Powering a Sustainable Future
Sarah Slusser went from Wall Street to a leading global Independent Power Producer to founding two clean energy companies before becoming CEO of Cypress Creek Renewables. Crediting her success as a leader to being a good listener, Sarah’s interest in sustainability began as a young girl watching President Jimmy Carter’s reside chat on energy, and she remains mission driven in her leadership at Cypress Creek.
Throughout your career, you have repeatedly achieved success as both an investor and in operating and guiding a variety of different companies. To what or whom do you attribute your success?
I was fortunate to start my career steeped in the numbers as an analyst at First Boston. I believe that is the best way to understand the core of a business, and then you build from there. After business school at Yale, I wanted to take a more holistic view of the energy sector beyond finance so I found AES, which was a small startup at the time. What immediately drew me to AES was the core values: fun, fairness, social responsibility, and integrity. I remember those values to this day. Here was this small startup challenging the goliath electricity sector with the least cost energy model. It was such an exciting time and I found my home in energy for the next 21 years at AES. What was also special there was that young people like me were given tremendous responsibility. It was really exciting to not be siloed. Everybody was asked to be a generalist, so you learned a broad set of skills. It meant learning the permitting aspects of the business, community relations, land acquisitions, EPC contracting, project finance, you name it. AES also set itself apart by being a long-term owner and operator of its facilities which built in me a strong desire to be a long-term investor and owner of these long-term assets. For AES that meant building a company that would last for the long haul. Importantly, owning and operating power plants really creates a virtuous cycle where you bring back into the front end of development the nuts and bolts of operations so that you can continuously improve your development cycle, which is really something my team and I have brought to Cypress Creek Renewables in the last year.
After AES, I founded two companies, GeoGlobal Energy and Point Reyes Energy Partners. I kept a lot of the principles I learned at AES in mind as I proceeded with these new companies. I certainly wanted every company that I would work for going forward to be mission driven. I was also very focused on making sure that young people who worked for me would have a chance to become wellrounded business leaders with the ability to tackle any challenges that came their way, so that they get the tools to build their own companies someday much like I got the tools from AES to build my own companies after leaving.
If I had to choose one word that led to my success it would be family. Being the youngest of five rambunctious children growing up in New York City, I had to learn to listen from a young age. So, I listened and I learned from all of my older siblings. And believe me, my siblings were very different from one another. I do think that being a good listener is a key factor in effective leadership. I’ve learned that multiple viewpoints can unveil all aspects of a problem, making decisions more informed and resulting in better outcomes. I also listened and learned from my parents who were great stewards of our large family and of their community. They taught me to respect the great outdoors, which is connected to my interest in sustainability. My mom was on the board of the Sierra Club Foundation and my dad was raised on a ranch in Northern California – a ranch that’s been in the family since the gold rush and where we still farm today – so I feel very connected to the land which is another big part of sustainability for me.
Where did your interest in sustainability come from and was sustainability in your mind when you started your career?
There was a seminal moment for me when I was in high school. I was watching the news and President Jimmy Carter was giving a fireside chat on energy. Wearing a sweater on TV, he explained very simply that the energy crisis we were facing wasn’t just about national security, but also about conservation.
Telling us to turn down our thermostats, he was really imploring all of us as individuals to make changes in our daily habits and that those individual changes could make a difference in terms of the energy profile of our country. That was pretty empowering for me. I was immediately energized by this and wanted to take it to the next level. I didn’t just want to change my personal habits, I wanted to do something in the energy arena.
Being a good listener is a key factor in effective leadership.
My first real job was a three week internship at a passive solar architecture company in Princeton, New Jersey. I lived in my sister’s dorm room during this period and I rode my bike out to Route 1 and worked there for three weeks. This was in 1980, and solar modules were still too expensive to be realistic but passive solar energy design was gaining ground. It used common sense tools like how you orient the house, which building materials you use, and placement of windows and the trees in design. These were simple principles, but incredibly powerful. That was really my first job in the energy world.
Then at Harvard I majored in Geology because I wanted to better understand the earth’s natural resources and how we could use them more efficiently. Being there, that’s when I became interested in geothermal energy, and happily years later I was able to build a geothermal plant, so it came full circle.
What are the biggest challenges you see for sustainability and sustainable infrastructure?
On sustainability, there is no doubt the biggest challenge is population growth and the concomitant energy use in places that are not using renewables. Sadly, infrastructure for sustainability is still competing with traditional unsustainable sources of electricity, so that limits our acceleration. Along the same vein I would say that our regulatory bodies continue to lag where the technology capabilities are, and as a result they tend to favor traditional power sources. I think that is another impediment.
What industry trend or opportunity are you most excited about?
I’ll say the obvious here, but the most revolutionary development is the fact that storage has become economic. This completely changes the game for wind and solar to contribute meaningfully to the grid. It’s a complete game changer.
As a person that is on the front lines of the energy evolution, how do you see us getting to a scenario of 100% renewable energy and is that reasonable or even possible?
I think we’re heading there as storage and offshore wind continue to decline in cost. Storage will accelerate the onshore wind, and we can continue to do solar at scale. I think we will get much closer to 100%. I do think it’s possible in my lifetime.
