Climate Stories Episode #8: The Role of Solar and Wind Farming (and Other Tools) in the United States’ Clean Energy Future

Episode 8 of Climate Stories focuses on HBS alumna Diana Rivera, director of development for Lightsource bp. As a global leader in the development of cost-effective, clean energy projects, Diana is equally stimulated and frustrated by the challenges of slowing climate change, before it’s too late.*

“The U.S. electric grid is the largest machine on the planet. Our grid is holding back the United States’ ability to transition quickly and efficiently to a clean energy future.” – Diana Rivera (MBA 2010)

Diana Rivera is one of the very few Harvard Business School alums and one of fewer women who has been a transmission grid developer at scale.

As Development Director for Lightsource bp, Diana currently leads greenfield development of utility-scale solar farms in the U.S. She and her team identify new project sites; they enter leasing agreements with landowners, many of whom are facing drought conditions and have limited alternative “crop” potential; and Diana’s team completes early-stage development, including interconnection requests. Lightsource bp’s goal is to develop 25 gigawatts of solar power by 2025.

“It takes empathy to do this work, to work with different stakeholders and make sure they are heard. The work is very challenging, complicated and sometimes frustrating. But the tangible results of renewable energy, the impacts on peoples’ lives are game changing,” she said in an interview with Climate Stories.

She explained that the development process for renewable energy projects includes finding a proper “transmission injection site,” doing environmental impact studies, securing land for solar and wind farming, securing relevant permits, and reaching an agreement to connect to the local electric grid. “And that’s before the 1-2 years needed for construction of large-scale projects.”

Diana believes transmission infrastructure is in the national interest, particularly in the face of climate change, and hopes to see federal policies accelerate progress.

With her prior employer, Clean Line Energy Partners, Diana developed an interstate transmission line to unlock four gigawatts (GW) of wind power that remains unbuilt. She participated in stakeholder meetings with grid operators that serve the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions and saw how difficult it is to align on transmission planning and cost allocation rules with so many competing resources, state policies, and economic interests at play. It leads to literal gridlock in more ways than one.

Transmission is the “bottleneck,” Diana said. “The process of getting renewable energy sources onto the grid hasn’t improved in a decade.” For example, it can take four years to complete interconnection studies in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland or California. The reasons include both the backlog of projects in the queue and the frequency with which they drop out after getting assigned the network upgrade costs. The shuffling necessitates re-studies, and the delays continue.

Currently in Texas, however, the process can take a quarter of the time. “Interconnection studies can take just 12-18 months in Texas, and network upgrades are reimbursed by the ratepayers, giving more cost certainty to generators at the outset,” Diana said.

Diana has forgotten more than most consumers (especially this author) know about electricity generation and the relative costs of bringing new, renewable sources onto grids. The facts that she cited were eye-opening, impressive, and in some cases, deeply personal.

In 2021, wind and solar comprised 70% of new U.S. generating capacity additions, with natural gas accounting for just 16%. Diana specifically cited Lazard’s analysis of the relative costs of unsubsidized energy sources, which shows that wind, solar and geothermal are significantly less than those of nuclear and coal. Utility-scale solar costs less than gas-fired generation, and in many parts of the world, wind is less expensive, as well.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration stated that in 2021, the nation’s solar electricity generation had reached 164 billion kWh, an increase of more than 3000 percent since 1984.

And Diana is part of this growth. She started developing Concho Valley Solar near San Angelo, Texas, when she worked for Merit SI in 2018. The project began delivery of clean energy in June 2022, just before the hottest July on record in several cities in ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates Texas’ electrical grid). Power demand broke records 11 times and exceeded 80,000 MW for the first time in history.

“Creating something from nothing takes tenacity, but it is so rewarding. Getting your boots dirty is more fulfilling than just doing financial models.”

She is particularly proud of this and similar projects’ positive impacts on individuals’ lives. She cited reliable rents when landowners lease their land to solar or wind farms. This new type of “farming” means survival and a real future for many landowners and their families, who are no longer able to rely on traditional “crops” because of years’ long drought conditions. The increased tax base also benefits local communities, especially their school systems.

And then there are the new jobs, hundreds of jobs per project in the renewable energy field, she said. Lightsource bp has partnered on a specific program to train veterans and their new construction skills are transferable to other solar projects across the country. Overall, Diana said, an estimated 250,000 people are working in the solar industry in the United States.

“The technology is there and it’s mature. The average cost of wind and solar energy is among the cheapest sources of generation across the nation. Every day I am working on something important.”

Tenacity and optimism may be traits that Diana inherited from her mother, Ester, a daring, adventurous woman whose story is almost cinematic. At age 27, Ester left a farm in the Philippines for a new life in Hong Kong. Eventually, she married an American journalist, who later became a diplomat. After ten years of marriage in Thailand, they parted ways, and instead of returning to the Philippines, Ester decided to move to Houston to provide a better life for Diana and her sister.

Good at math and science, Diana attended Cornell University and HBS for graduate school. Today, she sees a bit of irony in her decision to study operations research and industrial engineering, instead of electrical engineering as originally planned. Now, she works in electricity, but her career fulfills her goal of problem solving in a practical way. “I wanted to focus on practical and process-oriented engineering, how to eliminate waste and be more efficient with resources and improve output and profitability. My goal was to have tangible, not theoretical outcomes.”

A major challenge, Diana said, is transmission congestion; i.e. connecting the new, renewable sources to the grid where there is capacity for electricity to flow where it’s needed. Experts agree, citing “interconnection timelines and costs” as the biggest barriers to achieving the Department of Energy’s goal of 40% solar by 2035. Specifically the challenge for developers is “a lack of clarity around responsibility and cost allocation for any interconnection facility upgrades a project may — or may not — require.”

“Transmission is the key inhibitor or enabler of a cleaner energy grid.” Diana explained, “Finding the right connection point on a grid where you can transfer capacity is like winning the lottery.” Without that right connection point, you have to pay for new transmission lines, and that hurts the project’s economics. Still, she estimated that dozens of development companies are at work, bringing gigawatts of renewable power online every year. “But there are so many puzzle pieces that many projects die on the vine.”

Diana is encouraged by some signs of positive momentum, as regional grid operators are planning transmission to integrate renewables at scale.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm shares Diana’s optimism. On June 2nd, she announced a “grid interconnection initiative” to address the gridlock issue that is hampering clean energy adoption, the same issue that Diana has observed and lamented.

“Eliminating the gridlock that’s slowing down clean energy deployment is critical to increasing access to cheaper electricity for American families and businesses,” Granholm said. According to the Department of Energy, the new Interconnection Innovation e-Xchange (i2X) will “develop a five-year interconnection roadmap for improving interconnection processes, reducing interconnection timelines and costs, and maintaining grid reliability to meet local, state, regional and federal decarbonization goals.”

And she cheered the climate change provisions of the new Inflation Reduction Bill that President Biden signed on August 16, 2022.

“This transformative legislation will increase the solar investment tax credit to 30% and extend it to 2032, instead of declining to 10% in 2024.” Diana added: “It will spur creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, enhance the grid with new technologies, incentivize development on brownfield sites, and increase domestic manufacturing, which will make solar less susceptible to global supply disruptions. These and other policies within the Inflation Reduction Act will enable our industry to accelerate development of low-cost, clean energy to slow climate change and benefit consumers for many years to come.”

In the meantime, Diana and her colleagues have their heads down, working to put gigawatts of renewable power on the grid wherever they can.

* The opinions in this piece are those of Diana Rivera, not necessarily those of her employer.

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.