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Judge’s Corner: Google’s Chris Taylor on the Power of Clean Energy
Today, Chris Taylor manages a $2B portfolio of wind, solar and affordable housing investments. When he started his career back in 1999, he could barely find job postings in the renewable energy business, let alone a job in the industry. Needless to say, the industry—and Chris’ career—has come a long way.
What inspired your start in the industry?
In college, I studied abroad in Kenya where I did an internship in the remote northern town of Marsabit. There was a wind turbine at the top of the hill that we’d go up to watch the sunset at, and I’d never seen one before in the States—this was a really long time ago. I remember thinking, wow, this is really cool, I wonder how well that actually works? Later, when I was in graduate school, a few of my professors were nuclear engineers and physicists who had become advocates for renewable energy based on plummeting costs and improving technology. I was really amazed that these people who came from the other side of the spectrum were so bullish about it. I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life, but it was 1999 and there were no jobs to be had in this industry—it was hard to even find a company to apply to. It took me until 2002 to find my first job in wind, working for what is now EDPR but was then a ten-person startup.
Let’s fast-forward a few years—how did you get to where you are today?
I’ve been at Google since 2015, but only focusing on renewables again since 2017, so I took about three years out doing other things, but basically I've spent my career doing project development. Over my career, I’ve developed around 1.7 gigawatts of projects, so that’s about three coal-fired power plants’ worth of projects that have been built. Then on the policy front, I helped draft and pass Oregon's RPS and was part of the committee that ran the ballot measure to pass the Washington’s RPS. Now I manage investments that Google makes in these kinds of renewable projects. Google has invested about US$2 billion in wind and solar projects, mostly domestic projects, but a few international, too.
The Cleanie Awards have a Rising Star Under 40 award and some awards for startups. Having been in the industry so long, do you have advice for people early in their careers or companies?
Look out for the big picture—that’s both for individuals and the companies themselves. In my experience, what has set this industry back the most is short-term thinking on the behalf of people who are just looking to make a quick buck. I’ve always approached this as an industry that I want to be in for the rest of my life—that means building long-term relationships with people, it means doing things that aren’t necessarily going to reward me today, but will help build this industry that I've decided to be part of.
I’ve also been in multiple startups in my life, so I know what it’s like when you’re forced to hustle and do everything with limited budgets and limited numbers of people. But now that we’re maturing as an industry, we need to start acting like a mature industry. Taking the long-view, thinking sustainably and in the long-term—that’s what really pushes the industry forward. In terms of how do you apply that to your career, again, it’s taking the long-view, building your skills, learning new things, and then remembering the bigger picture. This industry is always changing so you need to keep constantly evolving with everybody else, which makes it exciting. I think most of us are drawn to this work because it’s what we want in life—I mean, the idea of going to work every day where you do the same thing? That would be so soul-crushing.
What’s been a constant for you in this industry all these years?
Sometimes the right answer isn’t the easy one or the cheap one, but it’s the right one—learning that early on, it stayed with me. When I was a young person, coming out of the Peace Corps, I assumed being in business meant making moral compromises, and it was a tough sell, to be honest, to move into the private sector. But what I found was that my first bosses—the Zilkhas—were the most ethical people in the world and they were self-made billionaires. Not once in the whole time I worked for them did they ever take the low road on anything, even when it was difficult, expensive or risky, they would do the right thing. Sometimes you pay the price, but over the long-term it is ultimately the way to go. Seeing them be that successful and operate that way really inspired me. I told myself right then that I would only work with people or organizations that operate ethically, because you can, in fact, be successful and treat people the right way.
Talk a bit about your current role and the work you are you doing.
In my current job, Google provides part of the capital necessary to get these wind and solar projects built. In the US, the way the federal government provides incentives for clean energy is through the tax code. Google is a large taxpayer and there’s not a lot of companies that are willing to write a check for hundreds of millions of dollars to get mostly tax credits in return and a little cash—so Google is uniquely well positioned to play that role. We’re investors in everything from one of the largest PV solar projects in South Africa to a giant solar thermal in the California desert, to huge wind farms and utility-scale solar PV projects across the country—it’s a pretty diverse array of resources that are producing a lot of clean energy and will be doing so for a long time.
What does working in this industry mean to you?
I always go back to my coal analogy. Your average coal plant is about 500 megawatts, so the thought that in my little life—and I’m not counting what I've done at Google, this is before Google—I’ve put up the equivalent of more than three coal plants’ worth of clean energy projects that aren’t going anywhere, at least as long as I’m alive, then there’s three less coal plants that are running somewhere in the world. To me that’ the most concrete manifestation of my life’s work. The vision in my mind is a coal plant going backwards with the coal pollution going back down the smoke stack. Shutting down and stopping as many of those filthy things getting built was my goal when I started in this business. It’s still unbelievable to me that anyone is discussing the idea of opening a coal plant in 2020—I mean, why would you want to go back to the 1800’s for your source of energy for the 21st century? Even utility executives will tell you they’re not building any more coal or nuclear plants—the economics just aren’t there.
The other thing is the jobs that are created through wind and solar—a lot of the places where these projects are built are not prosperous communities and that’s not because we look for depressed places to go, it’s because humans don’t like to live in places with blistering sun and howling wind, so they tend to be pretty neglected for investment and jobs. These projects create a bunch of construction jobs, but also a decent number of long-term jobs—20-30 years, which today is a lifetime or a career. I’ve met people who have been able to stay in the town they grew up in and raise their kids there because they can now work as a wind technician or a solar project manager and make a respectable living with benefits and health insurance. That’s a pretty cool thing to be able to provide people.
What are you hoping to take from your experience as a judge for The Cleanie Awards?
I’m excited to hear about and learn from others about things I don’t get to work on. I've done a lot of different things in the industry, but it’s all been very focused in utility-scale wind and solar. I don’t know as much about the other newer adjacent pieces of the cleantech sector, so I look forward to hearing about it. Storage, new financial products, etc.—that’s where a lot of the action is, so I think I’ll learn a lot from the other judges. Given my own experience with launching new companies, I’m also very interested in the start-up and entrepreneurial side of the awards, and I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to take that risk.
What are you reading/listening to right now?
One of the things I’ve been hearing about lately is hydrogen electrolysis. Basically you can create hydrogen by just running electrical current through water—it separates it in to H and O and the H can then be used as a clean transportation fuel, or to generate electricity and that can be transported and stored. You can generate it using renewable energy like wind and solar, so when you have extra wind at night in Texas or excess solar in the middle of the day in Arizona, you could run it through water and create fuel and some back up electricity. The technology has existed for years and is proven, but now that the costs are coming down it’s an interesting idea for solving both the transportation fuel issue—without using food for fuel—and potentially energy storage as well. I think you’ll be hearing about it a lot in the near future.