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Episode 52: Miranda Ballentine

This week, Jon Powers speaks with Miranda Ballentine, CEO of the Renewable Energy Buyers’ Alliance (REBA). REBA works with businesses and organizations, such as Google, Facebook, and GM, seeking to procure renewable energy across the US. This conversation centers around how the buying power of these large energy consumers is changing energy markets and driving America’s shift to a clean energy economy.

Prior to REBA, Miranda was the CEO of Constant Power, Inc.; Managing Director of Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewables Center; and served from 2014 to 2017 served as the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy. She also was the Director of Sustainability for Global Renewable Energy at Walmart Stores, Inc. Miranda holds a BS from Colorado State University and an MBA from George Washington University.

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Jon Powers: Welcome to Experts Only podcast sponsored by CleanCapital, you can learn more at CleanCapital.com. I’m your host Jon Powers. Each week we explore the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us. Welcome back to Experts Only podcast. This is Jon Powers, your host, and today we have an incredible conversation with the wonderful Miranda Ballantine, who is the CEO of the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, REBA. Miranda joined the organization last fall, and really has led it through its rebirth in May as an independent trade association, working with members such as Google, and Facebook, and GM among others who are seeking to procure renewable energy across the US. They’re uniquely positioned as we’ll talk about throughout the conversation.

Jon Powers: But Miranda is uniquely positioned to lead this organization as well. She, prior to this was the CEO of Constant Power, but had been an assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, where I worked closely with her, as well as she served as a director of sustainability and renewable energy at Walmart. So she’s seen all sides of this renewable energy space. And I think you’ll find our conversation both interesting and fascinating, and help understand what these members are looking for. And I think you’ll find this conversation fascinating, and it’ll help really provide some light on the trend we’re seeing in the industry of growing corporate procurement and renewable energy. Miranda Ballantine thank you so much for joining us at Experts Only.

Miranda: Always a pleasure to talk to you Jon.

Jon Powers: So for the audience, I’ve known Miranda a long time, she’s been an incredible mentor of mine. She’s had a great set of experiences working in the private sector, working in government, and Pentagon, sort of back in the public sector. She’s led and sold companies. It’s really unique to have that diversity within an individual and a leader, and bringing that to the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance is helping set the organization apart from what’s out there. But before diving into all of that, Miranda, I just want to step back and talk about you growing up in Colorado. What led you into the energy space?

Miranda: Well, it’s kind of a funny story, Jon, because my undergraduate work was in a completely unrelated field. I studied neuropsychology as an undergrad. So I spent my undergrad days running rats through mazes and dissecting brains.

Jon Powers: Really?

Miranda: Yeah. So really unrelated entirely, but quickly sort of discovered that I probably wasn’t meant to work solo in a laboratory somewhere. I’m just too extroverted as a human. So spent a little bit of time just out in the working world and discovered I loved business. And also grew up in parts of the world where I had cultivated a real passion for both the environment but also for international development. So how I got into all this, all this crazy clean energy work was actually when I first moved to Washington DC about 2000. I started working for a small DC based nonprofit, really actually more focused or I was more drawn to it for the international development and poverty alleviation work, was called The Solar Electric Light Fund.

Miranda: It was a small NGO that brought solar power to remote parts of the developing world. And as you know access to clean, affordable electricity is really critical to improving people’s health outcomes, educational outcomes, economic outcomes. Without basic electricity services it’s very hard to break the cycle of deep, deep poverty in remote parts of the world. And so that’s really where I became very passionate about clean energy and the role that clean energy can play in solving the world’s toughest challenges. And then from there decided to get a master’s degree in business administration because I found I did really enjoy being in the private sector.

Miranda: And so focused my master’s work on energy and the environment. And then had the great fortune of being able to do some consulting work here in DC and had clients across the spectrum of large corporations, and clean energy investors, as well as most of the large environmental organizations. And that’s really what led me to Walmart. I became very interested in what the private sector was doing around sustainability and clean energy. And just had an opportunity to join the team at Walmart and in the early days of launching, and maturing, and growing the Walmart sustainability team. And then my career has sort of grown from there.

