Interview with Becky Diffen, Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright

Interview with Becky Diffen, Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright

What does it take to succeed in project development & legal in cleantech? I spoke with Becky Diffen, Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, & former developer, about this & some of the recent deals she’s most proud, including 7X’s 9 GW portfolio of solar projects that bp purchased, as well as the offshore wind joint venture between National Grid & RWE. We also spoke about challenges & trends this space is facing, the value of mentorship & WRISE in our industry, & some of North Rose Fulbright’s successful diversity & inclusion initiatives.


Catherine: Hi. I’m Catherine McLean, founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Becky Diffen. Becky is a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright in Austin, Texas. Thanks for joining me, Becky.

Becky: Thanks for having me, Catherine.

Catherine: So I want to talk about your company and your role. You have 19 years of experience in the renewable energy industry. And you’ve previously worked as a utility scale wind developer. You have been recognized by Chambers USA and Law360 Project Finance as an MVP, among many other honors, in 2019, named C3E Law and  Finance award winner by the DOE. Tell us a little bit more about you and your role.

Becky: Sure. So I began my career, like you said, as a wind developer. Which I think was an amazing beginning, it was really when the industry was just starting to take off in the early mid 2000s. And so I got to see the very beginnings of that industry. And then I decided to go to law school and move into being at a law firm, although I really thought I’d go to a law firm for a year or two, and then go back and be at one of the development companies. And to my surprise, I’m still at a law firm- this many years later- now in a role as a partner. But I work primarily with developers and sponsors, and help them develop their projects, buy and sell their projects, get them ready for financing. And so I still am a developer at heart. I think that’s one of the things that really impacts my practice, because I love that side of things. And I understand that side of things. And so it for me is a really fun way to get to do deals, but still feel like I’m more hands on with those projects, because I feel like most people in the project finance space, when they say, “Well, why do you like what you do?” because I get to see at the end of the day, I helped build that project. And I think that’s for all of us in the renewables industry. We love that right? We say, “Yes, I helped build that.” 

Catherine: Yeah, I’m sure it also gives you a lot of credibility, the fact that you were a developer first. So you’re not just seeing it from the legal side as a lawyer.

Becky: It does, because I understand the project, but I still get people saying why in the world did you leave development? You wanted to be a lawyer? Some people think I’m a little crazy.

Catherine: I know what that’s like. So I want to talk about some of the deals that you’re most proud of. You and Norton Rose Fulbright have done some deals recently with 7x Energy, National Grid, and Kansai Aviator Wind. Tell us a little bit about those.

Becky: So I’ve been particularly focused on the M&A side of things lately. And so all three of those deals I think are kind of interesting and what are some of the big trends that are going on in the industry. So 7x is a development company based here in Austin, actually. And they developed utility scale solar and some storage, and the company was purchased by BP. And so I think that is very interesting when you see these big oil and gas majors getting into the space in a big way. And BP has been in and out of renewables in various ways over the years. But without a doubt, they’re definitely very focused on being in right now. They have their Lightsource bp company, which is tied into the deal as well. But this nine gigawatt portfolio was purchased by BP itself. And I think it’s really a great example of what we’re seeing of all of these people across the energy spectrum, if they aren’t already in renewables, trying to figure out how they get into renewables. We’re also just seeing because of that, a tremendous amount of M&A not just buying and selling individual projects, but these large platforms, company wide sales, big portfolios of projects. So we’re seeing a lot of that. 

The National Grid JV with RWE was an offshore wind joint venture. And so offshore wind is another huge trend right now, right that we’re seeing. Finally, the US is trying to do what we’ve been seeing in other parts of the world for so long. I mean, it’s kind of funny to say offshore wind business is this new trend, because if I’m talking to my European colleagues, they’re like, what do you mean ‘new’? We’ve been doing these big offshore wind projects for a long time. But we’re finally seeing them take off here in the US. Another team here in Northern Roses is doing the financing for Vineyard Wind, which is going to be a huge offshore wind project. And most of these offshore wind projects because they are so large, and so capital intensive, are done with joint ventures where you have two different companies coming together to partner both to share skill sets to obviously share the economic side of the project. 

