Day in the life of Chris Banks, UK Business Development Manager
Continuing our day in the life series, UK Business Development Manager, Chris Banks, shares why the industry inspires him and why he’s willing to roll with the punches
Our normal series is a question and answer style, but Chris went off-piste, and we like it.
I became hooked
Renewable energy always seemed like common sense to me. You capture the energy that the planet provides and put it to use for what society needs and leave the planet in no worse state. You would do this without polluting the air, polluting the seas and without leaving stockpiles of residues or waste. If I wanted to try and put it more simply, I might refer to a more colourful phrase about avoiding doing something on my own doorstep.
Of course, the sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t always blow but therein lies the beauty of the engineering challenge which drew me into this job. By utilising all the various components that we have to bend electricity to our will, we are becoming much more adept in matching the supply of generation from sustainable sources to the demands of our society. None of them on their own are absolutely perfect, but work continues to make them better. Meanwhile every kilowatt hour of electricity generated from renewables means less CO2 being emitted.
Studying the environment at university seemed to have such a diverse interplay of sciences and I thought that some type of career might present itself to me when I was there. I took a module on renewable energy and became hooked – the engineering challenge and the technical details in electricity generation really interested me.
I took an MSc in Environmental Impact Assessment as it seemed like the best option for me to get my CV noticed but it was still 18 months until I landed my first renewables job – developing offshore wind farms. When I started, I got asked if I was particularly nautical but the best I could answer was that I’d taken the cross channel ferry a few times! Since then, I’ve spent over 14 years developing offshore wind farms, onshore wind farms, solar photovoltaic plants and energy storage schemes.
Development; maximising the potential
Development often gets thought of as just obtaining planning permission, but I came to realise that it is more than that. You are essentially preparing a project package, which has got everything it needs in order for it to be built. It has all the permissions secured; all of the risks taken care of (as best as they can be); all of the questions answered and everyone around the project knowing what is going on. If it is a good project it will be maximising its potential to bring as many advantages as possible to the site and its surrounding location and above all it is a project which gives the necessary confidence that it will make the required level of financial return, in order to justify the company spending millions on its construction.
It can seem crass to anyone you speak with when developing the project to think that money is the foremost concern, especially if it might be perceived that the project has a loftier ambition of trying to save the world. I will often get told that I am just developing the project for the money, or to bolster the company’s profits. I want to respond to that person by asking them why they go to work every day, but had the wits as a rookie developer to know that that was not a suitable response. The money is the means to the ends. I signed up to the ends by believing in renewable electricity generation; ensuring the project makes money is just the means I have to follow, otherwise there would be no project.
Each technology is unique in the way you build it and how you try to maximise its output. Development always starts however by bringing all the contributing factors together to find the right site (but that landowner may be very happy farming and so you have to look at the next site). Then you start working with engineers to fit all the required pieces together. You need to work out how to maximise the generation output of the site, how to ensure that impacts to local communities are minimised, how wildlife can thrive, how the site will connect to the grid and how will all the equipment be brought to site etc. And all the time ensuring that there is a commercially viable project at the end of it.
How each technology interacts with the environment is different. Getting stuck into the detail of sites I’ve found myself addressing the issue of whether the foot of a jack-up installation vessel for an offshore turbine could disturb a WWII bomb dropped at sea, or checking the orientation of the TV aerials on people’s roofs to see if they were ‘looking’ at a TV mast on the other side of onshore wind farm. For solar farms you can be checking to see what the right grass and wildflower seed mix to meet both the needs of grazing sheep and Great Crested Newts is. Whereas on energy storage sites I have found myself discussing how the particular frequency of the noise emitted by an inverter used with a battery impacts on how you perceive its sound. The variety of sciences and interactions still stimulates me today.
It’s not without its fair share of challenges
There is a hidden personal challenge in the work that you have to get to grips with. As you take a project forward you are working every day to find more answers to fill in the blanks, as you are preparing that package ready to be built. Potentially each answer you find could ruin your project and right off months or even years of hard work and that can be soul destroying. You are never going to avoid this happening, there is no way you can know everything on day one, but with the right frame of mind you learn what is important, how to prioritise and ultimately that you never have to accept that first answer, there is always another way.
There is of course the more obvious challenge of promoting a project to the proposed hosting communities. Another question I get asked a lot when promoting projects is if I would like to live next door to whatever technology it was I was working on, be it wind turbines or solar panels. Without hesitation I can honestly say that yes I would. Often the person asking the question won’t believe me and sometimes call me a liar, or worse. Once I had my (onshore wind) work compared with the desecration of monuments by ISIS, and once even had a poem written about the evil work that I was doing. Of course no new development is going to get unanimous support and taking flak from those opposed to what you do is the same for anyone presenting proposals the public. However, the movements which sprang up to oppose renewables and discredit climate change mean you are forever trying think strategically about how we communicate the messages, be as open as possible and be robust in what we say. At the end of the day no one will hear your messages if you don’t say anything and don’t make yourself available for questioning. At the very least, if you find yourself at the front of a tough audience in a village hall answering questions, you can at least come away with some respect for having put yourself out there to take the grilling, if that’s the way it happens.
It’s not all gloomy however, it is worth noting that I have seen a clear change in the general mood expressed by residents and officials in the conversations we have been having about projects over the last 18 months. The messaging of Greta Thunberg, the school strikes, the government carbon reduction targets and others appears to be having an effect in the way people think about specific renewable energy projects and the major part they play in tackling the climate change emergency.
The rugby scrum
I’ve bored my colleagues with this analogy I have come up with, imagining my development work as a rugby scrum. In your front row you have access to land, access to a grid connection and securing planning permission. Your second row is design/yield and constructability. The number 8 keeping the thing balanced is the commercial viability, with communications and governance as your flankers. There are so many details to each of these project facets, these scrum positions, you never know what could undermine the project you’re working on.
If it is not something about the project itself that scuppers your chances then there are always the ever changing, broader factors that can change your prospects overnight – be that exchange rates, power price forecasts, government policy etc. The number of projects I have worked on where the commercial viability was obvious, is far fewer than the number of projects for which there has been the need to constantly reanalyse the viability, readdress designs and costs in order to justify continuing the project. These were projects like the early offshore wind projects where construction costs were still very high, or the onshore projects which came at the end of the subsidy schemes or the latest subsidy-free schemes. These were not bad projects, merely it felt like I was constantly grappling to get projects we need to decarbonise our energy supply back into the reach of what is achievable. Is it because getting rid of CO2 emissions just hasn’t been valued?
Why I’m still part of this industry; in the words of the Lorax
However, it comes back round to why I do the job and a wonderful thing about this industry is that is you work alongside people who are equally motivated. I have been very lucky to work alongside colleagues, and with people across the industry, where I know that the need to get something done about climate change motivates them all and they have applied their tremendous skills and intellect in wonderfully productive ways to see projects get built and deliver what they promised.
I have two children and of course I think about what lies in store for them as they grow up. I am not an activist environmentalist, and try not to be preachy (although my wife may say otherwise when it comes to the recycling) nonetheless I still want to try and instil in them a sense of responsibility for their, our and society’s actions.
The best way to sum it up I found was in the Lorax by Dr. Suess which I read to them at bedtime. The book tells of the Once-ler, who chops down the all Truffula trees to make the thneeds that he insists that everyone needs, but in so doing he glumped up the ponds and smogged up the air. The Lorax tried to make him see what he was doing but in the end it had got so bad he had to leave, along with all the birds and animals, but not before leaving a parting message…
And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
Was a small pile of rocks, with the one word…
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.
“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
The word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
Cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better.