Alumni Story: Sonja Altesellmeier

The energy transition is currently one of the topics in political and societal discourse. The shift away from fossil fuels towards a stronger focus on renewable energy plays a crucial role in combating ongoing climate change. In the midst of it all is Sonja Altesellmeier, CFO at Community Offshore Wind, a joint venture of RWE and National Grid. After studying economics at the University of Münster, Sonja Altesellmeier held various positions both domestically and abroad, in which she managed numerous financing projects related to renewable energy. We met Sonja Altesellmeier and talked to hear about her time at the University of Münster and her professional career.

Dear Mrs. Altesellmeier, to what extent did your studies prepare you for your professional career?

To successfully complete my economics studies, intrinsic motivation was necessary. Logical thinking and not only seeing the direct consequences of something but also considering broader implications were important in my studies and are even more so now. And then, there are moments in your studies when you don't understand anything or very little at first. In such cases, you have to delve into the details and the underlying themes to make progress and deliver optimal results. In large lectures with hundreds of students, no one notices whether you understand the topics or not. However, in seminars or smaller events where the lecturer or professor likes to test knowledge directly and unexpectedly, it's different. It was uncomfortable not knowing the answers. That's probably why I achieved the best results in these lectures and seminars. There, I also learned the importance of thorough preparation. Even as one becomes more experienced over time, I still prepare in detail for important presentations.

During your professional career, you have lived and worked in various countries. What attracted you most to this experience, and what were the challenges, if any?

I've always found the idea of living somewhere near water very appealing. Learning new things, working in different ways, encountering different perspectives along with new challenges. I've been working in the renewable energy sector for many years and I enjoy passing on my knowledge. Building something new, developing teams - that's exciting and propels the industry forward. Moving to another country also means adapting to local peculiarities. What works in Germany might not necessarily be the right approach for, say, South Africa. One has to be attentive and willing to ask questions to understand. It's not about doing things exactly as before, but finding an adapted, better way. In my current position, I'm often the interface with the headquarters in Essen, sometimes even acting as a translator between cultures and different levels of experience. As a German company, which is also present in many other parts of the world, we work together in international, diverse teams. We develop projects across locations and countries and lead them to success. International experience facilitates this work. I don't even remember most of the challenges I faced abroad. They surely existed, but in hindsight, the positive experiences prevail. I still enjoy traveling to all the countries where I have lived, studied, or worked. I also have many friends abroad. I'm willing to travel long distances for a meeting with my international friends.

What is your daily work routine like as the CFO of Community Offshore Wind?

No two workdays are the same. The first thing I do in the morning is check my emails to understand if there's anything important that came up overnight and needs immediate attention. Since we collaborate with teams from different locations, I try to prioritize tasks based on availability and working hours, distributing them within the team. In my finance department for Community Offshore Wind, I have employees from the USA, both on the East Coast and in other time zones, as well as employees from Germany and England. Some regularly go to the office, while others work from home or as needed. As the CFO for Community Offshore Wind, my responsibilities include investment evaluation, short-term and long-term budgeting, procurement (e.g., wind turbines), risk management, accounting, and taxes. In the USA, the offshore industry is still in development, so one of our tasks is to advance the establishment of new manufacturing facilities with our suppliers, increase local value chains, and promote and support the necessary establishment and qualification of personnel. Developing or advancing an offshore wind project requires constant adaptation to new requirements. There's no standstill. We're constantly working towards the next milestone. The major ones include securing revenues as well as expenditures. Obtaining permits, finalizing supply contracts, making the final investment decision, followed by the actual construction phase. The construction phase concludes with completion, after which the project enters the operational phase. Each phase has specific requirements that we must meet. In addition to project development, we participate in tenders to secure revenue. Over the past 1.5 years, our focus at Community Offshore Wind has been on participating in two tenders in New York and New Jersey, and now we're awaiting the results. The tenders focus on price but also on factors like local value creation. Many of these decisions require the approval of our shareholders at Community Offshore Wind. I was seconded to the project by RWE as CFO, and internally, I'm involved in briefings, recommendations, and decisions made by our board, which need to be prepared accordingly. Additionally, I have regular meetings and exchanges with other stakeholders from both shareholders. As a CFO in a project, it's important to communicate appropriately with both the boards of the respective shareholders and with each team member's information needs. Strategic decisions need to be prepared, but sometimes, details about suppliers or evaluations are also important. My job is diverse and exciting. I need to quickly adapt to new information, communicate effectively, and also understand the details of some topics to drive things forward and make the right recommendations and decisions. The responsibility is significant. Community Offshore Wind is one of RWE's largest offshore wind projects, with approximately 3.5 GW, which, once completed, can provide electricity to up to 1.1 million households and reduce CO2 emissions in New York State by up to 5%.

What makes working in the renewable energy sector particularly exciting for you?

It feels like renewables have now come of age and are in a sustainable but also very ambitious growth phase. When I started in the field over 15 years ago at a bank, much of it was still learning by doing. We all learned together what worked best, what was truly important. Back then, we were often ridiculed, and there were debates about the relevance. The market was also mostly limited to Europe and the USA. Especially in Europe, there were also difficult years. I witnessed how, for example, the solar industry was built up and then dismantled again. However, in the last two years, we've seen tremendous change. The focus on sustainability, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the desire for independence from fossil fuels have sparked an unprecedented boom in demand, worldwide. The expansion targets are ambitious and currently leading to challenges we haven't seen in the industry before. Especially suppliers are struggling to keep up with production, and macroeconomic factors also play a role. Competitors are writing off projects or abandoning them altogether. Finding solutions to these new challenges is exciting. Navigating in the currently uncertain environment and making a meaningful contribution to the goals of RWE and NGV (National Grid Ventures, Editor's Note) is not always easy but definitely very demanding and an excellent opportunity to contribute. Professionally and personally, this also means the opportunity for me to work on projects in countries with which one identifies. Taking on tasks that make a significant contribution to the advancement of renewables has never been easier. Finding and retaining talent is a crucial competitive advantage. Without the right employees, global energy transition cannot succeed. There have never been so many opportunities for newcomers in the renewable energy field to find a job that meets their own demands and desires. For many years, I was always one of the youngest members of the team, although I am not so young anymore. Fortunately, this has also changed in recent years. I find it great to work with graduates from our trainee program, passing on knowledge, and contributing to the development of each individual. The industry and I still have much ahead in the offshore wind sector. We will tackle the challenges together and develop solutions. It never ceases to be exciting. Overall, I look to the future opportunities in this area with great optimism.

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