As development director for One Energy Renewables, Eric Udelhofen has helped launch a dozen solar energy projects in the Midwest, including Xcel Energy’s community solar garden in Cashton and farms that will serve 10 municipal electric companies.
Udelhofen powers his own Near East Side home with rooftop solar panels and is putting together a 5-megawatt solar array at the Middleton airport for Madison Gas & Electric, which plans to offer the output to customers wanting clean energy.
The 34-year-old Denver native became interested in renewable energy while studying in Africa, where he saw firsthand the impacts of climate change. But the birth of his son, Frank, in 2015 made him realize the urgency of eliminating carbon emissions by 2050, which scientists say is necessary to limit the chances of a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.
“It just kind of made me think of the ticking time bomb as much more significant,” he said.
What does a solar developer do?
We develop small utility-scale renewable-energy projects. … in the 1 to 10 megawatts scale. So far, we’ve only built solar. … My background is wind development ... so I have kind of a personal interest in looking at those opportunities as well.
My job is really to do anything required to take a project from an idea to a point where it can start construction. So that involves really early-stage talking to the utilities, understanding where there might be a place on their system to put in a project, finding landowners that would be willing to host it, signing the lease agreements with us, landowners getting any necessary permits — usually, you have to get a zoning type of permit, like a conditional use permit. And then studying the project through the inner connection process, with the utility.
And then there’s just thousands of little things that come up that are roadblocks for each project.
You just kind of have to really believe in projects, and just as people throw arrows at you, you just take them and just keep moving forward.
So how do you become a renewable energy developer?
When I started at Carleton (College), they were putting in a wind turbine … and I was part of the campus group pushing the president to sign this carbon neutrality commitment. We met with him and he said, “All right, we need a road map. … I can’t just commit to becoming carbon neutral unless you kind of show us how we can get there.”
So we started putting together some different scenarios. I looped in this guy that knew a lot about finance. He modeled the financials for what it would look like if we put another wind turbine on campus.
It kind of changed the conversation and changed the people that you could get in front of if you framed it in financial terms. A light bulb came on.
So I studied economics. I started in finance and switched over to development. ... This was in 2007. The industry was quite small. Nobody had any experience, so it was a lot easier to get in.
How did you get interested in renewable energy?
The summer after my freshman year, I got an internship at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. I was under this sociologist. His work was studying the impacts of climate change on Sub-Saharan Africa. So I did a lot of reading on desertification and (how) global warming has shifted rainfall patterns in West Africa.
And then I studied abroad in West Africa soon after that. Just the injustice of people that … historically had very little to do with this problem, really bearing the brunt of its impacts and being the least able to insulate themselves from climate-change impacts — that was just extremely depressing to me.
I got involved with a couple other students advocating for that president’s climate commitment and kind of pushing for this carbon neutrality plan on campus. And that just totally took the funk away.
Even just making some minuscule contribution made me feel better about it. I need to feel like I’m getting something done.
How did your perspective change after the birth of your son?
Even having been to West Africa, and kind of seeing the people that I was reading about, it’s still a little bit disconnected from your day-to-day life.
It just made it a little more personal. It’s pretty easy to think of 2050 as a really long ways off, but I mean, he’s gonna be like, 35. He’s gonna be like my age in 2050.
And there’s a lot of kind of devastating things that are going to start to happen if you look at the model, and in that time frame — not to say 2100, which will clearly be within his expected lifetime.
It just kind of reframes the problem in a way that’s much more immediate.
Do you think it’s possible to get to 100% carbon-free energy by 2050?
Definitely. The things that we’ve accomplished when we set our mind to a problem are pretty remarkable. Everyone needs to believe in the problem and keep rowing in the same direction. But when that happens, I do feel confident we will be able to get there.
I hope it doesn’t take some really terrible catastrophe to convince everyone.
Human psychology is not great at dealing with slow-moving disasters. We respond pretty well to catastrophes.