The renewable energy market has continued to consolidate, with larger companies acquiring smaller developers. What has been driving this trend and do you believe it will continue?
I think it will continue. It’s still pretty fractured, so it will definitely continue. Larger companies, like Cypress Creek, have great advantages in terms of procuring equipment. We get economies of scale. Capital is such a big component of these projects. Doing it on a portfolio basis or for a larger project is just much more efficient. Both from an equipment and capital raising perspective, larger is better. The same applies to storage.
You have definitely had an eventful first year at Cypress Creek and there is no way anyone could have imagined having to navigate through COVID19, but then you have also had to design and implement a new strategy for Cypress Creek. What have been the biggest surprises, both positive and negative? What suggestions would you give others that may face similar challenges at some point in their careers?
On the positive, from the get-go I was sold on the team. Our team is just incredibly passionate about and driven by the mission of powering a sustainable future one project at a time. I do continue to be amazed, it’s like peeling an onion. I continue to be impressed by the depth and strength of this team as I have gotten to know them one person at a time.
We’re building Cypress Creek into the leading solar independent power producer.
On the flip side, we’ve had to work really hard on establishing a culture of value creation. We’ve made tremendous progress on implementing value metrics across the company that everybody embraces and buys into. That has put us into a very positive competitive position today. My advice to others in the same spot I was in a year ago is to have faith that you can make change. We’ve made incredibly positive change in the last year and a lot of progress. It’s taken a lot of work, but it is worthwhile. Our team is very tight and united in the mission and the goals of the company.
Throughout your career, you have had the privilege of seeing and navigating through a lot of change as the energy industry has evolved, both in the U.S. and abroad. What future trends are you most focused on as you navigate Cypress Creek into this next decade?
We’re building Cypress Creek into the leading solar independent power producer. This means we are focused on the entire solar lifecycle, including development, operations and maintenance, asset management and fleet ownership. Cypress Creek is poised to grow both with solar and storage, and storage will play a larger role going forward. In addition to utility-scale solar, I also think we will see more distributed generation, which is why we will continue growing the DG side of the Cypress Creek business, for resilience and for other reasons too.
As a woman in the energy sector, how have you navigated a field that has been and continues to be dominated by men?
I try to stay true to myself. My age group has had the good fortune of following a generation that paved the way for us, so we can feel intuitively comfortable bringing female traits into the workplace.
I talk freely about being a mom or a wife or a daughter, and heartily welcome others to do the same. I try hard to be authentic which means I integrate my personal and professional lives.
With your experience in the industry and founding a womenowned and led company in Point Reyes Energy Partners, what needs to change with regards to diversity and how can the industry work to attract more women and minorities
Sadly, as a country, we have so much work to do here. In the wake of George Floyd and the long history of racial atrocities, we are working hard to find ways to bring more people of color and more women into Cypress Creek. I am a part of the Diversity Equity & Inclusion committee called One Cypress. The group had already started before I joined Cypress Creek. I asked if I could be a part of it, and thankfully they said yes. I have to say it’s one of the most exciting parts of my job.
We are doing a lot to educate ourselves so we can be better citizens including holding a series of workshops on racial injustice, with the support of a history professor from UCLA, compiling a resource guide on racial issues including books, movies, shows, podcasts and articles, working to understand our own implicit biases through training and collaborating with others in the industry to share best practices and resources. Very importantly, we are working on ways to improve our recruiting and hiring practices to be more inclusive and to draw from local communities where we operate so our workforce reflects the diversity in the communities we serve.
Do you have any advice for women who are looking to enter or looking for leadership roles in the industry?
Interestingly, my advice to women is no different from what I say to men: first, know the numbers, this gives you authority. Secondly, pay attention to and be respectful of the people around you. Since nothing gets done alone, teams are critical for success. Being a good leader means listening to others and building from that. One of my tried and true personal mantras is that it is just as good to recognize other people’s good ideas as it is to have come up with the idea. I also would advise young people to stay active. Getting exposure is a great way to learn and grow.
Who is your sustainable hero and why?
No doubt, Roger Sant, founder of AES. He put his money where his mouth is. He believed the essence of a good company is to be mission driven and specifically, he was ahead of his time on fighting global warming. In 1989, we planted 52 million trees in Guatemala to offset carbon. This was the first voluntary large scale investment in carbon offsets, and it was funded 100% by our company.
About Sustainable Heroes
Join us on a journey into the hearts and minds of some of today’s greatest heroes, who have dedicated themselves to positively impact tomorrow’s world. We invite you to explore with us what makes these heroes tick, what drives them to overcome arduous trials and immense challenges, known and unknown. In this issue, we pay homage to global leaders accelerating the sustainable transformation – all of whom share the goal of fighting climate change and creating a sustainable world that is more resilient and lower carbon intensive. We encourage you on your own quest for ways to innovate, embrace sustainability and do the right thing. Become a heroine or hero to others and help us together solve the problems threatening our very survival. To each of you heroes and heroines, there is a brighter, more sustainable future that we can build together for future generations. We welcome nominations for people you’d like to see featured in future editions. Please send your nominations and other comments to email@example.com.
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