Talking clean energy with Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power

The head of New England's largest renewable energy producer has watched renewable energy come of age, and sees rising climate finance behind a new clean economy

(George Barker is a journalism/CS major at Northeastern University. He’s worked for the Harvard Business Review and as campus and sports editor for The Huntington News.)

BOSTON (Callaway Climate Insights) —  The prospect of building the “alternative version of our future” drew Alicia Barton into the clean energy sector and away from her role as an environmental attorney. For Barton, it was much more compelling to focus on building rather than regulating through command-and-control style laws. As the new CEO of FirstLight Power, New England’s largest renewable energy producer, she can now hone in on that passion. 

As she takes the helm of FirstLight, Barton will be working in a very different climate than she was when she first entered the clean energy sector. When Barton got started, clean energy didn’t generate enough urgency outside of its own industry space, but she believes that has shifted, with both investors and voters making it a major factor in their decision making. 

“It felt like an issue that we were talking about a lot, but that no one else was really joining us, except for some insiders and early pioneers in the solar industry… The amount of change that's happened to our space in that 10-year time period is truly extraordinary,” said Barton, who took over as CEO of FirstLight Power in August. “For a while, it felt like a bunch of us were a bit lonely pushing forward on kind of just emerging concepts. Now, the party's gotten much bigger.”

In her eyes, the party is still just getting started though, and she expects the energy sector will continue to evolve in the coming decade. 

“I fully believe [there] will be an unprecedented amount of additional transition in our energy systems, both electricity and other forms of power as well, in a way that I think people are only beginning to wrap their minds around,” she said. Barton pointed to the fact that renewable energy now competes with fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, on price, which seemed difficult to achieve in years past.

One of Barton's early career stops was the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), an economic development center which works to accelerate the growth of Massachusetts’ clean energy sector. As CEO of MassCEC from 2012 to 2015, Barton led the agency’s investments, which included the burgeoning Greentown Labs and early infrastructure in off-shore wind. While the Cape Wind project that Barton and her team laid the groundwork for hasn’t yet been built, it continues to pick up steam in the state.

“One of the biggest things we really did work on at the time was trying to launch the first utility-scale offshore wind farm in America… We are now still waiting almost a decade later for the first utility-scale, large-scale, offshore wind to be constructed in the U.S.,” Barton said. “We were a bit early on that one, but laid important groundwork that will pay dividends as we seek to really scale offshore wind, which is ... just a critically important element of our ability to decarbonize the electric grid.”

Offshore wind, particularly on the East Coast, will be a critical part of transitioning the United States to fully clean energy, Barton said, a fact that became particularly apparent to her while she served as the president and CEO of New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA. Barton and NYSERDA upped the ante on New York’s climate goals during her tenure, and when they did that, she realized that offshore wind was a lever that had to be pulled.

“We increased our target for clean electricity from 50% by 2030 to 100% by 2040, which was a huge step forward. When you do that, you realize offshore wind is absolutely necessary to making that a reality,” Barton said. “We correspondingly increased our offshore wind target from that 2400 megawatts I mentioned to 9000 megawatts by 2035, which is a fairly staggering number. But the state has wasted no time trying to get there and recently,  subsequent to my departure, announced another set of contracts... So they’re just off to a really extraordinary start in getting towards that 9,000-megawatt goal.”

While it’s becoming increasingly clear how important offshore wind will be for the U.S. as it transitions toward a clean energy future, the industry has faced permitting roadblocks in the past, delaying its progress. There’s hope that offshore wind’s slow burn will finally turn into construction now though, as President Joe Biden has made it a priority. Recently Vineyard Wind, a Massachusetts utility-scale offshore wind project and one of the first of its kind, completed its technical review and requested that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management resume its federal permitting process

“[Permitting is] something that has been a challenge in recent years, although I'm very optimistic that with the new federal administration, we will hopefully see a better ability to streamline some of that permitting and actually see the projects start to put steel on the water, so to speak,” Barton said. 

Both New York and Massachusetts, where Barton has had a hand in offshore wind, are considered leaders nationwide in their response to climate change, particularly with offshore wind. While Massachusetts is a bit behind New York, they’re still well ahead of many other states. 