And then Kansai was one of my clients. They’re based in Japan, and The Aviator Wind Project was a project originally developed by Apex, Aries then bought it. Aries then divested it and sold pieces to a couple different people, including Kansai. And so Aviator in and of itself is an interesting project, just because it’s the largest single phase wind farm. It’s over 500 megawatts all built in one phase, a lot of projects were kind of built in different phases over time. So it’s a really large project. And that’s certainly what we’re seeing in wind. I mean, the project is bigger and bigger and bigger, especially here in Texas. 

But the other thing that was particularly about that M&A deal really fascinating was we did it during COVID. So I mean, the beginning of COVID. I don’t mean now COVID. So we started that in early 2020. We were planning trips, everybody was planning a trip to New York in March of 2020. To start really moving forward on the negotiations, and then obviously the world shut down. So Asian clients, in particular, partially because of the timezone, but more importantly, I think from a cultural perspective, those deals are virtually always done in person. So everybody flies to one place, everybody sits in a conference room for days on end, and you get the deal done. And suddenly, we had to do that deal completely remotely. So we were definitely dealing with timezone. Luckily, I’m a night owl. So I was usually talking to Kansai between, you know, eight and midnight, but a lot of times they email me and I’m like, “Let’s just hop on the phone.” They say, “And aren’t you in bed,” and I’m like, “No, I actually like to stay up late. So let’s just talk now.” And then I go to bed, and I wake up and I’d have a bunch of responses from them. And then during the day, we would talk to the other side. But it was wonderful to work with them. The thing I’m most sad about is that I still haven’t gotten to meet them in person. So we’re excited for them to come to Texas and have some barbecue at some point. And at some point we’ll get to go to Japan, but I think getting a deal like that done in the early months of COVID with the cultural differences of usually doing everything in person. And especially with a three way deal, there were three different parties involved. So there was a lot going on. So that one I’m really proud of just because it was very unique, a very challenging time. 

Catherine: So with the Kansai deal, out of curiosity, was this the first deal that they had done in the US?

Becky: Yeah, it was their first renewables deal. And that was another thing that I really loved about that deal. Tax equity in the US is a very unique thing. And the rest of the world does not understand it. So it’s always challenging, but also really fun when we represent a lot of international clients in their first renewables investments in the US, because you really do have to take the time to explain tax equity to them, and help them try to understand it so they can invest in these projects.

Catherine: Yeah, I love that story. That’s a great story. And it’s so nice like that we’re getting back on a global stage. And like engaging with other places, I’d love to hear about that.

Becky: Yeah, hopefully we’ll get to see them all in person soon.

Catherine: I know! I was really jealous, like you have an awesome trip to Japan ahead of you. So I want to talk a little bit about the characteristics of what you think it takes to be good at project development, the legal side of things, or is there any advice that when your people are looking to pursue these careers that you can give them?

Becky: Yeah, absolutely. I think whether it’s being on the development side, or the law firm side, being well rounded, and being able to understand all the pieces of the project that come together, I think that’s super important, no matter what role you’re playing. So you might be a finance person, you might be the permitting person you might be doing off take agreements, again, legal side or development side, you might have more of a specialty role. But you will be best able to do that job. If you also understand the other pieces. You can’t look at any one piece by itself, you have to understand how those pieces tie together. So whenever I have, whether it’s law students, or just people looking to get into development or improve, that’s the first thing I say is, “Do you understand how all of these different pieces come together to tie into a project? because ultimately, that’s development.” It’s bringing all these pieces together into one project, and then you finance it and sell it and do all these things with it. But you have to create that project. And I think that a lot of times people don’t take that time to understand what’s going on beyond their specific job. So I remember when I was a young developer, we were meeting with our potential lenders. And I was a couple years out of college and they were like, okay, so are you like an MBA or are you an engineer? What’s your background? Because you’re talking to us about all these things. And I’m like, “oh, all of those things!” I mean, I went to a liberal arts college. So the point is that you can do so many different things. And I think that as development companies, as law firms, as everyone gets bigger and the industry gets bigger people become more specialized. And that’s not bad. It’s okay to be really, really good at one thing. But I think you still, even if you are in a more specialist role, are still understanding to some extent those other pieces are so important. So find your colleague who does another piece and talk to them, they’ll want to learn what you do, you want to learn what they do, exchange that information that may not be part of the day to day of your job, but it’s super important.

