The following excerpt is from a story originally published in the spring 2024 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.

Like many people around the world, Pip Decker ’04 takes steps to reduce his personal carbon footprint: He buys local organic produce, recycles household waste, drives an electric vehicle and uses a bicycle for transportation when practical. But he and other William & Mary alumni are also pursuing solutions on a much larger scale.

They are launching and advancing renewable energy projects and infrastructure around the world. They are helping companies of all sizes reach net-zero emission and sustainability goals. They are accelerating carbon capture efforts and shaping climate policy.

Countering global effects of climate change such as rising sea levels, biodiversity loss and more frequent wildfires, droughts and floods is important to Decker, co-founder and CEO of New Jersey-based Current Trucking. It’s why he launched wind and solar ventures and why he now runs an electric trucking firm.

“Growing up, I had a lot of concern about what my future would look like, and ultimately I believed we had to hit this head on,” he says. “That’s why I chose this adventure.”

‘The Right Policy Framework’

While taking an entrepreneurship class at William & Mary about two decades ago, Decker studied the redevelopment of Richmond, Virginia’s Shockoe Bottom district from an industrial area with defunct tobacco warehouses into what is now a lively neighborhood with offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and historical sites.

“It encouraged us to see things not just as they were, but what they could be,” he says.

Government incentives such as historic tax credits helped to attract development that revitalized the area. Similarly, public policy measures have incentivized development of renewable energy projects around the country, leading to cost-competitive, market-based power generation.

“When you think about it, every great project starts with the right policy framework,” Decker says. “Understanding how that policy was created was a key piece in what I wanted to do, which was ultimately get into projects that were good for the environment. How you do that brought me to my public policy major.”

During a summer internship in Washington, D.C., in 2001, Decker worked with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on legislation to enhance energy conservation, research and development. He also had an opportunity to drive one of the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — a prototype valued at $5 million.

“That set me in motion by seeing how policy is engaged,” he says. “I saw groups like Toyota and others bringing new technology to the fore, and the convergence of great technological progress and great public policy.”

Although he was just 20 years old at the time, Decker attended cocktail parties and asked the congressional representatives what they thought about the outlook for new technology being presented.

“I got to see first-run policy ideas as well as products that were coming,” he says. “I fell in love with the idea of promoting national exploration of renewable energy projects.”

To land his first job, he made dozens of cold calls to companies working on such projects. In one interview, he was asked if he had any windy land.

“I didn’t have windy land, but I told them I’d go find them some and lease it,” he says. “That allowed me to get my first renewable energy project experience.”

Decker spent 17 years developing wind and solar projects, first working for other companies and then starting his own: solar developer SunEast and then BMR Energy. Now majority owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, BMR operates wind and solar projects in Jamaica, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Grand Cayman, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

The idea for Current Trucking came to Decker as he watched two men installing solar panels on a roof in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a country plagued by widespread poverty and pervasive violence. Seeing renewable projects being adopted even in challenging markets like this gave him inspiration to push into new territory to reduce pollution: heavy-duty trucking and utility vehicles. Manufacturers were starting to come out with their first models of electric semi-trailer trucks, forklifts and vans.

“I wanted to be part of that and help lead it out,” he says. “We’re servicing a need for operators who want a zero-emission solution.”

Current Trucking supplies and maintains vehicles and builds charging stations for its clients in drivers’ yards and parking lots. Since its launch in January 2021, the company has delivered the first charging station and electric vehicles for the Port of Virginia, the first charging station in the Port of Newark and the first electric bus at Denver International Airport.

In April, Decker participated in a White House Roundtable on Zero-Emission Freight Infrastructure and spoke about the Newark Heavy Duty Electric Depot Project, which he said involved multiple stakeholders coming together: “It truly takes a number of key players all pulling at the same time.” (See a related story updating sustainability initiatives at Estes Express Lines, a privately owned freight company led by Rob Estes ’74, P ’06 and Webb Estes ’06, M.Acc. ’07.) 

Among the difficulties Decker has faced are persuading farmers to place 400-foot wind turbines within sight of their homes, moving massive pieces of equipment to the top of a mountain in Jamaica and talking transportation entities into trying new technology. But he points to successes such as the Jamaica project eliminating the need for 500,000 barrels of oil each year.

“When I close my eyes at night, the wind projects are spinning. The daytime projects are producing power from the sun. Our trucks are rolling with no emissions,” Decker says. “If you start adding up the projects that I and my partners and teammates and former colleagues have done, it becomes a very large impact globally.”

Wind and Water

Charles J. Natale M.A. ’82 knows how difficult it can be to go first. As former president and CEO of environmental and engineering firm ESS Group, he guided environmental studies for the first large-scale offshore wind farm in the continental United States, known as Cape Wind.

Located in Nantucket Sound off the coast of Massachusetts, the project proposed in 2001 was to include 130 wind turbines across two dozen square miles, producing electricity to be transported to the mainland via underwater cables. The project received all the needed state and federal approvals, but opponents cited concerns about the effects on property values, tourism and wildlife. Ultimately, financing for the project fell through and the developer ended it in 2017.

Now, more than two decades after the Massachusetts project’s proposal, Natale sees conditions being much more favorable: “The public’s perception of a Cape Wind-type project has turned 180 degrees.”

He points to Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project, scheduled for construction starting this spring, with 176 wind turbines being built 27 miles off the coast of Virginia Beach. Natale served as a technical and regulatory consultant to Dominion in the early planning stages of the project, which is expected to generate 2.6 gigawatts of electricity — enough to power up to 600,000 homes when completed in 2026.

The Virginia project has several advantages over Cape Wind, he says. One is that the turbines are located farther from shore than the Massachusetts project, which was 15 miles out and thus, more visible. Technological advances have made it possible for a longer transmission system.

In addition, when Cape Wind was developed, the largest wind turbine was 3.2 megawatts (MW), Natale says. “Now, we’re seeing projects off of Maryland and Virginia that are up to 16.5 MW and we expect the near future will bring 18-20 MW offshore wind turbine generators. Larger capacity generators result in more efficient wind energy capture and fewer units being installed in the seabed — hence reducing potential overall environmental impacts.” 

With more projects like this in the pipeline, he sees an important role for William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

“VIMS is already playing a significant role with the help of Dominion,” says Natale, who serves as vice president of the VIMS Foundation Board. “We expect to play a larger role as well, because once these offshore energy resources are built, there’s very comprehensive and rigorous environmental monitoring that goes on, particularly for fishing and fish habitat-related aspects.”

Prior to the start of construction, the institute has been helping Dominion to conduct a Resource Characterization Study of black sea bass and channeled whelk so that any impacts to the species can be monitored, says Joshua Bennett, vice president for offshore wind at Dominion Energy and a fellow VIMS board member.

“VIMS is using their vessel R/V Bay Eagle, as well as two local fishermen, to conduct the study, which is a great partnership with the fisheries community,” Bennett says, adding that VIMS is also doing an economic analysis of fisheries-dependent use of the area.

Natale says he expects VIMS’ students, faculty and research vessels will continue to be involved in the project.

“We’ll be doing fish surveys. We’ll be doing water quality monitoring and shoreline resiliency monitoring,” he says. “All the things that we do and teach and share at VIMS are front and center here on a project in our own backyard. So we’re really excited about it. Virginia is going to be in a good spot to showcase that this technology can really work.”

Read the full story here.