Community Solar Development for Tribal Nations & Geothermal Startups | Salina Derichsweiler of SunShare
Did you know that 51% of professionals working in clean energy transitioned into the industry last year, according to a recent survey? Our CEO recently spoke with Salina Derichsweiler, who transitioned from oil & gas to founding & leading geothermal startup, Transitional Energy. In her current, new role as Director of Development at SunShare, Salina is leveraging her experience developing a wide range of energy projects to accelerate community solar in New Mexico, both within & outside of Tribal Nations & Pueblos.
They spoke about her work at Transitional Energy, which received funding from the Department of Energy, the State of Colorado, as well as a $2 million grant from the Clean Sustainable Energy of North Dakota. Salina also highlighted the significance of diversity & representation when it comes to building trust with Indigenous communities, particularly in the context of development work.
Salina is also part of Cleantech Leaders Roundtable (CTLR), the nation’s most prominent private community of cleantech & climate-tech leaders. CTLR’s mission is to bring together a diverse group of founders, investors, & entrepreneurs for the purpose of idea sharing, networking, & building a supportive and collegial fellowship.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Salina Derichsweiler, joining me from Denver, Colorado. Welcome Salina.
Salina: Hello, how are you?
Catherine: Good. Thank you. I’m good. So I hear a Mazel is warranted so congratulations you’ve just joined SunShare as director of development. So please tell us a little bit about yourself and your current role.
Salina: Yeah, I am super excited to have landed at SunShare and working on community solar. I spent 20 plus years in the oil and gas industry transitioned out of there to build my own geothermal company and now fully over into the renewable industry. And so this new role is New Mexico is an up and coming market. The legislation was just passed and 2021 the new solar Act and the RFP was done through 2022 and we were awarded six projects at SunShare in New Mexico. And in addition to that, we are committing dollars to partners, the coalition to stop violence against native women and that Navajo Technical Institute and that really begins opening up the tribal markets which is really important to me as an indigenous woman to think about sovereign energies. So this is a great role to have landed in. I’m really excited to be fully on the renewable side.
Catherine: That’s really great. I’m so happy to hear that. I know that you have a Bachelor of Science in chemical engineering in petroleum refining, as well as an MBA. How did you make your way into the clean energy transition?
Salina: Yeah I never really thought I’d even end up in energy I always thought I’d go into developing consumer products at Procter and Gamble or something. And when I was a freshman at Mines, the VP of technology at Marathon Oil tracked me down at school after reading about me in the Denver Post. And offered me an internship and I said, Yeah, that sounds great. I don’t know what you need me to do. I don’t know anything about oil. And I’d come from poverty and this was more money than both my parents have ever made combined. And I thought, yeah, I’m curious about this. I love the technology, the lab environment, collecting data, tying data to everything. My first job was out in Long Beach, California. And this was a really unique operation where we worked the city and the state and as my career developed over time, and I went through the shale boom with oil and gas moved back home to Denver. I really struggled to feel like I was fitting from a value standpoint, I viewed myself as an energy professional and I really cared about the communities that we worked within to develop energy and the shale boom, kind of change that mentality a little bit in the oil and gas industry became more for profit and what Wall Street analysts wanted. And I struggled with that. I wanted to maintain that energy professional kind of viewpoint. And so when I thought about I think I’ve reached the end of my career in oil and gas, I’ve done all the things worked for all kinds of different companies worked on interesting projects, love the technology, how can I take my skills and apply them in a slightly different way and be a leader in the oil and gas industry? So it was really driven by how do I change the conversation? How do I get folks in the oil and gas industry to stop viewing the world as fossil fuels versus renewable and more about solving the challenging energy problems that we have in our communities and so that’s where Transitional Energy was born out of and it was really, I had always wanted to start my own company. My MBA was from Pepperdine, which is a focus on entrepreneurial and that was my first go out and renewable. I had no idea what I was getting into when it comes to utilities and generating energy to enter all the complexity of developing energy projects, especially renewable energy product projects, as the company developed a transitional energy my partner’s and I just really didn’t see the world in the same way and want to do accomplish the same thing. I really wanted to do community work. I really wanted to work on tribal lands, and I really wanted to go purely renewable energy and so that’s where I’m at. That’s what I’m doing.