Catherine: So I think it’s such a great point, because I’ve seen some of the larger companies do these like rotational programs. And I think to myself, that looks so interesting, because you do it in medicine, right? You do like rotational to learn all the different aspects, even if you’re not specializing in those areas. And I think it’s just such a great point, we all get so pigeonholed. Even when you go analyst -> senior analyst -> associate, like there’s this path, you have to go down. So I think it’s really great. That’s really great advice for people. I want to talk about challenges and trends. So you’ve mentioned to you, when you’re talking about some of the deals that you’re proud of, but you’ve been in this industry for the majority of your career, what are some of the most recent challenges and trends that you’re encountering?

Becky: Yeah, the biggest challenge, and I don’t think this is just for the lawyers, I think this is for everyone in the industry is we are so busy, and I can see how tired everyone is. And I’m very worried about burnout for everyone. Because we’re all working so hard. Our industry is here, you know, for many years, it was, “Oh, renewables, that niche thing, whatever, it’s just because the tax credits, it’s gonna go away when the tax credits go away.” And, you know, it’s not, it’s just not a big part of the energy industry. 

Well, no one’s saying that anymore. And I mean, that’s tremendous. And it’s very rewarding for those of us who’ve been doing this for a long time. But everyone else finally realizes what we do. But on the other hand, whether it’s your job, and in the hiring right now, and everybody moving around, there’s so many deals, there’s a shortage of just everyone. And there’s a shortage of people who know what they’re doing. And so new companies are coming, in new money’s coming in, they’re poaching people, and then you got to backfill. And so then you’re having to teach a lot of new people. So you’re doing all of that, at the same time that there’s more work to be done than ever before. 

The other thing that I think is a really big challenge right now, is just how much is coming from a policy perspective. So just last night, Senator Wyden released tax reform language that is going to turn the tax equity market upside down. Now, I don’t know what that’s going to look like how that’s going to go through. But the first thing I woke up to this morning was an email from Keith Martin at Norton Rose, saying, “Hey, we got to talk about what’s going on in tax equity, this may freeze our deals for a while.” And Wyden is a huge supporter of the renewables industry, like this is not somebody who’s trying to hurt the industry. But he also believes in tax reform and wants to make some changes. And so even when it’s things that are meant to be, ultimately for the benefit of the industry, they oftentimes can have a chilling effect, while you’re waiting for things to get worked out. And you just don’t know what it’s going to look like. So that makes it hard to do deals. 

We’re having huge issues across the supply chain, because of the COVID issues, because of the forced labor rules that are coming out. And obviously, nobody wants forced labor. You know, that’s not something that I think anyone who the industry wants to be supportive of, clearly that’s a huge thing that needs to be addressed. But to suddenly just say, we can’t get a ton of equipment from China, that all these projects are on tight deadlines to get done, and they can’t get the materials because of the forced labor because of COVID, all these things that have a huge impact in the industry. So I think just all of these changes, and regulations, just realizing that there are projects that are trying to get built in the middle of this, trying to get financed and and so the more time we take on any one project to have to work through these issues, means whether again, whether it’s lawyers, the developers, whoever it is, it means there’s less total projects we can do. And so I think that’s a huge challenge at a time that’s already so busy for everybody.

Catherine: So I’m curious, going back to your first point, obviously about being busy and there’s not enough people because clearly as a recruiter, that’s something I deal with on a daily basis. So I’m interested in what you think the answer or answers are to that because I have some ideas but I am curious what you think. 