Jon Powers: So a little dichotomy, working at a small nonprofit doing interesting work to working at Walmart. And then working at the Pentagon. In those different environments, right, you’re having a lot of different, probably experiences working within bureaucracy versus sort of more entrepreneurial endeavors into the nonprofit space. What are some of the sort of biggest lessons you learned once you got into the Walmart space? And then even the Pentagon space, in terms of leadership, not so much on the energy side, but in terms of sort of leading organizations and driving change.

Miranda: So I think one of the greatest things that each of us can learn about ourselves professionally is whether we are more entrepreneurial by nature or whether we’re more intrapreneurial by nature.

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: They are rather different skillsets, different tolerance for ambiguity, different tolerance for process or lack of process. I have seen entrepreneurial people go inside of large organizations and just really hate it because the amount of process and so called bureaucracy really frustrates people that are naturally entrepreneurial. Conversely, people that are very intrapreneurial thrive in those environments and really bring a skillset of persuasion and influence. And the number of zeros behind each ton of carbon emissions you can influence when you’re working within an organization the size of Walmart, the Fortune number one company in the world.

Miranda: When you’re working within an organization the size of the US Department of the Air Force, largest energy user in the nation. When you’re inside those size of organizations, you can really have a profoundly significant impact in the world. But it does require a different skill set than the entrepreneurial skillset, which is more break things from the outside and drive change that way. So I think that’s one of the most important things one can learn about themselves in their career, is what skill set are they most comfortable wielding? And where will they thrive?

Jon Powers: Yeah. So let’s, for those that aren’t aware, Miranda served as the assistant secretary of the Air Force within the energy division, it’s hard to explain in a bio, but really within the overseeing energy across the Air Force and you came in at a time when the Air Force was making some progress but you really helped sort of shape and drive the policy that’s still being implemented there today. For those that don’t follow the Pentagon’s doing really aggressive and exciting stuff in the renewable space. But from that experience, right, leading that size of an entity, how do you then go and share lessons with folks that are working in the Starbucks’ of the world, right, and the Amazon’s, and some of the people that are members of REBA today? And are there sort of lessons that you share with them about working within that bureaucracy and how they… Because I imagine they’re facing some of the similar challenges, right? Where what they do on a day-to-day basis is not the main mission of the company, but it enhances the main mission of the company, right?

Miranda: Right. Well, and I think you just hit the nail on the head there, Jon. It really is about aligning with the organization’s core mission. So at Walmart, Walmart’s core mission is saving people money so they can live better. Clean energy aligns perfectly with that mission. Clean energy allows current citizens to live better lives, and allows the next generation to live a better life. And at today’s prices, clean energy helps companies like Walmart and Starbucks save money today and in the future.

Miranda: When you’re talking about a military mission, distributed clean energy generation is not only an important play from the perspective of a resilient mission, and the ability for the Air Force to accomplish its mission around the world, but it’s also a supply chain free source of fuel. So an adversary might be able to cut off my diesel supply chain, might be able to cut off my coal supply chain, but can’t cut off the wind or the sun. So it really is all about identifying how the clean energy that you’re looking to procure aligns with your organization’s mission. And that varies by company. But the fundamental perspective of aligning with your mission is the same regardless of what type of organization you’re talking about.

Jon Powers: Speaking of organizations, let’s talk a little bit about the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, which you’re the CEO. So can you sort of introduce folks to REBA and the mission. And in that talk a little bit about the history. How did REBA come to be and become the organization it is today?

Miranda: Yeah, sure, of course. So the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, or REBA, as we call it, is the largest group of clean energy buyers. So it’s the demand side of the clean energy equation that have come together to launch this trade association with a singular vision. And our singular vision is a resilient zero carbon energy system where every organization has a viable path to buying renewable energy. Now, what’s really special about this alliance is that most trade associations, if you think about it Jon, most trade associations are aligned around a particular industry or particular sector.

