We recently had the chance to catch up with one of the pioneers in the regional clean tech cluster, Blue Oak Energy. Blue Oak was founded in Davis in 2007 by Tobin Booth to provide some specialized and integrated engineering and project management to developers of large-scale solar installations. It grew rapidly to about 60 employees with over $15 million in revenue. It had a cumulative portfolio of over 2400 MW in projects, including the landmark 2 MW system at Google’s headquarters. It was then acquired by nationwide turnkey solar developer Coronal Energy in stages between 2015 and 2017. The idea behind the deal was that Blue Oak would become the captive engineering team for Coronal, and would phase out of working for unrelated third parties.
Tobin moved on to become CEO of Stokes Vannoy in Seattle, a solar energy developer for commercial and industrial customers. Long-time Blue Oak veteran Danny Lee, a Ph. D. in Mechanical Engineering, took the helm of Blue Oak as the new subsidiary of Coronal.
As a part of Coronal, Blue Oak became less visible locally. It pulled back on sales and marketing, getting all the work it could handle from Coronal. Then the world changed. With tariffs on imported solar panels and a phase-down in the Investment Tax Credit for solar beginning in 2020, fewer Coronal projects were initiated. In December 2018, Coronal asked Lee to reignite Blue Oak’s work for third parties in order to support the talented team Blue Oak had assembled.
Blue Oak provides a fairly unique service in the industry, having comprehensive experience in dealing with projects from start to finish. The team’s experience in project and construction management gives it lots of insight to inform the whole design and project concept stages to result in an installation completed on-time and within budget. Blue Oak’s services are highly prized and they are getting plenty of work.
Danny now has a team of 26 working with him and is looking beyond solar to apply their skills to projects. Business is picking up again. They have about 500 MW of projects in the pipeline. They are looking at storage projects, both as a component of solar installations and on a standalone basis. And they are looking at applying the same skills to the development of other renewable projects. One of Blue Oak’s key assets is trust. Customers trust them to do a good job, and that trust can transfer to projects beyond solar.
Danny indicated that Blue Oak is now cash-flow positive and wants to pace its growth to what can be sustained organically. He notes that building a cohesive team takes time and he doesn’t want to rush it. It is also about to make a move to Sacramento to a facility better-suited to its needs and closer to its employee base.
Danny will be presenting the Blue Oak story at our next MeetUp set in Davis for April 25 at the Indigo Hammond and Playle building from 5:30 to 8:30 pm. If you want to hear more, please register for this event. It’s free, but donations are quite welcome to keep us going.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gary Simon is the Chair of CleanStarts Board. A seasoned energy executive and entrepreneur with 45 years of experience in business, government, and non-profits.