The Brief

Renewable Energy: “There’s So Much to Do!”

In 2002, Electricité de France (EDF) acquired a Danish company originally founded in the 1980s to maintain a wind farm near Palm Springs, California. This was the start of EDF Renewables, which in two decades has become one of the leaders on the renewable energy market in North America, with 1,650 employees and more than 300 production and storage sites developed in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. French executive Tristan Grimbert, 55, has been directing the EDF subsidiary since 2004. We met him in San Diego during the Power Summit, the “big annual meet-up” for the company’s developers.
Tristan Grimbert. © EDF Renewables

France-Amérique: What are EDF Renewables’ projects in North America?

Tristan Grimbert: We generate and optimize green energy. That means that we design, build, and operate renewable projects across North America, including wind farms across the Midwest, Quebec, and Texas, solar farms in California and Mexico, and wind turbines off the coast of New Jersey [set to launch in 2027], along with smaller, behind-the-meter installations for industrial clients across the grid. We are also working on green hydrogen for electric mobility and export to Europe, and on storage batteries. Lastly, since 2019 we have made forays into the electric vehicle charging market. For example, we installed the 1,200 chargers now available at LAX airport in Los Angeles, and have also equipped the offices of TurboTax, Salesforce, Kaiser Permanente, and Target. With 16 gigawatts of developed projects and 44 gigawatts currently under development, we are one of the biggest renewable energy developers in the North American market, number two in commercial and industrial rooftop solar solutions, and number four in electric vehicle charging. We operate across the whole chain.

Renewable energy – and environmentalism in general – is an incredibly political topic. How do different administrations and the shifts from left to right influence your business?

Generally speaking, renewable energy follows the course of history. Some presidents have provided huge boosts – particularly the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden in August 2022 – but the market has always continued to grow, regardless of the political camp in power. I remember the inauguration of a wind project in Texas during Barack Obama’s presidency. A farmer who leases his land to us hadn’t seen a drop of water in years, but still refused to believe in global warming. “That’s not what it is,” he said. “I love what you’re doing, though. Wind is the only drought-resistant crop! It brings me a revenue stream every year and stops me from going bankrupt.” Back then, everyone supported our industry for their own reasons. But today, the political climate is so tense that being a friend to some means being an enemy to others…

The Switch Solar project, installed in Nevada in 2017, supplies electricity to 46,000 homes. © EDF Renewables

You recently said that “during the past three years, we were met with a lot of uncertainty.” Were you referring to the political climate you just mentioned?

Geopolitical instability is more of a challenge for us than changing administrations. This includes market volatility and the trade war with China. The latter issue has led to a rise in customs duties and a freeze on certain imports such as solar panels – most of which are manufactured in China – and specific wind turbine components. Not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, inflation, and the cost of capital… It’s a very turbulent time.

How did the Texas power crisis of February 2021 impact your work?

I personally worked 18 hours a day for six weeks to manage the crisis! The grid failure, which was mainly caused by the freezing of natural gas wells that supply the thermal power plants, was very poorly anticipated and put us in a real quandary. We had delivery obligations that we were unable to meet, and this all happened while electricity prices were soaring due to shortages. EDF Renewables lost quite a lot of money, even though our sister company, EDF Trading, which trades in these markets, made significant profits. Texas has since launched a thorough review of their electricity system. This has led the state to consider incentive mechanisms to diversify its energy sources and make the grid more resilient to these sorts of events.

Going back to the Inflation Reduction Act, what does it actually offer, and why did you describe it as “a historic moment for renewable energy”? It is a very complex, comprehensive law. Firstly, with regards to our sector, it extends tax credits allocated to generation and storage projects, which will make it possible to lower the cost of energy and therefore its purchase price. Secondly, the law gives us ten years of visibility. In the past, tax credits expired after one, two, or three years, whereas developing a wind or a solar farm takes ten years on average. Lastly, via these credits, the law paves the way for technology other than solar and wind. Hydrogen is one major example, which will be heavily subsidized and make the United States the world’s cheapest place to produce this gas. There is also carbon dioxide sequestration [capturing CO2 directly as it is emitted from factories] and the creation of domestic manufacturing lines for components such as solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and inverters. This will create jobs, secure our supply chain, and make us less dependent on imports. This law is certainly transformative, but there is one big piece of the puzzle missing: energy transmission. This is a critical part of overhauling the U.S. grid, which is currently designed around massive production plants located near cities. If we want to bring electricity from rural areas, where most renewable projects are located, we need super lines running across the country – the equivalent of the interstate highways built in the 1950s. The current administration acknowledges this challenge, but we need to find the right legislation, and that’s going to be difficult with a mixed Congress like the one we have now.
Installation of a blade at the Nicolas-Riou wind farm, launched in Quebec in 2018. © EDF Renewables

Seen from France, Americans appear less receptive to environmental issues and renewable energy. Is this a cliché or a reality?

I think this is only partially true. There are many Americas, not just one. Some people here don’t care about global warming in the slightest, but others do. It’s true that the average American lifestyle is very energy-intensive – we’re sitting on a terrace in San Diego, surrounded by gas fire pits, for example. What’s more, living in San Diego without a car is unthinkable. However, I noticed far more electric vehicles here than in Paris. The younger generation, my children’s generation, is very aware of climate issues and is making real efforts. My dual culture – I have lived in the United States for more than 20 years, so I am both French and American – has taught me not to judge either one, and instead to adopt behaviors that I see as beneficial in each country.

You have previously said that there is “a moral obligation to act” for the planet. What does this job mean to you?

I started working in renewable energy quite by accident [after studying agronomy in Paris], but it has become a vocation and even a matter close to my heart. There’s so much to do! To share a personal story: One Sunday, during our traditional family meal, I was talking with my oldest son, who also works in the renewable energy sector. I was telling him that carbon dioxide sequestration might be developed in ten years, rolled out in twenty, and produce visible results in thirty. To which he replied: “But that’s my whole life, I’ll never have time to enjoy it!” It was a real wake-up call. We have to do better, and faster. We owe it to our children.

The Green Energy Boom

The United States is a bastion of natural gas, coal, and nuclear power, and is now on the cusp of becoming an El Dorado for renewable energy. This is being facilitated by the availability of space to set up vast wind and solar farms, combined with state and federal policy (the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act is allocating 369 billion dollars to support initiatives decreasing carbon emissions, and California intends to produce “100% clean energy” by 2045). In 2021, the percentage of renewables in the primary energy consumption of the United States (12.4%) was still below that of France (13.1%), but U.S. figures continue to rise. This has encouraged French groups EDF and ENGIE to expand their presence in the country. The former is building a 4,000- acre solar farm in Ohio to serve Amazon, and the latter has just inaugurated its biggest land-based American wind project, south of Dallas, with 88 turbines and a total output of 300 megawatts. “The United States makes up almost a third of renewable energy capacity outside of China,” said a French analyst in a 2020 interview for Les Echos. “This capacity should increase by 70% by 2030.”

Interview published in the April 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.