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: Whereas REBA’s buyer members are really across virtually every industry and every sector. So if you look at our leadership circle alone, we have auto manufacturers with General Motors, we have CPG companies like Johnson & Johnson, we have a number of tech companies like Salesforce, Google, Facebook, Hewlett Packard Enterprises. We have major brands and retailers like Walmart and the Walt Disney Company. It’s really very broad and that’s just the leadership circle alone. Our leadership circle alone has annual revenues of about one and a quarter trillion dollars. So it’s a very significant movement of large companies. Again, all aligned around a single vision, which is really rather unique from a trade association perspective.

Jon Powers: Yeah. It’s interesting if you look at the… We’ve obviously talked to a lot of the different players with SEIA, and AWEA, and ACORE on this podcast, and they represent very specific parts of the industry and the players in that industry. And a lot of the same folks that are within your membership may play a role in those helping to influence the policies to drive more renewables. But your members have a very unique demand. And I do want to talk a little bit more about the role they’re playing on the policy side. But I do want to just go back to in May of this year you guys announced sort of the relaunch of an independent trade association, basically breaking off and absorbing parts of the World Wildlife Fund, Rocky Mountain Institute, BSR, World Resource Institute. Talk for a second about that experience and how you brought those players together? And what you sort of see as the vision now that those teams have come into one place?

Miranda: Yeah. It’s really incredible actually because the idea for REBA goes all the way back to the fall of 2013, when the World Wildlife Fund brought together for the first time a group of large clean energy buyers. There were about 12 or 13 large companies in the room, many of the leaders that we’ve been talking about. So Walmart, and Google, and Johnson & Johnson, and Coca-Cola, and General Motors, and Hewlett Packard. It really came together in 2013 to talk about how could we better leverage our demand side capabilities and power to drive the clean energy future? And what barriers were we each facing that we might be able to better tackle together than we could on our own. And it was at that meeting that this idea of a demand side trade association was first germinated. But back then, and it’s hard to imagine that was only six years ago, not quite six years ago, there just weren’t that many companies actively transacting in the clean energy markets.

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: And we just simply didn’t have critical mass. So this group of really phenomenal leading environmental NGOs with WWF, WRI, the World Resources Institute, RMI, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and BSR, who at that time was the Business for Social Responsibility. I think they’re just BSR now. Sort of like Prince, right? So they’re just BSR.

Jon Powers: Okay.

Miranda: So these four environmental NGOs came together and said, “Hey, let’s really focus on function over form.” And they each took on one of the big barriers that these large buyers had identified and started to build programs around them. And really remarkably as someone who’s worked in and with the environmental NGO community for a long time, the partnership between these four NGOs from the get-go was just incredibly strong and remarkable. No competition for resources or relationships, just a really mission first partnership. And so those programs were actually wrapped in the brand name of Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance even as early as 2014.

Miranda: So the brand has been around and the programs have been around for several years. Well, fast forward to 2017 and the scale of these programs, which I consider 2014 to 2018, 2017 sort of the pilot phase, and the scale and the demand for these services just grew exponentially. So by the end of 2017, only a few years later, that community of large energy buyers had grown from that original 13 to about 200 buyers participating in that community of programs. So it really had just grown exponentially. And many of those original companies kind of stepped back and said, “Hey, look at this. Now we do have the scale to really launch a trade association.”

Miranda: And the value of a trade association, Jon, as you know, and as many of your listeners know, is that it really gives us a lot of freedom to not only do the educational part of our mission, but also to engage much more actively in policy, and legislative, and regulatory proceedings to ensure that the policy environment supports the clean energy markets that our buyers are looking to have. So in 2018, those four NGOs sat down together all the way up to the CEO level. And again, I just think it’s an incredible statement to the personalities and the mission focus of those four CEOs, Jules Kortenhorst, Carter Roberts, Andrew Steer, Aaron Kramer, that they were willing to spin off their programs. They spun off resources, they spun off people, they spun off relationships with some of the largest brands in the world into a new business led trade association. I’ve really never seen anything like it. It’s quite remarkable.

