Renewables are the future: Sustainable infrastructure and technology are how we get there

By: Amanda Hartman ’22 (CHE)
A wind turbine stands amid rolling hills.

Every day, companies and investors are slowly inching towards becoming more environmentally conscious. With more and more consumers valuing corporate social responsibility, the importance of green energy as a solution to the world’s increasingly dire climate crisis has become a focus of companies worldwide. One company aiding in firms’ transition to more sustainable, environmentally friendly solutions is Greentech Capital Advisers, an investment bank focused on sustainable infrastructure and technology transactions.

Frank Nicklaus, MBA ’12 and partner at Greentech, spoke with students about the future of renewable energy and the role it will play in the economy in the decades to come, as well as its increasing economic importance at present. The talk was hosted by the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise as part of its Leaders in Sustainable Global Enterprise speaker series.

Army experience leads to career in renewable energy

Nicklaus credits his time in the US Army with influencing his decision to pursue a career in renewable energy. While in Iraq, he began to notice how much of the social and political strife in the region seemed to result from the world’s dependence on oil. The consequences of oil’s natural abundance in Iraq were most evident in the poor quality of life Nicklaus observed for many Iraqis. “Everywhere you went, there were burning oil pipelines,” Nicklaus said. “There were oil slicks on the Tigris River, which was used as drinking water in addition to irrigating fields. Many Iraqis suffered from respiratory issues due to poor air quality. And these are just some of the regional issues, to say nothing of the more global impact.”

The country’s reliance on oil revenues also contributed to widespread corruption, and eventually, Nicklaus had seen enough: “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way here,’” he said. From that moment, he planned to pursue a career in renewable energy.

Solar and wind energy will have a big impact on global economy

Frank Nicklaus
Frank Nicklaus, MBA ’12 and partner at Greentech Capital Advisers, spoke with students about the future of renewable energy and the role it will play in the economy.

Using projections from BloombergNEF (BNEF) and its New Energy Outlook 2019, Nicklaus echoed BNEF estimates that solar and wind will account for roughly 50 percent of the global power generation mix by 2050. This has huge implications for the global economy, he pointed out, considering renewables as a whole are projected to account for 62 percent of the global power generation mix by that point, while fossil fuels will only generate 31 percent.

Although some students maintained that this projection was optimistic, Nicklaus countered naysayers by noting that renewables are already the cheapest fuel source across more than two-thirds of the world, and costs are continuing to decline. So far, Europe is leading the transition to a more sustainable future in renewable energy, while coal-heavy China and the gas-dependent United States are playing catch-up. In addition, more corporations are signing renewable energy purchase power agreements than ever before, and institutional investors in renewable energy include BlackRock, Allianz, and Brookfield, to name just a few.

What about nuclear energy?

It became clear when Nicklaus asked students how they felt about nuclear energy that they were divided. Nicklaus, a proponent of nuclear energy, brought up the top three nuclear disasters in recent history, and when he asked students if they knew how many casualties resulted from these disasters, many were surprised to hear the answer.

Three Mile Island, the most significant nuclear power plant accident in US history, resulted in no deaths and no long-term health effects for those living within ten miles of the plant. Similarly, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the second most significant nuclear power plant accident in recent history, resulted in one cancer death attributed to radiation exposure. When looking at the fatalities resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, where the estimated death toll is disputed, Nicklaus noted that many of those deaths were due to poor government containment and crisis management, since many officials failed to follow established protocol and regulations.

Nicklaus then compared these numbers to estimates from the World Health Organization that ambient air pollution causes over four million premature deaths annually. “[Nuclear is] expensive because it is heavily regulated,” he said, “but it is also a source of zero carbon baseload power. Nuclear is a critical component of our energy future, and we are letting plants go offline left and right.”

Takeaway for students: Develop transferrable skills

Concluding his presentation, Nicklaus recommended that students eager to pursue a business career in sustainability should focus first on developing transferrable skills. “Unfortunately there are relatively few pure-play sustainability careers,” he said. “So if you don’t find the perfect role right out of school, my advice is to learn how to be a great consultant, marketer, finance professional, et cetera, first, and then be thoughtful about how you can transition into something more sustainability focused.”

He then reminisced a bit about how he came to that conclusion. “When I was [at Cornell] I was constantly railing against the fossil fuel industry,” he said, “and I probably had a bit of a naïve point of view about the practical realities of the energy transition, and of how developing an understanding of incumbent, legacy industries—and engaging constructively with them—can be useful in effecting change. I guess I’ve learned that being for something doesn’t always have to mean being against something else.”

—Amanda Hartman ’21 is a writer for the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise