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Wind Power Advocate Interview: Brent Alderfer, Community Energy Inc.

Brent Alderfer, Larry Flowers, and Peter Goldman

Left: Brent Alderfer Community Energy, Inc. Right: Larry Flowers, Wind Powering America. Middle: Peter Goldman, U.S. Department of Energy.

Wind Power Advocate Interview: Brent Alderfer, Community Energy Inc.

Date: 10/1/2004

Location: Wayne, PA

Brent Alderfer was recently awarded Wind Powering America's Regional Wind Advocacy Award for the Mid-Atlantic Region. Larry Flowers, Wind Powering America Technical Director and Peter Goldman, U.S. Department of Energy presented the award.

Q. How did you become interested in wind energy?

A. I was always interested in wind, solar, and clean energy options because the technology is just plain cool — and they make so much sense. But I decided to pursue that interest when I turned 40 and examined how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. What struck me was the world environment and the lasting damage we're imposing and will impose over the course of little more than a generation to this beautiful place in which we live. It seems to me that the past generation — the World War II Generation — created huge gains and opportunity by expanding wealth, and that is their legacy. The challenge for our generation is to figure out how to use our newfound wealth and technology in a way that preserves the beauty and bounty of the earth, not degrades it. Living sustainably is not only possible, but it's what we all want. It seems to me that the legacy of our generation is to make that shift.

Q. What were the driving factors that resulted in the formation of Community Energy Inc.?

A. Community Energy was formed to pursue the mission of igniting a market for clean, sustainable energy and supplying that market. All of us at Community Energy, and our customers, share the belief that clean, "fuel-free" energy is an idea just waiting to take the stage and one that makes a huge difference to our future. The driving force for the company and all of us who work here is to engage market capital to profitably expand that new supply. The opening of the electric markets to customer choice gave us the opportunity to pursue that mission. In 1999, we started in Pennsylvania, where the market was the most active, with a small pilot project to sell 130 kW of wind generation. When that sold out in a few weeks, we expanded the goal and kept going.

Q. How has Community Energy changed over time in its mission/activities/focus?

A. The CEI mission hasn't changed. Our activities have changed as the market for renewable energy grows and we look to expand the market to bring more wind projects online. From green energy, to renewable energy credits, to wholesale supply, to price hedge contracts, we have continued to push for better and better ways to deliver the full economic and environmental benefits of wind energy to our customers on terms that meet their needs. We still spend time marketing wind energy, and we now spend more time working on the development side to bring projects online.

The greening of Pennsylvania schools is a remarkable story. Tell us about it.

A. Pennsylvania universities — more than 30 so far — were the first to see the leadership and impact they could have in so many key areas with wind energy purchases. They now support a wind farm in the mid-Atlantic region, where none previously existed. As we introduced wind energy to them and arranged joint price breaks to share the economies of scale with them, they were among the first to see the benefits and lead by example. Along with other customers in the mid-Atlantic region, they saw the opportunity to make a difference and jumped on it, making Pennsylvania the leader in wind energy development east of the Mississippi.

As a state economic development program, the investment is a great success. Municipalities are beginning to take a similar leadership role in New York, and I think we will see New York and Midwest wind energy development give Pennsylvania a strong run in the near term.

Q. Community Energy now has offices in four states. Why have you expanded to these states?

A. We will expand wherever we can make a difference, which for us means regions with a sufficient electric load in which to market wind energy, along with untapped wind resources. We used these criteria to choose the mid-Atlantic, New York, New England, and the Midwest. We go where the people are, so there is plenty of territory left to cover.

Q. What key barriers has Community Energy addressed?

A. The key barriers are barriers to changing the way things are. Once we achieve access to customers and give them a wind energy choice, our mission succeeds. Keeping the choice open is the key for us. Even renewable energy policy has been a barrier when it thought it saw an opening and then closed the door on choice. Market forces are immensely powerful, but no one knows exactly where they will land. To capture market force, we need to trim the sails, not steer the wind.

Q. What is Community Energy's vision for the next five to ten years?

A. Our vision is utility-scale renewable energy at levels that let us build consensus on a fully integrated, clean renewable energy supply. Right now I have a portfolio in mind that leads to a clean energy future, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory probably has a more informed vision that's equally possible. But even though possible, the visions are different, and more important, they are not the mainstream vision on energy (not yet!).

Increasingly, the public is ready to see the future on energy, so it's our job to show them a future they like. When we do, they will buy in. Community Energy is focusing on arriving at 1000 megawatts, and then 10,000 megawatts of scale, and beginning to build around-the-clock clean power options that can meet customers' full energy needs with financial advantage, certainty, and security. Our vision is to have fun reaching that goal.

Q. Is it true that the Community Energy crew goes on a vision quest from time to time? What's that about?

A. We hold annual corporate retreats to look at where we are, what we have accomplished, and where we want to go next, individually and as a company. The vision-quest part of the retreat is the fun part, and reconnecting to our vision is productive and inspiring. But the retreat also sets the stage for annual corporate goals, individual goals, and incentive arrangements for the year. So they are work too.

Looking back on Community Energy's history, highlight one big surprise, success, and disappointment.

A. I guess the biggest surprise, a good surprise, was when our first large customer, Carnegie Mellon University, renewed its contract and opted to increase its purchase of wind energy. Other universities and government and corporate customers have done the same, continuing support for longer terms to allow us to bring new wind energy online. I knew customers would support wind, but I didn't know how many would bask in the initial publicity and then let their contracts expire, which would make wind energy development finance tougher. But overwhelmingly, most customers, residential and commercial, have renewed. That has been a gratifying demonstration of our premise: Given the right choices, customers can lead the way to a new energy future.

One early disappointment was how quickly the pressures to "dumb it down" turned well-intentioned policy on its head by looking for the lowest common denominator. The flip side of that disappointment is the satisfaction of seeing customers quickly sift through the confusing marketing, realize that new wind generation makes a difference, and dismiss the less desirable choices.

Q. What are the key barriers remaining to the development of wind energy's full potential in the United States?

A. I suppose that there are many barriers that will need to be addressed, but our approach is that nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. So there is only one key barrier, which is getting the word out on how wind energy fits into the future. Siting and other challenges simply need to be handled responsibly and with the full information available.

Q. Any other thoughts about your wind journey that the Wind Powering America audience might find interesting?

A. Following our energy dream with Community Energy is exciting, and it has been infinitely more satisfying for me personally than practicing law. I am happy every day about what I am doing, and working with people who share that passion is rewarding. Now if we can raise our salaries to lawyer levels, that will be a good sign that we are on our way, don't you think?

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011