with the added benefit of enhancing soil. Spreading the crushed rock increases the surface area for a chemical reaction that occurs when carbon dioxide mixes with rainwater to form carbonic acid. As King explains it, the carbonic acid mineralizes and forms bicarbonates that eventually make their way through soil and river systems to the ocean, where marine organisms use them to make skeletons and shells.

“We’re on the forefront of developing this technology, commercializing it and bringing it to market,” King says. “The success metric that we hold ourselves to is, ‘How much carbon dioxide are we removing from the atmosphere?’ To me, that’s really exciting.”

Undo’s ambition is to be the first company to remove 1 million tons of carbon dioxide, with the ultimate aim of removing 1 billion tons. This is measured by tracking the volume of rock moved from quarries to fields and predicting how quickly the rock will weather based on analysis of its mineralogy, King says.

“We capture all that data and then we get it audited and verified by two different third parties,” he says.

In telling why he founded the company, Mann expresses a sense of urgency: “Even if we eliminate fossil fuel use and decarbonize all areas of our lives, such as transport, manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and food production, we’re still going to have CO2 lingering at elevated levels in our atmosphere … and it will keep increasing the earth’s temperature unless we can remove it.”

The commercial part of the business, which King oversees, involves selling carbon credits to businesses such as Microsoft and British Airways, allowing them to make progress toward their net-zero emission goals. Undo works with businesses that are also taking other steps to reduce their environmental impact, such as an airline investing in more fuel-efficient planes.

“If you tell everyone in the world they can’t fly anymore, the response will be unproductive,” he says. “You have to support those companies that are trying to do the right thing because it becomes a virtuous cycle. Once you start making things more efficient and talking about them, then you’re encouraged and incentivized to do more.”

For King, who studied international relations and finance at William & Mary, one of the biggest challenges of his job has been educating potential clients about Undo’s carbon removal process and how the company works with communities — partnering with farmers to spread the crushed rock and with universities on soil sampling, for example. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve worked in a lot of different kinds of companies, and I find building and scaling companies fulfilling in many ways,” he says. “But I never had that real passion for the product or service we were putting out. Now I do.

“I’d love to be able to say when I’m 80 years old that I helped mitigate some of the worst impacts of climate change through the decisions we made and the actions we took.”

W&M Advances Campus Energy Initiatives

Since rolling out its Climate Action Roadmap outlining steps toward greater sustainability nearly three years ago, William & Mary has significantly expanded its use of both geothermal energy and solar energy.

A new geothermal system at Monroe Hall will be operational this fall, efficiently heating and cooling the building by circulating water underground. Construction is also taking place on Barksdale Field to install 238 geothermal wells that will serve as sustainable energy sources for Lemon and Hardy halls, along with Jamestown East. This system is projected to reduce energy use across the three buildings by approximately 60%. (The soccer fields will be restored after that work is completed.) An additional 230 wells are being constructed to serve the new housing and dining facilities under development for the West Woods, and Old Dominion Hall is scheduled to receive a geothermal system in 2025.

Through a 20-year power purchase agreement with Dominion Energy, William & Mary started sourcing nearly 50% of the university’s electricity this year — a greater percentage than any other public university in the state — from a 20-megawatt solar facility in James City County that began operating in November. In addition, 786 solar panels will be installed as part of the West Woods development; of those, 647 will be placed on the rooftop of the dining hall.

William & Mary and the University of Virginia have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, the universities announced in 2019. The two Virginia institutions are sharing information and collaborating on initiatives toward zero net greenhouse emissions.

“Approximately 40% of carbon emissions come from the built environment, so it is critical that William & Mary continues to implement the use of sustainable energy initiatives and other green building strategies in order to make progress toward its carbon neutrality goals,” says Dan Pisaniello, university architect.

Left: Mary Lawrence Young ’21, M.A. ’22 tries out W&M Libraries’ electric cargo delivery bike after its arrival thanks to a grant from the W&M Green Fee program. (Photo by Jordan Williams) Right: A solar trellis in W&M Law School’s Patten Family Courtyard offers a place to charge laptops and other devices, providing an outdoor study space. (Photo by David Morrill/W&M Law School)

At least 18 W&M structures are certified through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, based on factors such as site location, water and energy efficiency, building materials and more. Among those are the School of Education, the Raymond A. Mason School of Business’ Miller Hall, Integrated Science Center 3, the Cohen Career Center, McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, the W&M Law School addition and the W&M Alumni House addition. The new Robert M. Gates Hall also will be a LEED-certified building.

W&M’s Green Fee program has funded numerous smaller renewable energy projects as well, such as installing a new electric vehicle charging station at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Laboratory and a solar trellis and device-charging station in the law school courtyard. In addition, W&M Libraries received an electric cargo delivery bike and Dining Services now has an electric golf cart capable of moving compost bins.

Research With Far-Reaching Impact

William & Mary’s students and faculty are engaged in a variety of research related to renewable energy and climate change. Here are a few examples:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has chosen a computer model developed by researchers at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science as its next-generation tool
    for managing Chesapeake Bay restoration in an era of rapid climate change, rising sea levels and more intense precipitation. Slated to begin operating in 2025, the model known as SCHISM — for Semi-implicit Cross-scale Hydroscience Integrated System Model — will replace a model that has been used to monitor and guide the Chesapeake Bay Program’s restoration efforts since the early 1990s.
  • At the Institute for Integrative Conservation, students work with external partners on projects that assist with specific biodiversity conservation challenges around the world. For example, in 2023, Riley Kelley ’25, Julia Wack ’25 and Michael Foley ’26 analyzed the potential for carbon markets — trading systems for carbon credits that compensate for greenhouse gas emissions — to help the Maasai community in Amboseli, Kenya. Read more or watch presentations on some of the recent projects.
  • The Global Research Institute’s AidData research lab is investigating how to grow crops that will best serve places around the world that are affected by climate change and how to assess the environmental and economic impact of mining for transition minerals used in car batteries. The lab is also working with partners on a project to broaden the use of satellite imagery for studying agriculture and climate resiliency in developing countries.
  • Biology and environmental science major Olivia Cunningham ’25 and neuroscience major Megan Fleeharty ’24 have been involved in projects with the potential for impacts that extend far beyond their labs. Cunningham’s work was funded by a Charles Center Honors Fellowship and focuses on the hybridization, or crossbreeding, of plants due to climate change. Fleeharty has explored the field of synthetic biology, specifically on different kinds of bacteria in soils that can sequester, or remove, pollutants, with help from a  Charles Center Summer Research Grant.  She hopes to build upon her research when she heads to California after William & Mary’s Commencement to begin a Ph.D. program in bioengineering at Stanford University.