Tobin Booth, Blue Oak Energy

Engineering the Transition to Solar Energy

After graduating from Colorado State University in 1997 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Tobin Booth spent 6 formative years working for solar companies that specialized in power electronics, module manufacturing and system installation. In the process, he observed that the commercial solar industry suffered from a lack of coordination between technology providers and system designers and installers. This disconnect made it more difficult to implement even relatively small PV projects, and Booth saw it as an impediment to progress—one that needed to be eliminated to meet the growing demand for increasingly complex and larger systems. With this in mind, in 2003 Booth founded Blue Oak Energy, a full-service PV system design, engineering and construction firm. In the decade since, the company has provided a range of professional services to the public, commercial and utility market sectors, with a cumulative project portfolio approaching 500 MW.

SP: Congratulations on Blue Oak Energy’s 10-year anniversary. Given the size of the North American solar industry today—not to mention the size of the projects it is deploying—there is clearly a niche for a specialty technical firm like yours. But in 2003, the annual grid-connected PV capacity in the US was less than 50 MW, which is probably smaller than some individual projects that your company is working on now. Can you take us back to the early years? What did a typical project look like? And how was the company structured?
TB: In late 2002, I secured a contract position to provide engineering and electrical contracting activities across a module manufacturer’s US solar projects. My wife and I relocated to California with $2,000 and a moving truck for that opportunity in early 2003. I was so fortunate to be surrounded by the most experienced technical professionals in the solar business prior to, and during, that 2003 contract-engineering role. Though I did not know it at the time, this was the launching pad for Blue Oak Energy. The company was originally based out of my apartment living room and various client offices. Over time, I began performing engineering and electrical installation work for a diverse group of inverter manufacturers and system integrators. My goal was simple: work in solar and pay the bills. There was, of course, no company structure then. In 2005, one of my clients secured what was then a very large ground-mounted solar project—600 kW. That installation was a turning point for me because I learned how to price engineering services on a per-project basis and started hiring engineers. I found great satisfaction in engineering PV systems, and this 600 kW solar job helped me recognize some of our strengths and weaknesses as an industry. After the successful completion of this initial project, my nascent company secured a landmark project: Google’s 2 MW system at its Mountain View headquarters.

SP: What does a typical project look like today? And how many people does Blue Oak Energy currently employ?
TB: Today, the Blue Oak Energy team is 50 people strong. We have a living, breathing company culture with a seasoned management team and internally developed tools and standard practices. We outgrew the living room and now occupy a stand-alone building in a business park near the University of California, Davis, campus. Many of our engineering projects today are 1 MW to 20 MW utility-scale installations for which we provide full-service engineering. Our multidisciplinary technical team of electrical, civil, structural and mechanical engineers located under one roof helps bring continuity to a job and streamlines the engineering cycle. While the large projects are exciting, we also find great satisfaction in distributed-generation PV systems. We frequently have many smaller 50 kW to 2 MW solar projects ongoing at any time. When we kick off the engineering on a new project, we typically assign it to an engineering project manager (EPM) who operates a technical team of two to four people. The EPM can manage most of the work, but some projects are so large that we often have more than a dozen technical people working through the details to deliver permit and construction plans. In 2007, we decided we would like to not only design but also build solar projects because many of us have electrical contracting and journeyman electrician backgrounds. We wanted to help a few customers find the ideal solutions for their challenging solar projects and also grow our scope. Our first client for full design build was Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), the outdoor retail company. We built eight rooftop PV systems totaling 700 kW for REI in 2008. Since then, we have completed construction on about 10 MW of solar projects.

SP: How has the company managed that growth? Has it ever been difficult to match staffing levels to the demand for your services?
TB: This is a very difficult industry in which to build a business. The project cycle has become predictable enough that you know you’re going to lose money in Q1 every year and be very busy in the remaining quarters as customers move to capture tax-based incentives with their projects. In addition to this work cycle, matching staff levels to customer needs remains an ongoing challenge. Fortunately, we have outstanding management and leadership teams. We have managed our growth by making all the key decisions together, working closely together and listening to each other. One of the best decisions I made was to build an advisory board made up of highly experienced business contacts. Their independent judgment and guidance have helped us pull together a mature management structure early in our growth.

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