From rooftop networks to former coal mines: How Amazon is innovating to pioneer renewables in new places

EXCLUSIVE: Amazon Web Services’ director of sustainability, energy and water Nat Sahlstrom shares his learnings creating pioneering utility-scale renewable energy projects, including those in challenging markets and those converting old fossil energy sites into clean energy beacons.

From rooftop networks to former coal mines: How Amazon is innovating to pioneer renewables in new places

Pictured: Amazon's 'Yellowbud' solar farm in Ohio

Amazon is the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy. The online retail giant overtook Google’s parent company Alphabet a few years ago after setting out a 100% renewables target for 2030 and swiftly pulling this forward to 2025.

Sahlstrom explains that the acceleration of plans was partly attributable to worker and customer pressure, and partly due to expanding the internal knowledge base – which presented new opportunities for innovation.

He says: “As we started building up the mechanisms and expertise to actually go and do renewable projects in many parts of the world where it was not previously possible, that gave us the confidence to commit to moving faster.”

This week, Amazon confirmed that it has executed 78 new wind and solar projects since the start of the year. 12 of these are located in the Asia-Pacific region, which Sahlstrom describes as “a very challenging market to work in, because it is so geographically distributed and because the regulatory structures can change dramatically from country to country”.

“We’ve had to go and be innovative in many of these countries,” he adds. “Thankfully, innovation is baked into Amazon’s DNA.”

While several of the new projects are in China and India, where corporate renewable energy markets are rapidly maturing, others are in markets that present more challenges. Amazon has notably started work on its first project in Korea.

Depending on the place, Sahlstrom says, would-be developers can come up against regulatory barriers, poor infrastructure, or geographical challenges that make the development of large wind and solar projects nigh on impossible.

A lack of flat, clear land for utility-scale projects proved to be a barrier in Singapore and Japan. So Amazon set out to aggregate generation from a network of smaller ground-mounted and roof-mounted installations in both markets. The project in Singapore totals 62MWv and, in Japan, it’s 22MW.

Naturally, Sahlstrom acknowledges, the long-term solution needs to be concerted and collaborative efforts for legislatory, regulatory and infrastructure reform. Major corporate energy buyers can encourage this but, ultimately, efforts will need to be spearheaded by governments, regulators and grid operators.

Sahlstrom notes that Amazon has already begun contributing to the reform processes in markets including Indonesia and several US states.

From coal to clean

Amazon has been investing in renewables across the US for more than a decade but continues to innovate its approach to developing solar and wind in this market.

As it announced its progress so far in 2023 this week, the business confirmed its first renewable energy project on brownfield land is in the pipeline for the near future. Construction for the project, known as CPV Backbone, will see more than 300,000 ground-mounted solar panels installed at the former Arch Coal Mine in Maryland. Competitive Power Ventures is supporting Amazon as the developer.

“This is a really cool project – it is a metaphor for the transition from traditional fossil energy assets towards a decarbonised grid,” Sahlstrom says.

He goes on to outline that there are several less narrative, more practical reasons for corporates with 100% renewables goals to explore brownfield sites.

“A lot of the power infrastructure that’s necessary to connect a renewable energy project to the grid was already there, including electrical infrastructure.”

“In Maryland, there can be hundreds or thousands of gigawatts in the system waiting to be assessed by the system operator, PJM. Only 10% of those projects will make it to fruition. So, what we liked about this Backbone project is that it was well-understood what the impact would be on the system. This meant we could move very quickly to develop the projects and the economics were exciting.”

The ability to quickly generate jobs and economic benefits for communities which may feel they are losing out as dirty industries scale back is another major bonus. The Backbone project will employ more than 200 workers at the peak of construction.

With these factors in mind, Sahlstrom says, Amazon may well choose to develop renewables on more US-based brownfield sites in the near future. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are more than 450,000 of these sites including former mine, factory and landfill sites.

Amazon is not the only business to explore a brownfield approach to renewables in the US. Rivian, the electric vehicle manufacturer with a 100,000-unit deal with Amazon, signed a power purchase agreement earlier this year that will see it sourcing solar from a $1bn project on a disused coal mine in Kentucky.

When asked whether the two businesses could collaborate on renewables, Sahlstrom is optimistic and talks about the “multiplier effect” that businesses with the scale of Amazon can have. He says: “It’s great that Amazon has hundreds of [clean energy] projects around the world. It’s even better if other companies can do the same.”

Related news: Companies committed to 100% renewables now have a higher energy demand than France

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