Jon Powers: Yeah. And you talk about scale and growth, in parallel to that scale and growth of a group like REBA, the scale and growth of the corporate procurement has just continued to skyrocket. I just recently had Lisa Jacobson from Business Council for Sustainable Energy, and Ethan Zindler from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Bloomberg NEF as they call it now, to talk about the fact book. And amazing takeaways that corporate PPAs grew 300% from 2017 to 2018, right?

Jon Powers: A lot of your members and others are now getting in the game and the space is growing. What I think is fascinating about that, it’s not just that folks are taking an active role now in acquiring and procuring their own energy, right? You flash back 10 years ago when people paid the utility bill. Now a lot of these sophisticated buyers that are your members have sophisticated energy procurement shops, even ones that don’t are looking to find ways to get involved. But they’re also playing a major role in terms of policy.

Jon Powers: So when you look at a place, I’m going to pick on Virginia here for a second. Virginia has struggle putting the right renewable energy programs in place. But then when big players like Microsoft or Apple come in and say, “We won’t move our data centers here until you have renewable goals.” It changes the dialogue completely. And you’re now seeing just great strides from Dominion Power, right, putting massive PPAs up there. How do you sort of shepherd those voices from all the different members to sort of have an impact on policy?

Miranda: There was so much in what you just said, Jon.

Jon Powers: Lots and I’m sorry.

Miranda: Going all the way back to Ethan and Lisa, this is such an amazing community of people that work on these issues. I was on the phone with Ethan this morning, I’m having lunch with Lisa next week. It’s just an incredible group of people. So for any of your listeners that are not in the industry thinking about it, and you just want to work with a really cool, passionate, smart group of people, this is the place to be.

Jon Powers: Yeah, I agree.

Miranda: Not just REBA.

Jon Powers: That’s why I started the podcast.

Miranda: Yeah. That’s why you started the podcast. So it’s full of smart people from across political spectrums, from across different backgrounds. I just think it’s a really cool place to be, it’s got something for business people, for independence people, for national security people, for clean energy. It’s just, it’s a great space. So enough of that soapbox. Yes, corporate buyers, and I would say all large buyers, not just corporates. So REBA also has cities as members, we have universities as members, we have healthcare systems. I would say that the large energy buyer space is really booming. Lisa and Ethan were right for large scale deals it about tripled between 2017 and 2018. It was a banner year with a 6.6 gigawatts of large scale renewables announced, deals signed, and a huge increase in new buyers. So we went from 31 different buyers in 2017 to 76 buyers in 2018.

Jon Powers: Wow.

Miranda: Dramatic increase. Interestingly, you’re not seeing that same dramatic increase in new developers doing projects. I think what we’re seeing is buyers going with developers that have a strong track record.

Jon Powers: And that’s right, absolutely.

Miranda: So I think that’s kind of an interesting little sidebar. But yes, last year was a banner year. As of May of this year, we’re already at one and a half gigawatts of announcements and it’s gone up even since May. So we’re on track for another real banner year. You are absolutely right that policy, regulatory legislative interventions, I would anticipate you’re going to see much greater an increase of activity from the buyer community. And you’re right that states and state policy makers definitely sit up and listen when there are big companies, whether it’s a data center or manufacturing company with the promise of new jobs coming into their market. It does open some doors to have that power, so to speak, no pun intended.

Jon Powers: Right, right.

Miranda: But I do want to point out that the the REBA members that are really engaged on the policy side are really focused on game changing policies that allow all types of energy buyers the opportunity to choose where their electrons come from and what kind of electrons they’re interested in. And I think that’s a really important point to make because I do think that some folks feel like it’s a little self serving for a data center to come in and say, “Well, I want green power. And so create a special policy that works for me.”

Jon Powers: Right. Give me the special tariff just for me.

