Renewable IPP is a young EPC company in the far northwest that just energized a milestone project — an 8.5-MW solar array in Houston, Alaska.
In this episode of the Contractor’s Corner podcast, I talk to Jenn Miller, CEO, and Chris Colbert, CFO, about the things that make utility-scale solar in Alaska different from the Lower 48 — along with some things that are surprisingly the same.
An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on the module innovations making large-scale solar in Alaska even more beneficial.
Find the Contractor’s Corner podcast on your favorite podcast app. Thank you to this month’s sponsor, Scanifly.
Scanifly is the only drone-based solar software focused on automating the survey and design stages of your solar project’s life.
Solar Power World: How did both of you get into solar power?
Jenn Miller: Renewable IPP got started because Chris and I and our other business partner Sam, in 2017, put rooftop solar on our houses. We did it as a DIY project because we wanted to make sure that the projects were economic. So we started with five panels on our house, and I guess we got a little bit cocky, as we said, “We should scale this to much larger-scale projects.”
We all come from an oil-and-gas background and engineering backgrounds, and have done project management. It’s a lot easier to manage one or a small number of large projects than to do a bunch of small ones, and we wanted to have a bigger impact. So we said, given our resources, “How do we have the biggest impact?” We’re really passionate about renewable energy, but also cost-competitive energy that helps suppress energy prices for our state. So that led to this utility-scale solar business model — the first in the state back when we started in 2017.
Do you have to do a lot of convincing of utilities and people that this can work in Alaska?
Chris Colbert: Actually, the utilities have been great, because it’s on us to make the economic case to say, “Hey, we can generate electricity and beat your cost of generation so we can deliver value to the utility and their members,” and really showing them that case is what got them excited to work on the project. We’re very collaborative with the utilities.
The biggest challenge, especially with the Houston project, was where we had to go out and find investors and financing and all of that for the project. That is a bigger lift, convincing institutional investors that this works and it’s worth putting the effort into getting through the due diligence process and getting into a project.
Miller: And that’s where we connected with CleanCapital, which financed and owns the Houston solar farm project. That is the first large institutional investment in solar here in the state.
What’s unique about installing solar in Alaska?
Colbert: There’s a lot in terms of construction that really is probably identical to what people do in the lower 48, and of course, we just design to site-specific wind and snow loads. And then for frost heave, it all depends on the ground you have, so that’s a custom design in embedment depths.
I would say the most unique thing when you’re trying to start a solar construction company up here from scratch, it really is workforce-related. We don’t have this seasoned renewable workforce just waiting to be hired and just show up and build the project. Our strategy has been to hire all local. So for the Houston solar farm project, all the employees were from the Mat-Su (Matanuska-Susitna) Borough. Probably 80% of them were from right in the community where the projects are located, and then it’s really on-the-job training. We get them any kind of online OSHA training and all that as needed. And then if there’s any specific solar installer training that specific employees need, we’ll do that.
We’re at the very forefront of the utility-scale solar industry in Alaska. So it’s a little different when you bring in a whole new workforce, and you’ve got to get them all up to speed and build it. But I can say, solar kind of lends itself to that a little better, because you learn how to put in one row, and now you do all the rows — it’s repetitive, so it’s not quite so daunting, but it does add a little interesting complexity to the whole thing.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your solar career so far?
Colbert: For me, it’s still related to the construction crew. When you’re out there, you’re working with the crew managing construction and you know that you’ve created all of these jobs. We’re helping the local community by putting more people to work. That’s probably one of the most satisfying things to me.
Miller: I would agree. We’re a very hands-on company and so we spend a lot of time in the field during construction. Chris and I were out there almost every day this build season. So it is very rewarding to work side-by-side with our employees. And that’s another thing that is part of our company culture is working to understand what’s the most efficient install methodology? But working ourselves with the employees and just getting to know everybody and have that joint accomplishment that we were all part of the build and we all did this together.
I think sometimes, going after the mission of [fighting] climate change is so far out and you can’t feel any immediate effects. But I agree with Chris 100% — creating those jobs, creating a positive work environment where people feel like they’re growing new skills, they’re in a positive workplace — that is absolutely the most immediate reward.