‘Keeping it Clean’ with Maria Connolly, Head of Real Estate and Clean Energy at TLT

Part 12 of ‘keeping it clean’, a blog series featuring interviews with inspiring people making a significant impact on the world through driving sustainability and cleantech agendas.

Maria Connolly is an accomplished lawyer and is currently Head of Real Estate and Clean Energy at TLT having worked her way up the firm, from Trainee Solicitor to Partner with responsibility for managing over 200 people.

As Head of TLT’s Clean Energy team, Maria has significant expertise in renewable & alternative energy. She has acted for lenders and developers on a significant number of wind-farm, solar PV schemes and other renewable energy projects including energy storage, EV charging infrastructure and multi-tech projects.

Her work in the Energy & Renewables sector has led to recognition as an expert in the field of Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (UK-wide) and Real Estate (Bristol & Surrounds) by Chambers UK, a guide to the legal profession. Here is a lovely quote from Chambers UK, which having chatted to her I’d certainly agree with … “Everything you could want from a lawyer; impressive yet not intimidating — she’s fantastic.”

Here’s what Maria shared with me…..

Maria, you’ve had an amazing career so far. What’s inspired you?

I trained to be lawyer. I studied law at university and undertook my training contract at TLT, a large Bristol firm, which is the firm I’m still at today! I love the fact that you really can develop your career in the same organisation. I was lucky enough to be given both the opportunity and the freedom to do that.

To give some context to why clean energy and sustainability have become my passion; 20 years ago TLT was involved in financing the some of the UK’s first wind projects. It very early in my career, just after I‘d finished my training, and I had the opportunity to get involved in those projects. They really grabbed my attention because the sector was new and novel. While wind energy was just starting to be recognised in the UK, I could see that it was something that was really going to make a difference. As a young ambitious lawyer, this was an exciting opportunity to get involved in the clean energy sector from the outset.

Clean energy was pretty niche at the time, not just from a legal perspective, but more widely, yet off the back of these initial projects we developed a significant clean energy practice. Over time we’ve become one of the top UK law firms doing clean energy work which is also recognised globally as well.

How do you encourage others?

It’s a massive simplification, but being passionate about something both personally and professionally goes a long way in helping to encouraging others! I love inspiring future talent. It’s about given people the opportunity to get involved and working as a key part of the team. What I’ve seen over the 20 year period is that you get graduates who are really committed to sustainability and the green agenda as well as being excited about the career path it provides. That has really helped us to build our future talent pipeline. Over the two decades; clean energy and sustainability has become very high profile, it’s something people can relate to both personally and professionally, which from a career perspective is really important.

How is this diversifying the industry?

I’m a huge believer in the power of diversity and ensuring that the sector is open to everyone. There is a real focus and spotlight on achieving that, and I believe the energy sector and legal profession have a massive role to play here.

Raising awareness is key. This starts at school level and then continues through education. Whatever career you chose within the clean energy or sustainability sector, every role is important and encouraging more diversity in the sector will make a difference to future innovation, the wider sustainability and green agenda, and the drive to net zero.

Let’s talk more about ‘women in sustainability’…

I’m part of the EWiRE network (Entrepreneurial Women in Renewable Energy) and have enjoyed working with women in this space. Mentoring, having positive conversations and supporting other women in the sector helps me gain new perspectives and allows me to make a difference. I’ve learnt so much from the women that I’ve mentored, who work in different roles and different industries. One of those things is that people need the support and confidence to make the leap into the sector and that’s where organisations such as EWIRE play such as importance role.

How is the industry changing?

Clean energy is often at the forefront of new technology — wind and solar are fairly mature, but we have a lot of new technologies being developed. A big one being electric vehicles (EV) and their associated charging infrastructure — and this something which I’m both personally and professionally passionate about: I’m an EV driver, we have EV charging points at our Bristol HQ.

Why is the clean energy and sustainability sector unique?

I see it from the perspective of living and breathing clean energy and sustainability both personally and professionally; and for many of us working in the sector, the two tend to go hand in hand. I’ve learnt a huge amount about EVs for example just by driving one myself. I understand the opportunities and challenges, particularly around charge points, and in my opinion there is no better test case than being a user.

What do you love about your job?