Becky: I mean, it’s a good one, a question I‘ve struggled with. I think it’s really important, obviously, that we all have to take the time to take care of ourselves and realize that if we burn ourselves out, then the industry loses us forever. So we have to find ways to balance, we have to take the time to teach. The hardest time to hire, the hardest time to train is when you most need it, because you’re so busy that you don’t necessarily feel like you have time to hire and to train somebody else. But on the other hand, that’s the only way it’s gonna get busier is if you do that. So you’ve got to make time for those things, even when it feels like there isn’t time. And then, the other thing I would say is I think finding others in the industry to commiserate with this, if you will, having your colleagues not just at your company, but across the industry, I find that very helpful. Obviously, I know lots of lawyers, but a lot of my best people to talk about talk to you right now are the head development person at this company, or this person is doing this, because they’re in the same boat and seeing it from their perspective and just talking through that helps just to know you’re not alone. 

Catherine: Something that’s always occurred to me, is that working in recruitment, I obviously don’t work for an agency, I work for myself, but when I’ve worked in agency recruitment, we had a ton of training and development. So you learned from other recruiters? Of course you did, but you have people that were dedicated to training and developing you in what being a recruitment consultant is. And I often wonder, why isn’t that a thing? If you see all these companies hiring, you know, DEI specific people. And I’m just wondering where is that person that says, “hey, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been in the industry, I’m going to solely be responsible for training and development.” So you can crack on with your day job. And they can kind of listen to you and follow you a bit. But you’re not responsible for it solely. 

Becky: Right. I mean, it’s a great question. I think that one thing with renewables, that has changed, but for so long the development shops were small companies. Now you’ve got ones that have come in and been bought out by utilities bought out by larger companies, and are part of these much, much larger organizations. 7X getting bought by BP, that’s very different being a little tiny shop than being a BP. So somewhere like BP certainly could put those kinds of programs in place. Right. Whereas I think a lot of the smaller shops, probably no individual place was going to be able to do that. I do think that industry organizations have tried to do some of that. I know we’ll talk a little bit more about WRISE in a little bit. One thing I’ve been involved with WRISE for probably 10 years, has been our webinar committee. And that has been a roll that we have really tried to play, the webinars are open to everyone free of charge, because we wanted to be able to provide that sort of learning experience. And we talked about a lot of different substantive topics across the industry. I think one of our best ever attended webinars was one we did this year, which was a two hour kind of workshop development one on one. And here’s all the pieces that go into development work with Worstead.

I really think it probably was our most well attended webinar we’ve ever had. And I think it is for exactly that reason, people aren’t getting that at their company. The other ones that are always really well attended are finance ones, because everybody wants to understand finance, regardless of whatever piece they play. And, and so I think that that is another place that we’ve seen some of that happen, and there probably would be opportunity for even more, because it’s missing right now. And because you have so many new people trying to get into this space, and we need them to get into this space.

Catherine: That’s just what I was gonna say, we have so many people trying to get in, and we need the people and the thing I hear over and over and over and over, we don’t have time to train them. And it’s like, at some point, we’re gonna have to deal with this.

Becky: It doesn’t matter if you have time or not, it’s kinda happened. But I think that’s a really interesting idea. Like, is there a way for someone to get trained? And then they at least have some basic knowledge before they show up?

Catherine: Yeah. Let’s talk about WRISE because that’s how you and I got to know each other. I was at the Austin event. Gosh, so that’s going back to February 2020. Right before everything right before the world shut down. And that was such a great event, the Women’s Leadership Forum.

Becky: Right, the Leadership Forum. Yeah. I’m so thankful we got that in. Yeah. So I’ve been involved with WRISE since the Austin chapter began in 2009. So back then the organization was Women of Wind Energy and focused on wind. And I’ve been involved locally and then moved into these national roles. I played a big part in helping when the organization transitioned to WRISE to cover all types of renewables. It was something that was really important to me, because I’d seen that happen in my career. I’ve seen that happen in the Austin industry, so many people have started in when we’re doing solar, they were doing storage, they were doing these other things. And it’s an organization that I think does such amazing things I was so passionate about, I wanted it to be available to people, even if they were doing solar or storage, or these other types of technologies. 

And I think we’re seeing that, I think across a lot of things right now of organizations, realizing they shouldn’t just be one part of the industry, but they need to cover the whole industry we’re seeing that the trade organizations and everything else. But I think WRISE has a really special role to play in being so supportive of women. I think you have a really amazing opportunity, when we have an industry like this that is young, that is taking off. That if you start right away, trying to make it a more diverse industry, as opposed to taking an industry that’s already really established, and then trying to make it diverse, we focus on diversity as the industry grows. That’s a really great opportunity. 