Catherine: Yeah, no, I totally understand that. Having partners that want to go in the oil and gas direction versus you wanting to go into clean energy direction, I totally understand that. What are some of the projects that you’re most proud of having worked on at Transitional Energy?
Salina: Transitional Energy as a company itself, getting it going starting the conversation, it was at a time we started in the middle of the panic of the pandemic, or actually the beginning of the pandemic and oil and gas still hadn’t quite caught on to like we should be investing in clean energy oil price was negative. So the world was just upside down. Yes, it took a while to get those conversations going. So I was just exceptionally proud that we got the company up and running, during a pandemic, we were able to access grant money which was huge from the state of Colorado from the DOD. From the Clean Energy Administration in North Dakota. And so this was just a wonderful experience to be a startup when geothermal itself as an industry with kind of getting going. And so the other two specific projects one it’s so cool to have an idea our idea transitional energy was can we make a plug and play type of sled that can capture heat waves from produced fluids and generate clean power for onsite use or to net meter back into the grid, and to be able to ask friends and family for the dollars it takes to do a minimum viable product it was very scary, and there’s a lot of stress on my shoulders. But we did it. And I give a lot of credit to the technical team that was a big part of that design. But to stand out on location and see the design that we put together and our ideas come to real fruition was incredibly satisfying. And then right before I left, I say the second project that I was incredibly proud of was the work we were doing with Enerplus and the grant we received a $2 million grant from the Clean Energy Authority in North Dakota that North Dakota is investing in clean energy and how they can transition their economy from oil and gas to renewable energy. And so they’ve allocated dollars to that and that’s a big deal. And so Enerplus is really committed. They have a whole group that works on sustainability and works on carbon emissions reduction. And so they were a great partner. In addition, it was on tribal lands. So again, that was something that spoke to my heart. This is something about how we can right the wrongs of the past and really think about energy sovereignty. So it started out amazingly well. We had wonderful progress as a team and I feel like I went out with a very satisfying project to tell the technical team to move forward with.
Catherine: It’s so interesting to me, because I never would in a million years think that North Dakota would be active in the energy transition.
Salina: Yeah it’s incredible! They had a rainy day fund and then they’re like, Hey, we got to do this.
Catherine: So you learn something new every day. Why did you decide to focus on geothermal specifically when you set up the firm?
Salina: Yeah, so one, it was just the closest from a technology perspective to oil and gas. I had a lot of the same elements, right? It’s in the subsurface. My degree in chemical engineering, I learned thermodynamics. That’s what my degree is in. And so to me, it was always intuitive to think about heat and how to utilize that heat. But really, I had been trained as an engineer to think about energy conservation. And maximizing the use of whatever infrastructure, whatever land use, whatever field you have, so that you’re reducing any further development and so I had been trained as a waterflood engineer. I’ve done a lot of enhanced oil recovery. I had done steam flooding and all of these were kind of next step technologies to maximize the production of oil. And I thought, well, what if we take that same concept and think about maximizing the production of energy in totality? Energy comes in many different forms, and water flooding and moving water and in the subsurface and thinking about heat besim flooding. It just made a lot of sense. Geothermal was the obvious choice for that.
Catherine: How did your prior experiences at Transitional Energy and as an independent engineering consultant help you gain the skills needed in the current community solar development role that you’re in?
Salina: Yeah, I actually always thought that energy development is probably pretty similar across every energy group there might be and I really thought development in general is like that, whether it’s software development, real estate development, energy development. And so the skills that I have learned are really around development that I worked in the development groups, I did business development. I went land use, you have land man, you have real estate, you have lease agreements, you have all the parts and pieces. Everything is very similar. It’s just structured differently. One of the things I noticed as I stepped into the role, however, is the significant difference and coming from 100 year energy source that has had 100 years to figure out how to be very efficient to community solar is only about a decade old, so to organize, and we’re still getting legislation in place regulations are still going in place. It’s new for everyone. And so that’s where my experience as a consultant where your job is to really listen to what the problem is, and you’re listening to your client and you’re gauging what they’re saying, and you’re trying to convert that into, let’s identify the problem. And then let’s talk about a solution. And that’s very similar to community solar, really any energy development. It starts with that community engagement going in, what are the needs and let’s solve that problem and so the skill sets are aligned so well. One of the things that I’ve been most surprised about is as a CEO as an indigenous woman who had started a company who was leading the way in energy transition. I had to do a lot of PR related to Transitional Energy, and it was the first time I had ever been in that type of role. It was very overwhelming to me. And now in this role, I also am in charge of the PR because it’s a new up and coming market in New Mexico. But the difference is I feel really prepared and so it just feels like all the skills and all the strengths that I’ve learned in my career. Give me the confidence to work in this environment that has vast uncertainty in it and know that I’ll be okay.
