Interview by Emily Gosden, Energy Editor - The Times
The head of ScottishPower Renewables is making the case for a greener energy future
When Lindsay McQuade was 23, her nascent career in the hotel industry took an abrupt turn for the worse. Stakis, her employer, was taken over by Hilton and the young Glaswegian was laid off. “I was like, ‘Whoa! Miners get made redundant, not me!’”
The shock did not set her back for long. After securing three job offers in a week, she accepted the one that allowed her to stay in Glasgow: in internal audit at ScottishPower. “It never occurred to me that I’d end up working in a utility — and it never occurred to me that I’d still be here.”
In February Mrs McQuade, now 42, was promoted to chief executive of ScottishPower Renewables. It operates 39 onshore wind farms, accounting for about a sixth of Britain’s onshore capacity, more than any of its rivals. It also has hydro-electric plants, two offshore wind farms and more in development and generated total earnings of £316 million last year.
Along with energy networks, and household supply and conventional power plants, renewables is one of the three core businesses that make up ScottishPower, the British division of Iberdrola, the Spanish multinational. It wasn’t always thus. When Mrs McQuade started work in ScottishPower, “we had a renewables business but it was niche compared to the coal side. Gas plant was still pretty novel, but coal was king. I’ve seen an industry utterly transform.”
Although her career path to the top of the renewables industry began more by accident than design, she is now one of its biggest evangelists. Not content with a turbine empire that spans Beinn Tharsuinn in the Scottish Highlands to Carland Cross in Cornwall, she is determined to build more. The obstacle is the government’s decision in 2015 to end the subsidies that had fuelled the growth of onshore wind farms, amid criticism of their cost to consumers and hostility from Conservative grassroots. Thus Mrs McQuade is lobbying ministers to resume offering onshore wind projects contracts guaranteeing a price for the power they generate, like those offered to subsidise other green technologies.
She argues that onshore wind costs have fallen so far that the contracts would not entail subsidies and in fact would save consumers money by undercutting wholesale prices. “Onshore wind is the cheapest by a country mile in terms of new, scalable generation.” Failing to build more onshore wind would be “throwing away” the industry that those early subsidies developed.
Yet she insists that contracts are needed to make investment viable. “I’ve got two sites consented right now and I would dearly love to see them both built, but I don’t have a route to market.”
It’s not only about new sites. From 2025, many existing wind farms will start to come to the end of their original contracts and planning consents, pushing “repowering” up the agenda.
ScottishPower has already repowered Carland Cross: one of the first wind farms in Britain when it was built in 1992, it consisted of 15 “teeny weeny” turbines each 50 metres tall and capable of generating 400 kilowatts each. In 2013, it replaced them “with these two-megawatt beauties”, ten 100 metre-tall machines now dotted among fields of broccoli.
From here, it seems the only way is up. In future, she wants to install machines 180 metres tall for “better yields and efficiency” and argues that installing fewer but bigger turbines makes the landscape less “cluttered . . . To my mind it’s the best-looking type of power station. They’re a bit mesmerising.” As for public opinion, she believes that the government overestimates opposition to onshore wind. “The facts are the public like it.”
Support is stronger in Scotland, which is where most of the proposed new projects would be. “It’s super windy. Scotland has an industrial heritage, we are used to building things. We have got land.” Job opportunities are a big attraction, too — “There’s an element of keeping rural economies alive” — and she also sees more support among younger generations.
Mrs McQuade, who has a seven-year old daughter, argues that “kids these days are a lot more environmentally aware . . . The idea that you would dig something out of the ground and burn it to then make electricity is alien to them. My daughter gets that energy comes from wind and the sun. You can see a turbine from her playroom in the attic and when she was tiny, if that wind turbine was going round, she would go, ‘Mummy, we’ve got electricity!’”
Mrs McQuade’s latest plans focus on getting electricity when turbines aren’t spinning. The company is making its first, tentative steps into batteries, with plans to install a small one-megawatt example at Carland Cross. “When the sun is really splitting the skies down here or the wind is particularly strong but the demand is not maxed out, I can be putting that excess energy into a battery.” It’s a tiny project, but costs are coming down and she believes that eventually storage will play a huge role in tackling the problem of renewables’ intermittency.
ScottishPower Renewables is also busy with plans for more offshore wind farms. It is constructing the £2.5 billion East Anglia One project and hopes to secure a subsidy contract next year for East Anglia Three, which could be built using turbines of up to ten megawatt capacity, the biggest yet.
Mrs McQuade is unusual in the energy industry as a female chief executive. Chatty and approachable, she is the antithesis of the corporate stiff. She recalls a culture in her first role that “you must wear a jacket or else people weren’t going to take you seriously. Why? It doesn’t make sense.” She argues that the key to encouraging diversity is to ensure people don’t feel they have to conform.
“I still remember back in audit days, getting asked, ‘Do you think you can have it all?’ Part of me said, ‘Well, I’m going to have a damn good go, because I want it all.’ ” One episode, a decade ago, illustrates some of the preconceptions she has faced. “I walked into a meeting room with an external party and I was asked to sort out of the air conditioning and get some water. Which, out of politeness, I did. And then I sat down and joined the meeting.
“The real kicker? It was a female who did it to me, the finance director of the other company. The next time I saw her, she was all over me.”
She believes that her new job — as the first female chief executive of one of ScottishPower’s businesses — “sends a big signal about where we are as an industry and a company”. Her daughter tells her she, too, wants to be chief executive of ScottishPower Renewables and, much to her amusement, so do her friends’ daughters. “That’s cool, because I didn’t have anyone like that when I was wee. My careers adviser wanted me to be a home economics teacher.”
If her daughter does follow in her footsteps, Mrs McQuade can barely predict what that job might entail 30 years from now. “Who knows what world we will live in then? But electricity is going to be needed. We might not have even discovered the technology that will be generating that electricity yet, that’s what’s really exciting. But it will be low-carbon. And it won’t be dug up from the ground.”
Who is your mentor?
Keith Anderson [ScottishPower group chief executive, and her predecessor at ScottishPower Renewables]. He has known me for close to 20 years and provides some very direct feedback.
Does money motivate you?
Achievement and delivery motivates me, but money is important. I need to be paid for what I’m doing and paid fairly.
What was the most important event in your working life?
Starting in Renewables. I have never been bored.
Who do you most admire?
The Queen for her devotion, pride and commitment to her office and Nigella Lawson for always being an inspiration in the kitchen.
What is your favourite television programme?
I’ve just finished Safe on Netflix and my guilty pleasure is Queer Eye, also on Netflix. We have a TV at home, but it’s rarely on.
What does leadership mean to you?
Being honest, open, challenging. Leading by example and [being] willing to get stuck in.
How do you relax?
Yoga, skiing, kayaking when I can and cooking.
BA hons Economics, University of Strathclyde
1997: Clydesdale Bank, graduate trainee; 1998: Stakis, treasury analyst; 1999: ScottishPower, internal auditor; 2001: British Energy, treasury dealer; 2002-present: ScottishPower (various roles, beginning as senior credit risk manager, joining ScottishPower Renewables as an investment manager in 2006, becoming director of policy and innovation in 2013 and then chief executive in 2018)
Married, one daughter