Miranda: Right. And you have seen some of that happening and less out of self serving interest and more to start a conversation and start a dialogue. But what you’re already seeing is a change in how those discussions are happening. How can we really change the system so that we can get to a zero carbon energy system very rapidly? We look at the timeframe that the IPCC has put out for us and we have a super short window to get to a global grid that’s 60% renewable on top of-

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: … a whole bunch of other zero carbon energy sources like nuclear. So we don’t have a long time. And company by company bespoke solutions really simply aren’t going to work. So the great thing about the REBA community is that it’s really focused on game changing, market changing policies and regulations that make our vision, the second half of our vision. I don’t know if you caught it, but the second half of our vision is every organization has a viable path to buying clean energy. So it’s not just these guys there because they come with new jobs.

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: Or those guys there because they have the biggest lobbying voice.

Jon Powers: Well, I think it’s so important because I think a lot of the fact that the Starbucks’, and the Googles, and the Apples can can put resources into policy teams and energy procurement offices, is really important. But how do you get the mid level companies that don’t have that capacity the access? And that’s exactly what you’re creating. So I want to talk a little bit about sort of the cultural awareness that’s happening around renewables today. We talk a lot on the show, but I think we’re living in a fascinating moment on climate change. And a lot of that’s being driven by renewables, you had Anheuser-Busch to go to Super Bowl air time to wind energy for their beer. You’ve got companies like Starbucks who tout their positive announcements and others. Where for your members do you sort of see their voice playing a role in the sort of cultural awakening we’re having in this space?

Miranda: I think it varies quite a lot. I do think that when you have sort of great American heartland brands like Budweiser giving clean energy a prominent feature, it really does sort of democratize clean energy.

Jon Powers: Yeah. And you kind of see this at the Pentagon too, right?

Miranda: Sure.

Jon Powers: When you talked about the Air Force people who are not as aware of what was going on, it definitely perked them up, right?

Miranda: Yeah. And when it comes to wind and solar, I think what’s really been game changing is these are just not seen as as new technologies anymore.

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: These are technologies that are proven. There is no technological risk being taken by the off takers or the developers or the financiers. I think we’ve seen a big shift in how projects are financed. And you can speak to that better than I can because the technology risk has just come down. That’s not really a factor anymore in project finance, whereas in the not so distant past it still was considered some technology risks.

Jon Powers: Yeah. I remember just a few short years ago, one of your members, when I was working at the White House, we had one of your members come in, a very senior person, and I won’t name her. But she was having trouble at her company, they were doing tremendous stuff around renewables, but one of their senior C-suite executives saw that SunEdison had crashed and just assumed the whole solar market was gone.

Miranda: Right, right.

Jon Powers: Right? And it was just that not understanding of what was happening in the space that has sort of tied it to a stock of one company. And now I think people are starting to see that perception change, right? This is no longer an alternative energy, it’s a mainstream approach.

Miranda: Yeah. That’s exactly right. So what we find is that our members talk about their clean energy projects from a range of perspectives. Yes, they are absolutely focused on doing their part to solve the climate challenge, the climate crisis really, C&I, commercial and industrial energy users are the number one source of energy related greenhouse gas emissions in this country. And so they know that the power needed to run their facilities to manufacture their products is a singular significant challenge causing the climate crisis, and they want to solve that. They believe it’s their moral duty to solve it.

Miranda: And they know that we as humans need energy to have, coming back to how I started my conversation, and how I started my career, without power you can’t have strong economies. You can’t have healthy economies. You can’t have strong education. So these companies know that power is needed in order to have all of those things. And they want to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise our children and grandchildren’s ability to live on the planet. So that is an important part of their communications. At the same time, an important part of their communications is that these investments and these choices are good for the bottom line-

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: … are good for shareholders, they’re good for our country’s resilience, they’re good for our country’s energy security challenges that they are also all dealing with. It’s not just the Pentagon that has concerns about grid security and grid vulnerability. So it varies a lot, what a member chooses to focus on in their communications depending on that particular company’s interests.

Jon Powers: So I want to end with two sort of final questions Miranda. The first we’ve been at a sort of regular theme in the last few episodes talking about sort of diversity within the industry. SEIA has an initiative pushing for diversity, we at CleanCapital are pushing that for ourselves. But we also have talked to really phenomenal leaders in this space that are women, and and veterans, and others. How are you seeing within your members sort of a push for diversity within its own rights?

