Winds of Change: Green Industry Trailblazer Leads WindMade Charge

Before the Daily Beast WindMade™ series started eight-plus weeks ago, consumers had no way to ID goods that were wind-produced. They still don’t. Not yet. But they will. Interim head of WindMade, Steve Sawyer, who’s also the Global Wind Energy Council’s Secretary General, talked about how things are progressing for what will be the first global renewable energy label.

Of late, Steve Sawyer has been widely quoted citing a survey of 25,000 people. It found that 92 percent of them would buy a renewable energy product, even if a premium were involved. Which takes us back to the reason for WindMade. In the dreams of Denmark wind giant Vestas came the idea that while policymakers continued to be challenged to create long-term renewable energy policy, perhaps a better way to move the dial might be to instigate change through consumers and their purchasing choices. So the idea for a global wind trustmark to help consumers identify wind-made products was thus hatched.

Global Wind Energy Council exec Sawyer, who first heard about WindMade last October, was quick to get on board. While at Davos he recounted his first reaction to the initiative, “it was a fantastic idea that took about thirty seconds to decide on.” In addition to GWEC and Vestas, WindMade’s other distinguished partners—the UN Global Compact, World Wildlife Fund, the Lego Group, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and Bloomberg as the Official Data Provider—all now await the careful development of standards for WindMade label certification next month. Its widespread acceptance will reinforce the global development of wind systems while it inches the world a little closer to a cleaner energy future.

Daily Beast: Where are things with the WindMade label’s development process?

Steve Sawyer: They’re on track, and we have formed the development team with the main partners, transitioning from a strong Vestas team to what I hope will be eventually an even stronger team that is the independent WindMade organization. The work of the technical committee proceeds apace, and we are looking forward to being formally incorporated soon and having our first formal board meeting in March.

DB: Can you explain how you came to work in the green industry and how your newest post as the interim WindMade CEO came about?

Sawyer: I became interested in energy issues at about sixteen due to the higher prices that my family was paying for electricity in rural New Hampshire to finance the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power station, which would not benefit us directly. After university, I became involved in Greenpeace, almost immediately focusing on the environmental impacts of oil and gas development, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons—work for seven years that included some time in Massachusetts’ renewable energy.

After the Rainbow Warrior [flagship of the Greenpeace fleet] was bombed and destroyed by the French secret service on my 29th birthday in Auckland, New Zealand [to prevent her from interfering in nuclear testing], it became much more serious, as it tends to when one is the target of an act of state-sponsored terrorism.

I was introduced to the climate issue in early 1988, shortly after my first child was born. Thinking about what her world was going to look like was sufficient motivation for me to continue working on this issue in the nineties and through 2006. As I approached my 30th anniversary with Greenpeace, then turning 50, I felt it was time to make a change, and the GWEC opportunity arose at the same time. I had been working with various members of the European wind industry since the late nineties, and it seemed a good fit. So, after a lot of soul-searching, I made the move.

Being a part of the industry that is a large part of the solution to the climate problem, problems of air and water pollution, water conservation, energy security, and macroeconomic stability as well as a major driver for new, clean industrial development and job creation is a privilege indeed, and I continue to enjoy it.

My post as interim director of WindMade is primarily [due to] the ‘neutrality’ of GWEC within the industry. As my organization is based in Brussels (we are co-located with the European Wind Energy Association), it made sense to take the administrative reins until the new director is hired and the organization is established in a practical sense, at which point I will become a member of the Board. Being Secretary General of GWEC is a full-time job, and I have no intention of relinquishing it any time soon.

DB: It seems worthy to note that every wind-energy goliath in the world is a GWEC member. That affiliation also makes them a member of the new initiative by virtue of GWEC’s WindMade partnership. Given that these major companies are also some of Vestas’ biggest competitors, speak to the openness of that strategy.

Sawyer: Perhaps it hasn’t been much discussed in the press, but internally within the wind industry it has been a major source of discussion. Vestas has clearly been the prime mover in WindMade and they both deserve and have received credit for that. But they know, and we know, that this initiative has to be on behalf of the whole industry if it is to be effective. To summarize the primary concerns of my other members (and Vestas’ competitors) there are three salient points: Vestas deserves credit and recognition for taking this initiative. Everyone (including and especially Vestas) agrees that it must engage the whole industry if it is to succeed, and it cannot do so if it is in any way controlled by Vestas. The standard must be rigorous and of a very high standard if it is to be credible and effective, and that means engagement of the whole industry as well as a broad cross-section of the many potential stakeholders in the initiative.

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DB: During Davos, the Global Compact’s Georg Kell characterized Team WindMade as an ideal “constellation” of corporations, business associations, not-for-profits, and the public-private sector. How important do you feel this balance of representation will be to the label as it tries to get traction in the marketplace?

Sawyer: Certainly the Global Compact’s involvement brings prestige and visibility to the initiative. We will benefit greatly from both WWF’s independence and credibility, as well as its long experience in this kind of work. We also benefit from PwC’s extensive experience in monitoring and verification, and from Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s unparalleled expertise and depth of knowledge of the renewable energy space. All the partners (and we hope there will be many more) have significant and unique attributes which they bring to the table, and I am pleased to have all of them on board.

