Recharge4040: Neha Palmer

Neha Palmer: 'I was in my element and decided this was what I wanted to do'

Neha Palmer: 'I was in my element and decided this was what I wanted to do'

Neha Palmer is responsible for figuring out how Google can best feed its voracious appetite for renewable power — and then convincing wary electricity suppliers of the wisdom of her plan.

An engineer by training, Palmer started her career working on natural-gas pipelines for Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the dominant energy provider in her native northern California, before shifting to their energy-trading division. A few years later, she went to business school and came out with a job with Goldman Sachs, where she “first dabbled in renewables”.

Around 2006-07, the prospect of US cap-and-trade legislation looked bright. Palmer worked to help the investment bank’s utility clients understand the potential impact of such legislation, and how they might clean up their energy mix.

By 2008, she’d had enough of New York and moved back to California — and PG&E.

Her timing was perfect. In late 2008, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill requiring that California’s utilities source 33% of their power from renewables by 2020, by far the most stringent state Renewable Portfolio Standard in the US.

Palmer was tasked with helping PG&E figure out how it could meet its obligations, putting her in regular contact for the first time with renewables developers such as First Solar and BrightSource.

“I loved it,” she tells Recharge. “I was in my element and decided this was what I wanted to do.”

The experience gave her keen insight into the “pain points” that both utilities and renewables developers have in meeting stretching targets — a cold dose of realism for Google’s quest to source all of its energy from renewables. (Currently the company is about one third of the way there.)

When the opportunity to take her current position came along in early 2012, as head of energy strategy and development for Google’s Global Infrastructure team, “it really resonated with me”, says Palmer, now 39. “It touched on every aspect of my career.”

Google signed its first power-purchase agreement (PPA) for renewable energy in 2010 — before Palmer’s time — for the full output of a 114MW NextEra wind farm in Iowa. Four similar PPAs followed.

But in September 2012 — this time on Palmer’s watch — the company shifted gears, agreeing to buy renewable power from an Oklahoma utility, rather than going out and directly buying the output itself. This April it signed a second such agreement with Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy.

The shift is important. Google has learned that “it’s a very time- and knowledge-intensive process to manage off-taking from a renewables developer directly”, says Palmer. One of her main focuses over the next 18-36 months will be convincing more utilities to offer green tariffs, something many are reluctant to do, often simply because it’s new.

If Google wanted — or needed — to sign more direct PPAs, it is smart and big enough to do so. But its growing preference for leaning on utilities to do much of its greensourcing for it could have big implications for power consumers around the world.

Palmer — who has an MBA from Northwestern University and a civil-engineering degree from California Polytechnic State University — laughs at the business-school maxim that after three years in a job, one is supposed to start sniffing around. “I’m hitting on three years here, and I’m not looking around,” she says.

Neha Palmer is head of energy strategy and development at Google Infrastructure

Recharge4040 brings together the world's young new-energy pioneers from the worlds of renewables technology, finance, development, social engagement and advocacy. The list includes people from major wind and solar companies, banks, investment funds, crowd-funding platforms and governments. For the full list of nominees and news about the initiative, visit the 4040 website

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