Next Up: Radical Energy CEO Ryan Dick never gave up on the dream of solar energy, and now it’s paying off – in Ecuador
Meet Alberta’s up-and-coming solar energy entrepreneur
by Michael Hingston
Ryan Dick was a second-year commerce student at the University of Alberta when his best friend handed him a book that changed his life. The year was 2005, and the book –Fueling the Future, a wide-ranging anthology of essays about renewable energy solutions – showed Dick a way of understanding nature and technology that was both unexpected and intoxicating. “Honestly,” he says, “it lit a fire inside of me.”
Photograph Ashley Champagne
Dick, who’s now the 29-year-old president and CEO of Radical Energy, grew up in Spruce Grove where he was outdoorsy and environmentally minded. As a first-grader, for example, he remembers trying to convince his classmates to recycle by drawing nature scenes on pieces of paper and pinning them to recycling bins around the school. The effectiveness of this strategy, he concedes, remains unknown.
After reading Fueling the Future, though, Dick saw his future open before him. He started taking every course and attending every conference that he could find that touched on the energy industry, and stayed home on weekends poring over international papers and reports. “I was so incredibly optimistic, and happy, about the potential that renewable energy had for the world, and the difference it could make,” he says. Not everyone shared that optimism. Dick found himself constantly arguing with professors who insisted on treating alternative energy sources, like solar and wind, with what he thought was unnecessary disdain. “I’d ask, ‘Why are you talking about them like they’re a little, far-off alternative?’ I could cite reports. ‘This is an option right now.’ ”
The other decisive factor in shaping Dick’s career was his discovery that a University of Calgary master’s program in sustainable energy development was being offered in, of all places, Ecuador. Dick had never been to South America, but he’d heard stories about the amazing Ecuadorian terrain, so he bought the Spanish version of Rosetta Stone, the language-learning software, and hopped on a plane to Quito. He graduated from the program, and today Dick and the rest of his team at Radical Energy are about to begin construction on a massive solar project in the Ecuadorean Andes. The company’s 147-hectare strip of land will soon be 60 per cent covered with solar panels, all of which will pump energy directly into the country’s grid – all from the prime perch of 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level, almost exactly on the equator. “You don’t get any closer to the sun,” Dick says.
But Radical Energy’s journey to the Andes has come with some peaks and plateaus of its own. After graduating from the master’s program, Dick spent a few fruitless months back in Canada, where he struggled to find a way to put his passion for solar energy to use in a market that was still in its infancy. But his goal, not to mention his drive, never wavered. “To me, if you have a plan B or a plan C, it distracts from plan A,” says Dick, explaining why he didn’t hold down a regular job while trying to get the company off the ground in Toronto. “So I said, ‘No. I’m going to focus 100 per cent of my time. I’m going to sit in my apartment that doesn’t have any furniture, in my underwear, and I’m going to work.’ ”
Dick had just about convinced his initial investors to give him $70,000 in startup capital when he reconnected with Noel Dekking, a former classmate from Quito. Dekking was heading back down to Ecuador for a law internship, and the two of them talked about partnering. At the same time, the Ecuadorean government announced it was introducing a feed-in tariff system, through which any private developer could sell renewable energy directly to the government so long as they could build and finance the project themselves. In return for building out the capacity, they’d receive a premium rate for the next 20 years – guaranteed.
The timing was too good to pass up. Dekking signed on as Radical Energy’s vice-president, and the two of them flew back down to South America. At first, the plan was to build a modest project somewhere in the $1- to $2-million range that produced 250 to 500 kilowatts of solar energy. But Dick and Dekking realized the criteria to get the government contract were the same as they would be for a project 100 times that size. So, after several rounds of meetings with Ecuador’s National Electricity Council (where Dick and Dekking had to “strategically” demote themselves on their business cards because officials seemed skeptical of a company with such young executives), they decided to pursue the largest project they could without huge government oversight: 50 megawatts, costing an estimated US $220 million.
Those ambitions haven’t always been easy to fulfill, and they’ve learned on the fly how to balance a growing network of investors, lawyers, employees and banks. “Project development is about juggling grenades,” Dick says. “At any time, if you drop that grenade, project over. All your money, gone.” But Dick and Dekking’s education in Ecuador has given them a crucial edge. For one thing, all the courses they took in Quito used the country as a case study, looking at water and air pollution, environmental impact assessments, and many other things that were critical prerequisites to creating a successful energy project.
Another particularly important factor was aboriginal rights. Dick says the aboriginal population is also extremely well-organized and politically active. “If you’re not engaging with them, and being honest with them about your project – and kind of just being a good neighbour – they will step in the way of your project,” he says. “And good luck.” The presence of aboriginal stakeholders, along with the Ecuadorian government’s decision in 2008 to enshrine ecological rights in the country’s constitution, means developers can’t afford to ignore the environment.
Fortunately, that’s just how Dick prefers it. Once complete (estimates are for mid 2014), Radical Energy’s solar project will offset 47,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year and provide enough energy to power approximately 100,000 homes in Ecuador. The company also plans to make “substantial annual contributions” from its revenues towards progressive social and education programs across the country.
For now, Dick thinks it’s unlikely we’ll see a project of this scale here in Canada any time soon. But with the price of solar panels dropping rapidly, the times may be changing faster than a lot of people think. “It’s not so much technical restraints that are stopping the growth of renewable energy,” Dick says, “but old mindsets.”