And WRISE has been, I mean the reason I give so much to WRISE is because I feel like I’ve received so much from WRISE and, and so much of it is what we’re talking about earlier, like how you meet other people in the industry. It’s where I have created great friendships and great support, people that I know I can go to, that, because it’s a national industry, it’s not that they’re all live in Austin. And so it’s been a great way to meet people across the country. And they’re all running into the same challenges we are. And so I love that I love that there, it feels like there’s programming for everyone, whatever you’re looking to get out of it. If you want mentorship, if you want learning for the webinars, if you want things like the Leadership Forum, you know, networking, leadership opportunities, just anything you want. 

And so the hardest, the biggest challenge we’ve had at WRISE has simply been the demand, there’s so much we can never meet the need. And there’s so many more things we could be doing. And last year when George Floyd and other murders happened, and everyone got really focused on Black Lives Matter and more focus on racial diversity. That was another challenge that we felt was really important to us to take on. And so we’re not just focused on women, but we’re trying to ensure we’re focused on all women and not just white women. And so how do we make sure as part of WRISE that yeah, we’re focused on women, but we’re also being supportive, specifically to black women and other women of color. And how do we play a role even in some of that, with everything else that we’re doing? And so I think it’s an organization that is phenomenal. I love that it has both the local flavor and the National flavor. And anytime I need a new woman in the industry, that’s like one of my first questions, “Are you involved with WRISE yet?” I can get you on the list, then we can talk about whatever else.

Catherine: And I’m like, “You’re not involved with WRISE?!” That’s so funny, I do the exact same thing. You mentioned mentorship, so 90% of solar employees believe mentorship is critical to advancement, yet only 37% of the energy companies offer these programs, according to Solar Foundation. Are you a mentor? And who have been some of your mentors over the years, if any?

Becky: Yeah. So certainly I have so many people I would view that I’m a mentor for and that I feel like I am a mentee of and there’s a few people I’d say I kind of feel like I’m on both sides of that. So I mean, as a general matter, obviously, mentorship is incredibly important, right? You’ve got to have people to learn from and it can’t just be your boss. It has to be somebody that you feel like you can have those conversations with outside of your boss, although sometimes your boss is an amazing mentor. And I wish everybody had a boss that they could view as a mentor. 

But you know, I believe a lot in the concept of like a board of advisors, where you have a variety of people that surround you that you go to for different things and mentorship being a big part of that. There’s definitely a lot of WRISE people that I’ve kind of consider to be on my personal board of advisors. And a lot of times those lines can be blurred between they’re a friend, there’s somebody I can go to for advice or somebody I give advice, but I certainly have also had people that are just very clearly very strong mentors over the years. 

I think as women, on the one hand, yes, obviously we want to find other women, because that is really helpful. But on the other hand, if you look at. “Well, most of the people above you are white men,” then it’s really important to have white men that you can go to and learn from. And I think probably my biggest mentor that I’ve known since I was a law student, it was a partner at my former firm and we’re still super close. We didn’t say goodbye on my last day at that firm. Like, well, we may not be officially working together, but we’re still always gonna be together. He was a senior white male partner and I, you hear so many stories of successful women, and they talk about that, that they had white men who were really important mentors to them. And I do think that is important because there’s not enough senior women around to get everyone’s mentor. 

But the thing you mentioned about the formal mentoring programs, I think those are important to have, as part of that maybe what we were talking about earlier about small companies versus larger companies, smaller companies are probably less likely to have a formal program. But I think formal programs are great. I mean, they do encourage everybody to look for mentors, but sometimes I find that those relationships just feel more manufactured and feel like, “Okay, well, we have to go to lunch. So we’ll go do that.” But I think the best mentorship partnerships tend to be the ones that form a little bit more naturally, where you meet people, you start to develop that relationship, and then they become very much a mentor to you. You know, obviously, WRISE has a great mentorship program, and they have peer mentoring groups. They have more formal, more senior person/ junior person, they have a lot of different ways. But again, you can do the formal programs, but you might also just meet somebody by going to the events and getting to know them, that becomes your best mentor. 

