T-Mobile Takes a Portfolio Approach to Renewables: Q&A with Chad Wilkerson

(Photo: T-Mobile’s 160-MW Red Dirt wind project in Oklahoma operated by Enel Green Power. Courtesy of T-Mobile)

by | Jan 14, 2020

T-Mobile Chad Wilkerson T-Mobile moved early on renewable energy. The company became the only major telecom to receive high marks on Green America’s scorecard last April for committing to 100% renewable energy by 2021, signing agreements for wind power, and joining the RE100.

Since then, the company’s CEO John Legere announced he’d be stepping down at the end of this April, and the telecom picked up a record 1.9 million new customers in Q4 2019 during discussions about a possible merger with Sprint.

Despite these changes, Chad Wilkerson, the telecom’s director of sustainability and infrastructure sourcing says that T-Mobile remains focused on its 2021 commitment. “We’re already right at the finish line,” he said.

Recently we caught up with Wilkerson, who oversees energy procurement, to learn about T-Mobile’s approach to renewables — and the $100 million in energy savings they expect to see over the next 15 years as a result of their strategy.

What prompted T-Mobile to move toward 100% renewable electricity by 2021?

The wireless industry has a huge carbon footprint. We quickly realized that we had the opportunity to be an industry leader. In 2018, we announced that we were going to go 100% renewable. From 2018 to 2021 was pretty aggressive, but we went all in and joined the RE100 to solidify that commitment. We also set science-based targets, which were approved, to make sure that the commitments aligned to the science.

Where are you now in relation to the renewable energy goal?

We announced five more contracts last year, which brings us to eight. We’re at 95% of our commitment for what we’re anticipating we’ll meet in 2021, but we’re not looking to stop there. We’re also looking into the renewable energy needs the company is going to have after we pass 2021.

How have you been pursuing renewable energy procurement?

Going back to the huge load that telecoms have, we’ve taken a portfolio approach, evaluating where it makes sense to implement utility-scale renewables — and which technology. Are we using wind, solar, hydro? We’re looking at the region, the other projects in the area, and congestion in the grid.

We’ll send out RFPs to a large number of developers that have projects that meet our criteria, and select the ones that meet the renewable output we’re seeking as well as the economic criteria we set. We’ll discuss potential projects in great detail with the developers.

Originally we went through a competitive process that drew the interest of dozens of renewables developers from around the globe. We prioritized organizations that met the criteria and were shaking up the status quo within their own industry.

What are the main benefits for T-Mobile, particularly financial?

Long-term PPAs are very cost-effective because they’re allowing T-Mobile to lock into energy prices for up to 20 years, offering flexibility and reliability in volatile energy markets. We’re able to obtain green energy at a discount compared to brown power because of the economics at work.

There are ancillaries — employees want to be part of a company that is doing good and making a positive difference, and customers react to that as well. In the long term, weather and climate change events have an impact on our network and the communities we serve, so it really is in our interest to take that into account.

Are you looking at energy storage to pair with renewables?

We’re open to the idea. We’re familiar with backup power in our network. The hope is that someday those projects are there, and we’re able to participate.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far in the renewables procurement process?

Planning for the future and forecasting growth is always a challenge, especially in our current merger environment. Luckily we’re committed to 100% green energy as we continue to grow.

Also, PPAs are complex so we recognized early on the importance of having a core team of internal stakeholders, consultants familiar with the subject matter, and external counsel to help with all the contracting and selection elements of these kinds of projects.

Do you have advice for other executives, especially in the telecom industry?

Don’t wait. Now is the time to step up. Start building that core team of experts and learn from those who have already been executing renewables programs. Ultimately executives should understand that that turns into good long-term health for their business.

Anything you wish you’d known when you started the procurement process?

There really is a steep learning curve for PPAs. I wish I’d known how much we needed that ‘village’ of experts. We learned from others already doing it, and so far everyone I’ve talked to is willing to share their experiences. Everybody is on the same team.

Good news: The deadline for the 2020 Environment + Energy Leader Awards has been extended to January 20! Get details about submitting your entry here.

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