“My month of February was going from a corporate office every day to, literally, my basement and doing business on Gmail.”
Jesse Gronner is discussing the move he made from Avangrid Renewables, where he was vice-president of business development, to setting up developer Triple Oak Power. He made the shift in February before Covid-19 lockdowns started in the US, when the rest of the world started to work from home. The formation of the company was officially announced on 7th October.
Triple Oak was set up with a capital commitment from EnCap Investments, as well as backing from private equity firm Yorktown Partners and commodities trader Mercuria. Gronner says he is confidence in the resilience of renewables.
“On the investor side, I was encouraged that there was really no change in course. I heard about the industries that immediately went from cashflow positive to cashflow negative, and it got me thinking about the core value of sustainability in respect not just to what you’re doing – the content of your business – but how you do it.”
A Word About Wind caught up with Gronner and co-founder Kenneth Labeja, who is also formerly of Avangrid, to find out more about the firm’s strategy.
They discuss how the growth of solar is opening development opportunities in US onshore wind; where storage fits into their plan; and what teaming up with investors such as EnCap tells us about the state of US wind in the early 2020s.
Growth of solar
Gronner started working in energy two decades ago and moved over to wind early in his career, in 2002.
He begun by working as a project manager for PacifiCorp Power Marketing, which Iberdrola bought in 2008; and then Iberdrola Renewables became Avangrid Renewables in 2015 after Iberdrola USA’s $3bn merger with UIL.
He has spent most of that time focused on development, and most recently headed Avangrid’s renewables developments for the US, including wind, solar and storage: “I was literally out of school when I joined PPM and I never left until this February. It became bigger and more global over time, but that was the same company I signed onto in 2001. I went on that journey and then started to think about the opportunity to be entrepreneurial… I was really excited about creating something from scratch.”
He says Triple Oak is initially focused on wind projects in western US states, as it is based in Portland, but he sees other opportunities. Some geographical, in states like Texas. Others technological, such as pairing wind with storage.
“If, for example, we have a large-scale wind development, and there’s an opportunity to also enhance it with other carbon-free technologies like solar and battery then we are not precluded from doing that,” he says.
Gronner adds that part of the attraction is that wind developments are more difficult than solar, which has pushed more firms prioritise solar, and may allow Triple Oak to buy projects as well as develop its own.
His co-founder is Labeja, who is also Triple Oak’s chief financial officer. He started out working at KPMG in Uganda before stints at Credit Suisse, NRG Energy and in the development team at Avangrid Renewables since late 2016. He says there are two sources of potential project acquisitions: from larger companies that want to rationalise their portfolios, and from smaller players that aren’t well-capitalised.
“Those are two potential sources of projects for us to come in and finish."
EnCap enters wind
The formation of Triple Oak is also interesting as it represents the first major move by the traditionally fossil-focused EnCap Investments into wind farms.
“They had a desire to do a portfolio company that focused on wind,” says Gronner. “It was a logical match for us, and the fact I already had relationships with some of the management partners at the Energy Transition Fund made it really smooth.”
EnCap has also been active in the storage sector, and working with Triple Oak will allow both to take advantage of that combined expertise. Gronner says he expects this type of hybridisation to be a big trend for renewables this decade.
“This is going to be the decade of increasing the percentage of generation on the grid that’s carbon-free,” he says. “If we think in those terms, it’s not about one specific technology. It’s about what we can do with those technologies to maximise the capacity value, and do it as cost effectively as we can.”