Credit: Illustration by Melanie Loon
Krystal Williams is an impassioned advocate on issues of energy, equity and social justice. Her work with public utilities and renewable energy developers as an energy attorney at Bernstein Shur and Pierce Atwood has deeply influenced her view of both the climate economy and systemic inequities. A member of the Maine Bar Association. Williams has launched the Providentia Group, a law and business advisory firm “focused on creating economic belonging for traditionally underrepresented groups.”
Recently she spoke with David Garrison, co-founder of Climate & Capital Media, where he guides the business, strategy, and brand as publisher.
DG: What’s the burning opportunity in climate change?
KW: That’s a big question with at least two responses. If you subscribe to the idea that for-profit companies exist to maximize shareholder value, then this is about finding opportunities to maximize shareholder value to make the most money in the climate space.
But you can also look at this as identifying opportunities to move the nation forward and create climate-resilient infrastructure, irrespective of shareholder impact.
I’m separating those out, because in the public utility space where I operate as a lawyer, there’s a lot of conversation around that second one — system resilience — and how quickly we can recover after a major climate event. Particularly for power systems (think electric public utilities), we’re concerned about what happens when, for example, a transmission line goes down.
And there’s absolutely an opportunity to invest in system resilience. Developers, for example, if they’re building along a coastline, can create underground parking spaces that are high enough that that’s the area that’s flooded instead of the offices.
Another example: For public utilities, the opportunity is in electrical infrastructure. When I was growing up, you’d buy a string of Christmas lights, and if one light went out, the whole string was worthless. It’s the same basic idea here, but on a larger scale: How do we protect the system from itself?
Those are two specific ways we can be proactive in how we think about existing and new infrastructure, but these are both responding to common sorts of problems across the globe.
But here’s the issue: If you’re only answering the first question (where is there an opportunity to maximize shareholder value), the range of activity gets a lot smaller. That’s because there is not an ability yet to fully recover the cost of building these structures.
DG: Why not?
KW: I hate to make a statement like this, but there’s still enough of a debate around the reality and severity of climate change that it’s difficult to price a response into the infrastructure that private developers build — and then fully recoup that investment.
You know, I live in the world of clean energy, and Maine has passed legislation to promote distributed generation. (It’s really focused on solar panels and commercial on-grid battery installations.) Getting to where we are now required that legislation, but we’re seeing solar developers flooding into Maine.
What I’ve found in representing parties on both sides is that, for commercial owners who have solar installed behind the meter (meaning they’re getting a direct infusion from solar installed somewhere on their property), they’re still paying a slight premium — and they’re willing to — with the understanding that it’s moving the technology forward and bringing the overall price down.
Now, there’s a cap on the premium they’re willing to accept. But what I’ve seen in the commercial market with net-energy billing (that’s basically when a solo developer builds a system, sells it to a large public utility, and the customer gets credits applied to their account) is that that’s a lucrative opportunity.
It’s lucrative because once the structure is built, solar energy is largely free. So, the discussion is really about the installation and supply costs of the materials. In this model, the customer benefits from the lower cost of energy and the developer benefits because they have their debt serviced by selling energy to the utilities — they take the renewable energy credits and sell them into the market. In places like Massachusetts and Connecticut, where there’s a pretty robust market, they can make a nice return.
DG: If we’re going to accelerate the climate economy in a sustained and systemic way, it’s unlikely it’ll be done on the back of “musts” or altruism. It’s much more likely to be done on the back of a shift in what we believe is worth investing in. Where do you see that positive opportunity?
KW: The positive story right now, particularly for businesses that have steady energy demand or who can map out their energy demand with some degree of specificity, is in having a solar system installed on your property — or even purchased virtually.
A key point to make there is that, especially as businesses become more data-driven, costs can be quite high, and you move down the cost curve with solar panel systems. You also begin to enable large-scale battery installations, which is a bottleneck to seeing solar panels widely implemented and to shifting residential consumption.
Maine has a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050. And the reality is that we won’t get there solely by the large companies shifting to renewable energy.
We’ll get there by building infrastructure — for things like electric vehicles — and that requires not only charging stations along the highway but also that more individuals own electric vehicles and install batteries in their homes to charge them.
The Climate Leadership Interviews are an ongoing series of in-depth discussions with a wide range of leaders in the climate economy, as well as organizations and markets — at the intersection of climate and capital.