Expert Q&A: Erin Toelke Discusses Challenges, Innovations, and Emerging Technologies for Solar Energy Development
In a career spanning 25 years, Erin Toelke is a vice president of energy programs and Tetra Tech’s solar market lead. She is responsible for strategic growth and business development for energy clients across Tetra Tech and serves as an account manager for many developers, independent power producers, and utility clients. She leads teams that provide environmental permitting, engineering, compliance, and liability services to clients in the renewable energy, transmission, and conventional generation sectors.
Erin has a background in renewable energy project development and compliance. Her career began in the early 2000s when she permitted, managed, and provided leadership for many of the initial wind energy projects in the western United States. She has supported renewable energy project development in Arizona, California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Erin has a Bachelor of Science in Geology from the University of Iowa and a Master of Science in Environmental Science from Indiana University. She is a member of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy.
What are the drivers fueling solar energy growth?
The price of solar has declined quickly, making it cost competitive with other renewable and traditional power sources. States, corporations, and utilities are leading the transition away from fossil fuels through regulatory mandates and environmental, social, and governance commitments. The extension of federal tax incentives as well as policies pushing clean energy from the top will further boost and expand development. Consumer demand for cleaner forms of energy has also propelled this market.
What are some of the major challenges and complexities facing solar developers today?
Major considerations for solar developers include availability of transmission, navigating the interconnection process, and providing utility and International Organization for Standardization (ISO)-compatible designs. There are often unique utility or ISO requirements that significantly increase project costs. Some examples include challenging substation upgrades or lengthy gen-tie lines.
In addition, utility-scale solar facilities are located on relatively large areas of land. This may result in impacts to existing land uses or natural resources. Solar energy development is also encountering resistance from some communities based on these or other unique factors such as potential visual and aesthetic impacts. Tetra Tech’s scientists, engineers, and planners closely partner with our clients to mitigate potential impacts and work with stakeholders through various forms of public outreach to address site complexities. Our cross-functional subject matter experts support solutions to many unique challenges that may develop on a project.
How is Tetra Tech able to support the needs of a solar energy project developer?
Tetra Tech works with our clients to develop and operate a successful solar project by managing risk, developing a strategy to achieve project objectives, and maximizing a project’s return on investment. Tetra Tech’s interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, planners, and construction management professionals use our Leading with Science® approach, which employs our Tetra Tech Delta suite of proprietary technologies and analytical tools, to successfully support a project’s life cycle.
We blend our planning, environmental, and engineering capabilities to deliver project efficiencies. We provide early consideration of constructability, respect for in-service schedules, and an appreciation for overall project economics. Having our engineering and environmental staff working in concert saves time by continuously incorporating site-specific data into the site design as it becomes available from field survey efforts.
We combine our depth of national expertise and in-house resources with local and regional staff to provide cost-effective support to solar developers. Tetra Tech also offers subject matter experts to address challenges that may come up during the planning and permitting process. We leverage our vast relevant experience to apply lessons learned across the life cycle of a solar project.
What are your expectations for growth and technological developments in energy storage over the next couple of years?
We anticipate continued technological progress and an increase in the deployment of new technological developments to energy storage projects. Similar to the evolution we have seen in other renewable technologies, we anticipate the cost and efficiency for energy storage—especially battery energy storage systems (BESS)—to continue to improve. Energy storage will be essential to make the energy transition toward net zero a reality. Tetra Tech is supporting the planning and development of multiple stand-alone BESS projects as well as hybrid projects that combine BESS with solar or wind.