Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Ørsted’s Kirsty Townsend brokers industry efforts to identify, mitigate the risks of using offshore transmission grids to bring renewable energy ashore.
Traditionally, offshore wind energy developers have delivered electricity generated by an offshore wind farm to the onshore grid using a dedicated cable from the wind farm to the nearest substation on shore.
Transmission experts and environmentalists, however, decry this “multitude of cables on the sea floor” approach as costly, inefficient and potentially damaging to fisheries and delicate marine ecosystems. Their preferred approach? Ocean transmission grids that would collect power from multiple wind farms and deliver that electricity to population centers on shore using just one large cable per landing.
Planning a New Approach
Kirsty Townsend, a director and head of North America special projects for Danish renewable energy giant Ørsted, is helping the nascent U.S. offshore wind industry define, sort through and implement the smartest, greenest power transmission options for industry and consumers alike.
“The major stakeholders in this transition — offshore wind developers, ocean transmission grid developers, and U.S. state energy agencies — all want the same thing: clean energy delivered reliably and cost-effectively to the onshore grid,” explained Townsend. “It’s complicated, however, and needs to be addressed in an orderly way, taking time to identify and mitigate the risks that come with this approach.”
Learning How Things Work
Townsend grew up in the 1990s in a modest, single-parent household in the village of Wylam in Northumberland, the northernmost county in England. It was a home where curiosity, independence and respect for the environment were encouraged and indeed nurtured by her mom, a trained biologist.
“My mom’s early memories of my childhood include me taking apart our Hoover (vacuum cleaner) or taking the back off our TV to figure out where all the wires went,” recalled Townsend. “I didn’t always put things back together, but once I figured out how each appliance worked, I was happy.”
Following the Science
That Townsend ended up at Ørsted, a company “committed to saving the planet, one wind farm at a time,” surprised no one in her life.
“When I was about 10 or 11, one my teachers said, ‘you know, there’s a lot of things you could do with your life, but what do you really want to do?’” she explained. “And my answer was always the same: ‘I want to be a part of solving climate issues.’”
For Townsend, that meant working hard in school — math, science and academic modules related to the environment were always her favorites — and working hard to make ends meet. She got her first job at age 14 at a muffin shop in Cambridge and has been working ever since.
Her strong academic performance paid off with a scholarship to a private high school, and ultimately, an invitation to attend the University of Cambridge where she studied engineering, chemistry and “a lot of materials science.” She graduated Cambridge in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in materials science. From there it was on to Imperial College London — “I love a big city” — where she earned a Master of Science degree in environmental technology in 2009. She credits this period with deepening her understanding of environmental technology and related energy policy.
Among the part-time jobs Townsend took to help pay for graduate school was a position with Innovia Technology, an innovation company spun off from one of Cambridge’s academic departments. It was here that she received her first exposure to the immersive problem-solving techniques she now uses every day at Ørsted.
“They threw me into a group of completely different specialists brought together to solve difficult problems presented by international companies such as Caterpillar or Kenda Capital,” she explained. “I got to see a completely novel way of working.”
Her time with Innovia, Townsend claimed, “gave me a complete and utter respect for other disciplines than my own. And it taught me how to think about a problem from different angles, trying to think about it from a client or customer perspective.”
Today, Townsend is helping Ørsted and the offshore wind industry navigate the technical, financial, and regulatory challenges of the proposed transition to shared transmission. It’s a job that challenges and rewards her talent for building consensus among disparate stakeholders.
"I work within a nexus of commercial people, technical people and regulatory stakeholder geniuses,” said Townsend.
“As an engineer, trained commercially, I don’t have deep expertise in any of those fields, but I speak each of these languages well enough to bring people together to solve challenging problems.”
The Ørsteds of the world would be more enthusiastic about shared transmission, she explained, if there was a development framework in place that recognized and compensated them for risks such as delays in developing the grid, or downtime on the transmission grid.
Ultimately, she added, it’s all about making offshore wind energy cost competitive with other forms of energy, not just fossil fuels but other forms of renewable energy as well.
“We’re massively incentivized to reduce costs wherever we can,” said Townsend. “That means buying in bulk, installing the most efficient wind turbines, and figuring out the smartest ways and best times of the year to install cables and turbines so that we minimize our environmental impact.”
As an environmentalist, Townsend is conflicted by the notion of wind farm developers laying cable in potentially environmentally sensitive areas.
But she sees an even greater risk in not being able to offset carbon emissions with clean, renewable energy.
“Ørsted’s permitting teams and environmental teams are working extremely hard to make sure we’re aware of and understand the environmental risks and are genuinely doing everything in our power to mitigate those risks,” she said.
Townsend’s work days begin early, in a small Lower Manhattan apartment that she shares with her husband and toddler son. After a morning ritual of sharing milk and a book with her son, she walks to work to begin taking calls with her European colleagues.
What she loves about Ørsted, she explained, is not only its commitment to creating a world that runs entirely on green energy, but also its willingness to trust her to help solve some of the world’s most significant climate problems.
“The company has given me a platform to influence people who are making these critical climate decisions,” said Townsend. “I’m definitely loving that element of my job.”
The other element of her life she’s loving is sports. “I’m not very good at it,” she admitted, “but whenever I'm not working or playing with my baby, I’m probably running or playing basketball or attempting to do yoga.”
Making a Difference
All of which keeps her healthy and fuels her optimism about the future of offshore wind and other forms of renewable energy.
“The people who work for Ørsted are incredibly innovative and insanely passionate about what they do, which makes it very exciting to work here,” said Townsend. “The most important message, however, for students and professionals alike is that you don’t have to fit a certain mold, be a certain age or gender, or have a certain background to succeed in this industry. If you want to make a difference, there’s a job waiting here for you.”
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If you enjoyed reading this story, you might also want to check out my profile of Peter Shattuck, a specialist in offshore transmission grids. If you’d like to suggest a person or topic for this blog, please send your ideas to email@example.com. Many thanks.