We discussed the reasons I started my career in clean energy, and those hold true today. I learnt early in my career that one of the things you have to do is grab the opportunities, if you don’t someone else will. We are a people driven firm — and that is key to our success. We also pride ourselves in being thought leaders in our specialist sectors and I always find it a real honour to be asked to speak at leading conferences on energy and sustainability.

Going back to building networks, the likes of Regen have some fantastic forums to network in a comfortable environment. It’s so important to nurture current and future talent and the clean energy network is a great one to be a part of. It’s such a niche sector that when you go to a clean energy conference you’ll always know so many people there which is brilliant. That said, we certainly welcome newcomers!

Can you tell us a bit more about your passions in life?

I have a 12 year old daughter, so a lot of my time is directed to family. We live in Gloucestershire so being outdoors is a big part of our lives; walking, cycling, skiing, with my family as much as I can. I have a fairly busy professional career, but do my best to balance everything.

What has been really interesting recently, is how lockdown has given everyone time to reflect, my husband and I are both working and also home schooling. It’s given us time to consider what the return to work will look like. While I’ve have worked from home occasionally it’s not been on such a continuous basis and I’ve been reflecting on how I can use the changes imposed on us by lockdown to support sustainability in the future. Looking to the future a more flexible approach to work could lead to people making career choices they’ve not been able to make before and also lead to a more balanced life.

What has been your greatest inspiration professionally?

I’m very fortunate in that I’ve had sponsors throughout my career, and this sponsorship has supported my career progression. While I’ve been in the same organisation for 22 years my role has continued to change. I’ve also benefited from working with trade associations, such as Regen, where the opportunity to join steering groups and networks has given me great exposure within the sector. So, I would say it’s been a combination of inspiration from both within my own firm and the sector more widely, but it also all comes back to my passion for what the energy sector has to offer the environment and the economy, I want to be part of us getting to net zero.

Photo by Eugene Zaycev on Unsplash

What are you most proud of?

Taking the clean energy sector to where we currently are as a practice. TLT has just been ranked third most active law firm by deal count in the renewables sector for quarter one 2020 by Inspiratia and we’re consistently named as a top global adviser in clean energy M&A and project finance by Clean Energy Pipeline. Building a practice over 20 years to be one of the nationally and globally recognised practices in clean energy feels like a great achievement.

What advice would you give someone graduating in 2020?

If there’s an opportunity to take something you’re interested and passionate about and turn it into a career, then that’s an avenue worth exploring. We spend a huge amount of our day dedicated to our careers, so if you have a job that you enjoy and are personally and professionally passionate about, success will follow.

The UK was the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050. What do you see as the key factors in us reaching the legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050?

Because of the UK’s target to achieve net zero by 2050, there is no better time to be developing clean energy generation projects. We need to continue to grow the pipeline and fast; new solar, new wind, new heat projects, new energy storage and EVCI. Actually I think that EVs are really crucial, the rate of EVs take up, the development of ECVI (and other green infrastructure) will be absolutely transformational. We’re in such an exciting time because if we’re going to get to net zero by 2050 the contribution of the clean energy sector is going to be critical.

Who do you think have been the ‘game changers’ of the past 10 years?

The organisations which have facilitated the development of and investment in clean energy projects. Unless you have the both development capability and the interest of funders or investors, it’s very difficult to get a project off the ground. It’s all of the various stakeholders in the clean energy sector that turn both established technologies such as wind and solar and nascent technologies such as energy storage into a project that actually ends up generating electricity or heat.

What do you see as being instrumental in us ensuring a more sustainable future for the planet?

Certainly education, as we discussed early, but we also need regulatory certainty. We’ve had different government policies which have chopped and changed and the sector has had to adapt to these.

Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

We now need stability of regulation and policy. It’s much easier to plan your next wind or solar farm portfolio if you know you have the support of government policy and regulation to do so.

If you could give the next generation one piece of advice, what would it be?

Get involved, make a difference. However small you feel that your contribution might be, we all have a big part to play in getting to net zero!

Thanks Maria, let’s hope the next generation hold on to your coattails!

Take a look at Maria’s talk for Westonbirt School 👀

More on EWiRE: https://www.regen.co.uk/project/entrepreneurial-women-in-renewable-energy-ewire/

Connect with us to keep the clean discussion going… and if you would like to feature in the series, do get in touch! 🌏

Avid Traveller. Sustainability Advocate. London based Recruiter. Sustainability and Cleantech Writer. Cyclist. Muay Thai Enthusiast.