Miranda: Oh, that’s such an important question, Jon. And one that I think our industry is challenged with. I’m very proud that at REBA we have incredible gender diversity, ethnic diversity, diversity of educational background. And when you come to REBA events, that diversity is not as broad as I think we all would like. Part of that stems from the fact that, there’s a little pun-

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: … stems from the fact that we are in a STEM industry. And as you and I know, as folks that have thought about this and studied this and tried to promote it in the military, the part of the Air Force that I was in was really overseeing the civil engineering career field. Which was not a highly diverse career field. Although the Air Force tends to have greater diversity than some of the other services, with the exception of the Coast Guard, which I think has the best diversity for their services. But when you look at the STEM industries, it really goes back to childhood and building that pipeline of people of diverse backgrounds, and different genders, and interest in STEM fields all the way back to childhood. Because as you get closer and closer to career age, you see that that diversity gets smaller and smaller.

Jon Powers: Right.

Miranda: And when you’re trying to hire people, you’ve got a certain pipeline. So we as a community really do need to be thinking about how we engage really all the way back to the elementary school level, making sure that women, and people of color, and of different ethnic backgrounds have an opportunity to go talk to elementary school kids, talk to middle school kids, mentor them, get engaged with them. And the energy industry, I would say is really not particularly different than most other STEM fields.

Jon Powers: Right. So I want to go back to the time when you were in Colorado coming out of high school or coming out of college. And you were dissecting brains of frogs or whatever you said you were doing. If you could take yourself to grab a cup of coffee and give yourself a piece of advice, what would you say?

Miranda: Oh gosh. I think what I would say is, “Embrace the diversity of your career.”

Jon Powers: Wow, that’s great.

Miranda: For some people you know really young what you want to do, and you’re single minded, and your education aligns with your profession. And for many others of us it’s not that way. And that is okay. And it took me until I was about 40 before I really got comfortable with my own set of boundaries in what I wanted in a career. And for me it really comes down to, from my career I need to be making the world a better place in some form or fashion. I need to be having fun, I need to be learning, and I need to be able to support my family. Now that’s a pretty broad set of guardrails. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it took a couple of decades of people telling me, “You got to pick, you got to pick, you got to pick.” Before I got comfortable with, actually I don’t got to pick.

Jon Powers: Right, right.

Miranda: It’s okay to work in retail one day, and in the Pentagon the next day, and start up a trade association the next day. That’s okay to have a career that way if it works for me. And it’s also perfectly okay to have a singular career that is very focused on one industry and be a deep expert in that. It’s a personal journey. And so I would go back to that young lady and tell her, “For you it’s okay to embrace that diversity.”

Jon Powers: That’s great, great advice. My dad worked at Allstate for 35 years and there were many points throughout my career he’s like, “What are you doing?” Then finally I was working at the White House. He’s like, “Oh, I get it. I get it.” Awesome. Miranda, thank you so much for your leadership in this space. And thank you so much for being part of the show. I look forward to being an active member in REBA. CleanCapital will be joining very soon. And if folks are interested in joining, how do they learn more?

Miranda: They can go to REbuyers.org, REbuyers.org. Unfortunately we don’t get REBA.org because Reba McEntire owns all of those. So REbuyers.org, and you can go to the membership section. Or give me a call or an email, and we’re happy to talk through the value and benefits of membership.

Jon Powers: Yeah. Thanks for the fascinating conversation. I look forward to having you back as the organization grows, and that your members continue to make just incredible strides in changing the way that our country acquires its energy. I want to say a special thanks to our producer Carly Batten, and our intern Courtney Flynn for their hard work. And you can always get more episodes at CleanCapital.com. And as always, please provide your thoughts on other guests. Look forward to continuing the conversation. Thank you.

Miranda: Thanks Jon.

Jon Powers: Thanks for listening in today’s conversation, find more episodes on CleanCapital.com, iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe and leave us a five star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy, innovation, and finance with you.