Sandy Reisky, chief executive officer and founder of Apex Clean Energy, wants to help spark a shift from fossil based fuels to clean energy sources like solar and wind power. A Charlottesville local and a graduate of the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce, he chose to pursue his mission here. The result is the founding of a series of successful clean energy ventures, all with the shared mission of accelerating the transition to clean energy.
His latest company, Apex, led the U.S. market with more than 1 GW of new wind generation brought online in 2015, and is commercializing the largest pipeline of utility-scale wind projects in the nation. Staffed by more than 200 professionals – including scientists, lawyers, finance experts, and engineers – Apex delivers turnkey wind and solar facilities to investors while typically retaining an ownership interest and providing long-term asset management services. Apex is working with partners such as AEP, Southern Power, IKEA, First Reserve, Steelcase, the U.S. Army and many others who are buying clean energy because it is cost competitive while meeting sustainability goals.
Sandy’s entrepreneurial journey in clean energy began in 2000 with the founding of Greenlight Energy, an independent wind-energy company that would go on to develop $750 million of facilities with a combined generating capacity of 450 MW. Greenlight was acquired by BP Alternative Energy in 2006, a transaction that delivered a strong return to local investors, and set the stage for Sandy and the leadership team to launch several new clean energy companies focused on technologies including solar, waste-to-energy, and direct-drive wave energy, followed by Apex in 2009. Further fueling Apex and reinforcing the clean energy investment thesis was capital from the successful sale of his solar energy company, Axio Power, to SunEdison in 2011.
In total, Sandy’s companies and their dedicated teams have deployed more than $4 billion in clean energy facilities operating today across North America. This is in the context of an industry that is advancing quickly: last year, according to the US Department of Energy, wind and solar installations comprised almost 70% of the new energy capacity installed nationwide, beating out all other sources, including fossil fuels. Overall, the United States gets about 7% of its energy from wind and solar energy, so there is plenty of room for Apex and the clean energy industry to grow.
On Earth Day in 2000, there was a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Clean Air Act on the National Mall in Washington. I walked by a number of booths set up by environmental non-profits and clean energy companies. One such booth had a wind turbine. Over the course of several conversations, I learned that while solar wasn’t predicted to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels for more than a decade, utility-scale wind was already cost-competitive in states with a strong wind resource. Today, fifteen years later, both wind and solar energy are rapidly growing industries with a bright future. They really aren’t sources of energy – the source is the sun and wind – they are technologies that harvest energy. As we know, technologies that scale get cheaper to build as volumes grow, like cell phones or flat-screen tv’s. So the uptake and installation of these energy technologies has been accelerating because they are now affordable – which is terrific because it means less pollution and cleaner air and water for all of us.
From Start-Up To Scale
Our story is all about maintaining and growing momentum. After Greenlight Energy sold to BP Alternative Energy, I launched a solar company, AxioPower, with many of the same team members to continue investing in clean energy resources. AxioPower was purchased by SunEdison in 2011, so when the sale closed I was able to recycle the capital with further investments in Apex and the other companies. All along the way, we maintained the same family of investors who shared our belief in investing in clean energy resources capable of delivering low-cost energy.
When the economic downturn created opportunities to roll up some previously identified sites with the greatest wind energy potential, we began building the Apex pipeline, believing in the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels when others were liquidating assets and shelving projects. Combined with projects we have initiated on our own, Apex today has the largest and most advanced pipeline of development stage wind projects held by any U.S. company.
In turn, the investments in that pipeline put us in the position to become the U.S. market leader for 2015 new wind facility additions, with over 1 gigawatt brought online through five wind facilities in Illinois, Texas, and Oklahoma, which together represent a total capital investment of more than $2 billion. For most of the projects we develop and sell, we operate and maintain the facilities for the owners and provide asset management services. We do this from a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art facility that is operating on a 24/7 basis located here in Charlottesville with a team of 25 people.
Success is relative to how you define your goals. Our team has made great progress – we were the market leader last year – but the overall objective is to transition the to grid clean energy sources. From that perspective, the amount of clean energy Apex put on the grid last year can support a city like Boston, each year over the twenty year life of the facilities. That’s a great milestone, but it shows the scale of the challenge; the energy sector is enormous.
I am helping launch Generation180, an energy communications project that aims to increase energy awareness from a number of perspectives.
One aspect of Generation180 involves mythbusting, to address the persistent and false perceptions about energy, for example that renewables are too expensive, and we will be dependent on fossil fuels forever, or that the climate problem is too big to solve, and, perhaps most importantly, that individual action cannot meaningfully contribute to a solution.
Those old scripts are not true because new energy technologies are providing us with choices that are affordable and ready today, and we are already making rapid progress to a clean energy future. There are already over 1,000,000 solar households nationwide. A new house or business goes solar every three minutes in this country. Solar panels let us generate energy at home, with no pollution, from a device with no moving parts, all while saving on utility bills.
Transportation is a similar story – we can now choose to drive electric cars. They save you money since electricity is three times less expensive than gasoline, and plugging in at home is more convenient than pumping gas. When they first came out seven years ago, electric cars were expensive, high performance sports cars. Today, there are plug-in sedans and SUV’s as well as smaller cars like the new Chevy Bolt. And more choices are coming; all of the major car manufacturers have new models planned.
I think what is fascinating is that solar panels have made energy a local product. Like local food, local energy helps us be more self-reliant, reduces pollution, and saves money. Electric cars have similar attributes; electricity is a domestic product.
So for the first time individuals have the ability to choose. No need to wait, if you prefer clean energy, it’s ready to buy today. Energy is now more democratic; the power is literally in the hands of the people. The choices we make at the individual level can collectively make a big difference, and get us there faster. Energy awareness is the first step.
There is tremendous social momentum supporting the energy transition. Most religious leaders, including the Pope, are calling for a shift from fossil fuels, as does the Paris climate agreement which was a consensus among all countries.
The power industry is responding, and changing rapidly. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, for the past five years global investment in new clean energy capacity has been rising while fossil fuels have been falling, and twice as much was invested in new clean energy in 2015 ($286 billion) compared to new coal and natural gas facilities combined ($130 billion).
The private sector is also a factor driving change in energy markets. Universities and businesses buying clean energy supported $5 billion of investment in new wind and solar facilities last year. States like Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota get over 24% of their energy from wind power according to the US Department of Energy NREL.
Clearly we are witnessing a changing market, and decreasing the amount we are extracting, burning, and polluting as a society. These trends have been building for decades and have reached a tipping point. However it is a big industry so this will be a long-term transition. In that sense, the name Generation180 is appropriate; our generation is changing energy, we are the first generation in history with viable clean energy choices, and the shift to clean energy is for the benefit of future generations.
Charlottesville and the Future
Apex is committed to Charlottesville for the long term as an employer providing high-skill, high-wage jobs while being located downtown. It’s the quality of life here that has helped retain top talent from UVA as well as attract professionals from every region of the country to build our team.
The sale of Greenlight Energy enabled the formation of several clean energy businesses based in Charlottesville—both ones that I founded and ones founded by other members of the original Greenlight team. In the context of the energy industry, the clean energy companies here are tiny, but wouldn’t it be great if one day Charlottesville could become the East Coast capital of the clean energy economy?