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Triple Oak Power's Gronner outlines opportunities for onshore wind

A pandemic is a tricky time to start a business, but that didn’t stop the team at Triple Oak Power from launching a renewable energy development firm focused on wind and other carbon-free generation projects. SmartBrief caught up with co-founder and CEO Jesse Gronner to learn more about Triple Oak and the role the firm is aiming to play in the build out of sustainable electricity infrastructure.

What made you decide to start Triple Oak Power and what do you see as key areas of opportunity?

Jesse Gronner
Triple Oak Power Co-founder and CEO Jesse Gronner

After spending almost 20 years with increased responsibility at my original career stop -- which morphed over time from PacifiCorp Power Marketing to PPM Energy to Iberdrola to Avangrid -- I was really hungry to start something new and fresh. I wanted to build something from the ground up, so I made a graceful exit from Avangrid at the beginning of 2020 and helped form the team that would become Triple Oak Power, which we officially launched in August of 2020.

We are focused on onshore wind development. And I say it that way because there's offshore that's a big part of the wind industry now, which we're very excited about, but that's a different program altogether. It's significant capital and a big company type of activity, so we're staying onshore. And why wind? It's not that we think wind is the only solution for the carbon-free electricity puzzle; it's that wind is the differentiator when we think about wind, solar and battery. We wanted to focus on the aspect in which we can add value and differentiate, so we landed on onshore wind.

While Triple Oak has chosen to focus on onshore wind, do the advancements made in the solar and battery sectors mean colocation could play a role in your projects?

If there are projects that incorporate solar or battery technologies, we would consider it. We just view wind as the long pole of the tent because the thing that takes the longest and that's the most site-specific is making sure the wind energy part of the project is viable.  To say it a different way: You can always add solar and battery to a wind energy project site plan, but you really can't bolt on a large scale wind project to an otherwise solar project.

We’re going to do whatever makes the most sense. There are certain onshore wind developments where colocation will make sense, but a hybrid is not the only way for onshore wind to make sense.  We feel there's a strong commercial viability for onshore wind for onshore wind’s sake.

You’re a big believer in looking at potential projects from the perspective of capacity value, rather than capacity factor. Can you explain that outlook?

So if we think about the goal of the renewable energy industry as an electricity provider, we're trying to evolve the generation sources on the grid. We're trying to decrease the percent that's coming from carbon resources, right? That's the goal. So when we think about our piece of solving that, wind is a differentiating element when we think about the other carbon-free sources of electricity. When we think about wind in that regard, it's about how wind can fill in hours and be helpful when those entities within the supply chain of electricity have to think about grid reliability. Utilities have to think about capacity and load service, so that's when I think about capacity value, not just capacity factor.

For example, when we think about one particular market like California, it is getting fairly saturated with solar-only generation -- not even getting into the distributed side, but just talking about utility scale. Regardless of the capacity factor or how good a solar resource is and how efficient you can be about converting that solar energy to electricity, it's just more of the same. That's why we're seeing battery storage being used as a tool in California to shift when that solar generation occurs into later hours.

Now, if we think about wind and only look at it through the lens of capacity factor, we may look at some locations and not view them as viable for wind because we ask questions like: How good is the capacity factor? How many megawatt hours am I going to get in a year?

The truth is, when we think in the context of how we can diversify and increase the penetration of carbon-free electricity, we should be asking questions like: When is the wind? Is it complimentary to when the solar resource happens? The more complimentary, the more value. The more complimentary, the less storage we need because we're going to have generation at the peak of solar and we'll have a different shape of generation at the peak of wind. The key is to look at the time-of-day element and how that might increase capacity value.

So that's an example of how, if we think in the context of capacity value, as opposed to purely capacity factor, some areas of our country that have otherwise been deemed not commercially viable for wind based on total generation might become viable when looked at through the capacity value lens.

What kind of opportunity does the closure of coal plants in various areas represent for the growth of wind resources?

In decades past, you had big central station power plants that were generally far from load. Then you had big transmission networks that were used to get that far-from-load generation to where it was needed. But as time goes by, coal is becoming economically and environmentally less favorable. So now we have infrastructure that's been around a while and therefore depreciated in value. It’s no longer needed for its originally designed purpose, but it’s there. It should be leveraged into the grid of the future.

That’s where we see opportunity for remote wind developments that are otherwise transmission limited to find access to those markets when those coal plants are retired. We very much see that as a siting opportunity to leverage existing infrastructure. That should always be the first question: What do we already have that we can work with? It brings that whole reuse-recycle mindset of sustainability to the reutilization of that existing transmission network to bring wind power from remote areas to where it is needed.

I know you and the team at Triple Oak are focusing on onshore wind, but you mentioned the role battery technology can play in the renewable energy equation. Where do you see that technology heading?

It's very exciting. I think the wind industry really grew up in the 2000s. The solar industry grew up in the 2010s and the battery storage industry is going to grow up in the 2020s. It's really exciting because storage is the next level that intermittent or variable generation sources that rely on nature, like wind and solar, can use to take our mission to the next level. I don't see batteries as an either/or with wind. It's a complimentary technology that helps balance the system, shape the resource, match generation and load and solve that overall challenge of decarbonizing the grid.

Given everything you’ve shared, what does the team at Triple Oak bring to the equation?

We're bringing experience and we're bringing a lot of knowledge of what works, what hasn't worked before and why. So we're just trying to bring all that forward.

We’re not intending to have “bragawatts.” Some of my peers in the industry will appreciate that term. We’re not intending to build up a program of bragawatts. These are going to be real megawatts and real projects. We are going to be focused, efficient, quality deliverers of good projects. We know the role that we can play in the industry and the value chain.

We aim to have a lot of partners along the way with a lot of repeat business. The best way to prove your sustainability as a business is if you can repeat this with the same folks. That's a benchmark I'll definitely use for our business to ensure that we're doing things the right way.