The other thing I think is really important is people talk so much about mentorship, but not to forget the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and making sure that a sponsor is who at your company or your organization is going to look out for you and make sure you have opportunities to advance make sure you’re getting you know that you’re not getting overlooked. And that doesn’t always need to be the same person as your mentor. So that’s one where it’s really important to have people you may not even fully know how much they’re doing for you. But that’s where we see people succeed in companies is when someone above them is sponsoring them, and making sure it gets like a formal thing, but just there’s somebody that they’re looking out for you. And they’re making sure if a new opportunity comes up, an opportunity to go pitch this client or go on this business trip or whatever, that they throw your name in the hat, and they make sure people are considering you. And that’s not always the same person, as your mentor is who you have this more personal, you could probably feel comfortable crying in front of your mentor, right? You may not feel comfortable– or their sponsor, maybe somebody very senior than you’d like, never want me crying in front of them, but they’re keeping an eye out for you. And so I think that that’s really important.

Catherine: Would you say that’s the same as an advocate?

Becky: Yeah, I think so. I think you hear that word sponsorship thrown around. I think it’s probably the word of art. But yeah, I think they play an advocate role for sure.

Catherine: So my last question is about DEIJ at Norton Rose Fulbright. I saw that you will have a Racial Equity Council, a Diversity and Inclusion Director, a Diversity and Inclusion Committee Chair, he earned the top rating of 100% on the Corporate Equality Index, which is just incredible. And you sponsor a number of diversity programs and a number of employee resource groups, which one of these initiatives do you think has been the most impactful?

Becky: You know, I don’t think any one type of initiative can solve everything. So I actually think it’s the fact that we approach things from a lot of different ways, that is the most impactful, because some of those things are people in charge of putting on more formal programming, right? Some of it is doing programming with our clients. So it’s not even just us, but it’s also us working with our clients. Some are very much led by our diverse attorneys. And so it’s almost you know, it’s kind of like WRISE. WRISE is an organization for women run by women. And there’s something to be said for that. But there’s also something to be said for something that is, you know, not just the diverse people are the ones doing it. 

Because I think that’s such a huge part of the diversity we were talking about earlier, it can’t just all be done by people of color, it can’t just all be done by women, it can’t just be done by LGBTQ people advocating for themselves. You need the less diverse people advocating for the diverse people. That’s how you make real change. And so I think that’s one of the things we have is that we have some are more opportunities for those diverse attorneys and then others are more just kind of formal, firm programs. 

We do make sure people have mentors. We actually have for our black attorneys a formal sponsorship program. Because of the importance of sponsors and the difference between sponsors and mentors, we just did something really, really focused on purpose. In particular for our black attorneys, making sure that they have that. But I think that’s the key, is that you can’t just say like, okay, we’re going to hire one DEI person, and then that will just solve everything. Well, it’s not how it works, right? You have to really approach things. And you have to look at things at so many different levels, you need to give people support, you need formal programs, but so much as it’s about so much more than just the formal programs is really looking at your organization. And what can you do to increase diversity.

And I do think one of the absolute most important things which you don’t even mention on that list, is having diverse people in really significant leadership roles. So our global chair is a black woman. She’s amazing. And that’s huge. You know, you don’t see that. When I came over, I was so pleased to see so many women, so many, even women of color in significant leadership roles across the firm. And so the more diverse people that we put into leadership roles, honestly, I think that’s probably the single biggest factor in success in leading to more diversity throughout the entire organization in successful diversity. It’s not enough just to hire people, right? You can hire people, but if they don’t, if they don’t stay and they don’t succeed, that’s not real diversity. 

Catherine: That’s the inclusion piece.

Becky: Yeah, exactly. So I think that’s really important.

Catherine: Yeah, well, thank you so much for your time, Becky. I’m really glad that you joined me today. And yeah, hopefully things go well in Austin. I love it. It’s one of my favorite cities, and I wish Texas all the best.

Becky: We could use those best wishes right now. So thank you. All right. Thanks for having me. Catherine.