Catherine: I think what’s so important as well is like really understanding the communities that you’re trying to communicate with right? This is why I love diversity so much. I think diversity is so super relevant, especially to development because there’s probably some trust that you might have with these communities that maybe other people wouldn’t necessarily have because you identify with them because of your background.
Salina: Yes, I recently traveled to New Mexico and I got to meet and have lunch with, we have a tribal government liaison and but then the executive director of the coalition to stop violence against native women. And both myself and the other woman who’s working on the tribal development in New Mexico we’re both indigenous women and we’re both reconnecting natives. We lost a lot of our culture as a result of the assimilation policies that were built in the United States. We understand how many times you know we’ve either been purposely left out or intentionally injured. And so really, I feel like a fierce protector and advocate and Ambassador and there is an immediate trust. The executive director said, “It’s such a wonderful surprise to have two indigenous women work on this project with me.” We have had very difficult challenges in the world and there is not a lot of trust when it comes to say a white man showing up. It’s not the same thing. So yes, I do, I think SunShare was very deliberate in that decision making to this day they were aware and self aware and knew that diversity is important. And I would say that a unique part of the culture that I work in now is that it’s a community first as it should be.
Catherine: Correct me if I’m wrong, I could have sworn that one of Biden’s first appointees as an indigenous woman. Was that Secretary of Agriculture?
Salina: Interrier. Deb Haaland. She is actually a Pueblo as well. I can’t remember if she’s from New Mexico. I think she’s from New Mexico. I don’t remember which Pueblo she’s from. Yeah, yeah, that was so exciting!
Catherine: I can imagine. Oh, my goodness. So exciting! What do you think it takes to succeed in solar project development and community solar in particular? I feel like you might have already sort of answered this question, Salina. So if you want we can sort of move on but if there’s anything else that you want to add, feel free.
Salina: I think I’ve mentioned different parts of it. I would say that perseverance and patience are critically important. I had mentioned being willing to work in a lot of uncertainty basically, it’s like everyday Oh, I thought I made this decision. I got to circle back something happened or something else happened or something. And so it’s really perseverance to be able to say it’s just another problem to solve and I just got to solve today’s problem and move through to the next one. And patience is the other key piece and then of course, I mean, community engagement, any energy development and development requires this, but in particular, with community solar. I think that’s really really important. A lot of community solar is relatively new and how people even understand it. And so I think that community engagement, which is my most favorite part of it all, is getting out there and being with the people that I’ll be impacting.
Catherine: Do you have any advice for others looking to transition into clean tech from other industries?
Salina: Network, honestly.
Catherin: I couldn’t agree more. That is like the number one thing I say, network.
Salina: Change from your standing in. I intentionally did that. That was how I set out on geothermal. I really took a look at my LinkedIn, my social media, my friend groups, those kind of events, I was going to the kind of conferences I was going to and really shifted that just slightly until I was really being in rooms where it was full of renewable energy. The kinds of things that I was reading, media that I was reading that was critically important and then I think really talking to folks who are in renewable energy and understanding what skill sets are needed. Because like at SunShare, we’ve hired several folks out of oil and gas. In fact, we view that as a bonus because they have the skill sets that we need. We can train them on solar. That’s easy. But the ability to go out and develop energy and understand the complexity of all of the approvals and regulatory and leasing and land ownership, all of that. That skill set exists already in so many industries. We just need as many people to come on over renewables as possible, right, the workforce were it’s just growing. It’s booming. The IRA was a huge, huge win. And so there I think there’s a lot of entry level positions. And I would say, apply for the jobs like, I mean, you just don’t know and so if you’re curious or interested, apply for the jobs, but most importantly, change the room you’re standing in.
Catherine: Yeah, I really liked that. Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations again. And I’m sure we’ll see each other at events soon.
Salina: Yeah, it was really great to see you and great conversation.