I think the timing is excellent for this initiative. Governments, particularly in the West, are struggling with the major climate and energy questions that face us today, and the problems need active attention—and fast. This is one way for NGOs, companies, partnerships, and the wind industry to help make sure that we are making the best contribution we can at the time when global political progress that will be necessary in the long run is slower than we would like to see.

DB: No doubt, everyone involved in the development process is anxious to figure out the particulars of certification to get the label to market as soon as possible. Yet, as Jim Leape said, it’s important to make sure the process is transparent. Can you explain the real-time challenges, and if the timeline is likely to be extended in the interest of having a durable trustmark as the end result?

Sawyer: I can’t explain all the challenges, as we have not yet encountered them. We are committed, as I mentioned, to first and foremost have a rigorous and defensible standard that will actually make a difference. We all want to have it tomorrow, but that’s not reality. We will push the process as fast as we can, but it will take as long as it takes, and we will not move forward until all the partners are satisfied with both the content and the process of our work. If we can do that in time for June 15th [Global Wind Day], great, but no one should be surprised if we opt for quality instead of meeting a deadline.

DB: With the lack of governmental long-range thinking in the West and general “foot-dragging” that’s done little to address climate change, do you see anything changing stateside in the next two years of the Obama administration or in Europe? Explain how Asia is able to think long-term.

Sawyer: Expectations for a clear energy policy framework in the U.S., which has eluded every Administration since Richard Nixon, are low at this point. But our American colleagues soldier on and keep up the pressure. And they will continue to work at both State and Federal levels to create the best policy environment possible for our industry. It’s a tough job, but they are a very strong team and we try to support them wherever we can, and we hope that WindMade will help them in their efforts.

Europe’s landmark climate and energy directive (20 percent emission reductions and 20 percent of final energy demand from renewables) presents a pretty clear framework for what will happen for the period out to 2020. While our European colleagues will watchdog the process of implementation carefully, with a particular emphasis on the infrastructure (particularly grid development and infrastructure for offshore wind in the North, Baltic and Irish Seas, and the English Channel), we are pretty confident about the progress of the industry in this part of the world. There will no doubt be surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant over the next decade, but we don’t expect any major changes.

The rapid growth of the wind industry in particular (over 50 percent of the global market in 2010), and the renewable industry in general in Asia over the past few years has been remarkable, and shows all signs of continuing indefinitely. Asian governments take a much stronger and more strategic role in industrial planning and development than has been fashionable in the West since the Reagan/Thatcher ‘Washington consensus’ on the supremacy of markets. The Asian governments have embraced part of that consensus, and the power of those markets is astonishing, but the scope within which the markets are free to work is clearly directed and clearly circumscribed by strong public policy. And given any set of indicators you could choose, it’s by far the most successful way to build energy infrastructure, which requires large capital investments with a long time horizon and policies, which are measured in decades rather than months (or quarterly returns).

DB: If everything lines up favorably, how much impact might WindMade expect to have? What are your greatest hopes for wind energy? Is there any way to guess how the renewable might benefit from the initiative and propel use from 2–3 percent worldwide to something more robust in ten or so years?

Sawyer: Our projections and our hopes for the wind energy business are outlined in our Global Wind Energy Outlook 2010, the latest version of our biennial report on the medium and longer term prospects for the industry. Our goal is to have over 1,000 GW of installed wind power capacity by 2020, supplying 10–12 percent of global electricity supply, and roughly double that by 2030. That will only happen, however, with the right policy frameworks to deal with the global climate and energy crises, and the right sort of public support, the latter of which we certainly expect WindMade to contribute to. One of the early tasks of the new board will be to establish both quantitative and qualitative performance indicators for the organization. But we’re not there yet.

DB: Coming out of Davos, what response has WindMade received from some of the world’s CEOs? Is there a sense of which companies may be coming on board in the months ahead? Are you encouraged?

Sawyer: The response to the unveiling of the initiative in Davos has been very strong and very positive, and we do expect many companies both large and small to be joining the initiative in the months ahead, and not only companies. We have had strong expressions of interest from NGOs, and local and regional governments as well. We are very encouraged by this response, and it increases the pressure on us to move ahead with the standard quickly, but at the same time increases our responsibility to do it right.

DB: In the midst of a jobless economic recovery, how hopeful can you be that while consumers may favor renewable energy they may not be in a position to choose wind-produced products, particularly if they may have to pay a premium for those products?

Sawyer: The ‘jobless recovery’ is, I believe, a temporary artifact reflecting the particular conditions in the United States at present. Certainly employment in our sector in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere continues to grow rapidly. On the question of paying a ‘premium,’ installations of new power plants using wind energy are directly cost-competitive with new-build of most other forms of electricity generation. So I don’t think companies will be asking their consumers to pay a premium for their use of wind, although, in the end, that will be up to them and will vary.

What is under discussion at the moment are the hundreds of billions of dollars in direct government support to the fossil fuel and nuclear industries on an annual basis, and if at least some of those could be removed and/or phased out, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The same could be said if traditional forms of generation had to pay for their CO2 emissions, air and water pollution, and damage to buildings, infrastructure, and human health.