“A big factor for what [I think] is attractive to either Massachusetts or New York is not only getting clean energy, but capitalizing on the potential to create an entirely new industry, one that doesn't exist in the U.S. today, but that could supply many thousands of new clean energy jobs,” Barton said. “Looking at that economic opportunity I think has been a signature of the states’ recognition of why pursuing ambitious clean energy policies is really a smart strategy.”

Offshore wind isn’t the only aspect of clean energy that is drawing excitement though, and the industry has seen record investment over the past few years. The increased financing has been “huge” for the industry, and Barton credits the momentum to the fact that clean energy solutions continue to over perform expectations and the growing frequency of extreme weather events. 

“Obviously capital and access to money for businesses economy-wide is just a critical underpinning of our entire economy and way of life,” Barton said. “If those that make these investments are really speaking with a unified voice that climate risk is a real risk... I think that those things have probably some of the single largest potential to to accelerate our pace, because that’s what takes it beyond sort of the narrow universe cost competition between a utility-scale solar farm and a new natural gas facility.”

The ESG financing movement’s impact stretches beyond just the clean energy sector though, and Barton pointed to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s letter as evidence of increasing awareness of climate risk in the business world. 

“This broadens it out economy-wide to a degree where upstream suppliers, folks in heavy industry, or downstream in consumer retail businesses, if they will be held to account for disclosing and reporting on how they perform on these sustainability metrics, that will drive much more broad and durable behavior change,” Barton said. 

The increased market interest in clean energy is making it easier for new clean technologies to grow as well. While Barton was careful to note that it would be an overgeneralization to say the current ESG boom makes all clean tech startups a safer place for an investor’s money, she mentioned that increased focus on clean energy and climate change solves one of the larger hurdles a startup can face. 

“I think the markets are growing for sure. One of the biggest challenges any startup faces is finding sufficient markets for their products and customers that are willing to buy. That had been a headwind for the longest time, where you had a number of companies that had really great solutions, but not a lot of demand pull from customers for those solutions,” Barton said. “Which individual companies will be successful is still going to be a challenge for investors to sort out.”

Now that Barton finds herself at the head of FirstLight Power, she’s looking to continue to build the “alternative version” of the world’s energy future, the same idea that got her hooked on the industry to begin with. Barton said that companies with the renewable energy scale and capabilities that FirstLight has will be cornerstones of the “unprecedented amount of transition in our energy sector” that will be seen over the next decade. 

“Positioning ourselves as a platform for integrating greater amounts of renewable energy over time and helping accelerate the pace of decarbonization past goals we had set in the past is something that I've been passionate about my whole career and that FirstLight is ideally situated to play a role in advancing,” she said. 

One of the assets that Barton expects to be of importance is the Northfield Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage station, which acts as a zero-emissions water battery. FirstLight’s website calls it their flagship facility and lists it as New England’s largest energy storage facility. It’s massive capacity makes variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar considerably more viable in the region, and a study published by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources confirmed energy storage facilities are needed to enable offshore wind adoption. 

“In order to reach high penetrations of variable renewable resources like offshore wind, you need grid-scale balancing resources, but also they need to be zero emissions, and they need to be long duration to really match some of the operating needs that we anticipate seeing in the years ahead,” said Barton, also mentioning that land availability makes additional pumped storage difficult to add to the East Coast, but that underground pump storage could emerge if technology advances enough in that field. The U.S. West Coast is one spot where more pumped storage facilities could work. 

“What we do see though is a lot of interest in developing these assets nationally and internationally and including on the west coast. For example, California has specifically highlighted in some of their recent climate reports the need for additional pump storage capacity,” she said. “It certainly is an area that’s getting a lot of attention these days, because it has unique attributes for what it can do, and it’s just a great fit for large scale renewable energy and making sure that we can have the balancing and reliability resources that we need, but to do so in a way that’s zero emissions rather than relying on fossil infrastructure to be our backup plan.”

Regardless, like she did in New York, Barton will continue to up the ante with FirstLight and encourage bold action to transition toward a clean energy future for the region. 

“Our goals are really I think to encourage everyone to think ambitiously about what’s possible in adopting clean energy and to do that in a way that recognizes that existing assets, as well as new projects have an important role to play,” she said. “I think those models of trying to empower people to directly participate in this transition, to ask their utilities and their energy suppliers to be giving them a green product is something that I just encourage everyone to continue to think about. 

Because I think the solutions are here, they’re affordable, they’re ready to go and we could be doing a lot more in this regard if we all just set our mind to it.”