Behind the 10 GW: How Enel North America became a renewables powerhouse

Behind the 10 GW: How Enel North America became a renewables powerhouse

Head of Enel North America’s renewable energy business, Stephen Pike, reflects on the parallel growth trajectories of the company’s 10 GW renewables portfolio and his lifelong career in clean energy.

By Stephen Pike

Stephen is the Head of Enel North America’s renewable energy business and has been with the company for nearly 25 years.

 

I was recently walking through our Blue Jay project in Texas, with some of our most efficient, high-performing solar panels to my right and rows of battery energy storage systems to my left. It occurred to me in that moment how much clean energy — and Enel — has transformed since the start of my career. The Steve of 25+ years ago couldn’t have imagined that Enel North America would have 10 GW of installed wind and solar capacity and 1 GW large-scale energy storage in its portfolio.

Enel began operations as a North American clean energy company in 2000, when it acquired CHI Energy — what was then the largest American independent renewable energy hydropower producer with a 245 MW hydro portfolio. At the time, I was a project manager at CHI. In many ways, my own career journey reflects Enel North America’s journey to 10 GW. As I grew into business leadership roles at Enel North America, the company also evolved as a clean energy leader in the U.S. and Canada, from hydro and geothermal power to wind, solar and battery storage. For over two decades, we’ve developed and managed the clean energy that North America depends on.

The road to 10 GW of clean energy

But how much is 10 GW, really? I’m proud to say it’s a milestone that reaffirms our position as one of the largest clean energy operators in the US and Canada. 10 GW is enough clean electricity to power over 2 million homes, or more than all the households in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It’s also enough to avoid over 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, which is the equivalent of removing 3.5 million fuel-burning passenger vehicles from the road.

One of my personal “aha” moments regarding Enel North America’s scale was when we built Roadrunner, which was the largest solar project in Texas (where everything is bigger!) at the time. Fast forward to present day, and our Roseland plant became the largest U.S. solar project to come online in the past year.

Achieving 10 GW was not a linear path, however. Enel North America’s clean energy portfolio is an ever-evolving group of projects, which has encompassed various energy sources and technologies over the years. We continually assess the value we can bring to our projects, the value they can bring to us and what’s needed most in North America as the energy landscape shifts. Moving from hydropower to solar power, for instance, means we can provide more cost-effective, efficient, sustainable and scalable renewable energy to the grid.

Seasoned with experience

In a challenging market like renewables, experience matters. We learned countless lessons on every step to 10 GW. And those lessons gave us the opportunity to get better, establishing best practices that help ensure the success of our clean energy projects. Two areas that experience makes the biggest impact are development and operations.

As a company, we’ve navigated the development cycle throughout different phases of public awareness and sentiment around renewables. We’ve become experts in introducing communities to wind and solar projects, educating on the technologies, listening to community members, learning what’s important to them and then applying those lessons to future projects. Over the years, we’ve also pioneered new approaches to power plant design, including renewables-plus-storage to enhance grid reliability and dual-use solar to preserve natural ecosystems.

On the operating side, we’ve gained the scale, depth and supporting infrastructure needed to diligently maintain plants across the continent and provide our technicians with industry-leading safety and technical training. From the dusty plains of Texas to the mountains of Alberta, our large and diverse fleet provides us the scale to develop and implement best practices and keep costs lower, maintaining our competitive advantage.

Innovation never stops

Innovation is another theme that permeates our entire 10 GW journey. Of course, there were advancements in the energy technologies themselves, like larger and more powerful wind turbines, more efficient and high-performing PV panels and battery storage hitting the mainstream. But Enel North America has always maintained a commitment to innovation in the name of safety, sustainability and productivity of our projects, as well.

For instance, in project maintenance, we embraced innovations that added immediate value. Two standouts for me were incorporating drones at solar farms and self-hoisting cranes at wind farms. By training our solar technicians to be drone operators, we began coupling drone footage with thermal imaging software to diagnose and troubleshoot panel performance problems. And when we invested in self-hoisting cranes, we not only mitigated one of the highest costs of turbine maintenance — getting a crane to the site — but also made the job faster and safer for our technicians.

Our number one innovation philosophy over the years has been that innovations must work for us, not the other way around. We innovate to create value in our work and to keep our competitive edge.

Local champions of the energy transition

I’d be remiss not to mention the important part our local communities have played in the growth of Enel North America’s clean energy footprint. We view communities as true partners in our work, and in my opinion, have developed a gold standard in creating shared value. For every single project, we engage with residents, workers, students, public services, small businesses, landowners and more to learn about their needs and objectives. That way, we can provide the right mix of programs and funding that will drive sustainable, inclusive development.

If we’re not championing our local communities, they can’t champion the value of renewable energy. I truly believe they’re at the heart of the clean energy transition, and it’s up to companies like Enel North America to go beyond power generation and make a positive environmental, social and economic impact.

Reaching the next big milestone

Looking ahead, I have full confidence that renewables can rise to meet the challenge of decarbonizing our economy responsibly. There’s no shortage of demand for clean energy and there’s no shortage of technology innovation to optimize power production. But certain barriers will have to be removed. We must address constraints in the transmission system and see long-duration storage markets mature to manage the inherent intermittency of renewables.

With a 32 GW development pipeline of wind, solar and storage projects across the U.S. and Canada, we remain committed to expanding our clean energy portfolio and delivering sustainable projects that create strong social and financial value. And I know that we’ll keep adapting and evolving to meet the challenges of this market — it’s in our DNA.

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