Interview with Kenneth Labeja, Triple Oak Power

Interview with Kenneth Labeja, Triple Oak Power | Onshore Wind Development & Building an Inclusive Team

What was it like to found an onshore wind development firm & develop a pipeline of 8 GW in a few short years? Catherine spoke with Kenneth Labeja, CFO & Co-Founder at Triple Oak Power, about this, Triple Oak’s recent acquisition by private equity fund Energy Capital Partners & onshore wind development challenges. Labeja also shared tips for building a diverse & inclusive workforce, as well as about his support of the Energy Scholars Mentorship Program, which is sponsored by LevelTen Energy, Energy GPS, Microsoft, University of Washington Clean Energy Institute & Vestas Steelhead Americas. Thank you again to ACP for hosting this episode recording at the Cleanpower PowerCasts stage.


Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Labeja, the CFO and co founder of Triple Oak Power. Thanks for joining me.

Labeja: Thanks. Great to be here.

Catherine: All the way from Portland, indeed, it’s not so far from here, actually. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your current role?

Labeja: Sure. So full name’s Kenneth Labeja, but I use the name Labeja for traditional reasons. I’m the co founder and CFO of Triple Oak Power, which is a wind plus developer headquartered in Portland, Oregon, with a pipeline of projects across the country.

Catherine: Now you’re originally from Uganda, and came to the US for your MBA, which you received from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since then, you’ve worked for KPMG, Credit Suisse, AVANGRID, NRG and now Triple Oak. Did you always know you wanted to work in renewables, and how did you eventually make the jump?

Labeja: So I’ll answer that question in two parts, just acknowledging that I’ve worked at basically three startups. One was KPMG Uganda, which was essentially a KPMG startup in Uganda, and then at NRG Solar, which was a splatter but of energy, and then at Triple Oak Power. And so I’ve been at startups for my entire career, and it’s been a lot of fun. With respect to renewables, I’ve always been inspired to turn renewable energy, renewables into energy, specifically starting with sunlight, which is why I started with NRG Solar and then, most recently, with wind power. But I’ve always had a passion for sustainability and for turning renewables into energy.

Catherine: How did you meet your co founder, Jesse, and why did you decide to found Triple Oak Power together?

Labeja: So Jesse, funny enough, went to the same university that I went to. We didn’t meet in college. We met at AVANGRID renewables, where the prize speaker was it works. Jesse was my boss at AVANGRID, and in 2020 we both had the same vision, which was to take all our collective experience and form a company? As I mentioned, in my answer to the prior question. I’m very passionate about startups and the cultures, culture that has and then we both share very common beliefs on transparency, diversity and the use of experienced people to build up teams. And using those three core principles, we formed Triple Oak Power in 2020 and had some success.

Catherine: Triple Oak now manages a pipeline of over eight gigawatts of renewable development projects. What are you most excited about working at Triple Oak this year?

Labeja: So out of that pipeline of eight gigawatts of projects, we’ve got four advanced projects. One’s in Colorado, one’s in Arkansas, one’s in Arizona, and then we have some advanced projects in Montana. We’re very excited to execute a PPA for one of those projects and move it into the early pre construction phase. That’s the goal for this year, and something we’re very excited about.

Catherine: What are the top challenges that you’re facing in onshore wind projects, and how are you overcoming them?

Labeja: So the biggest challenge we face as an industry, I think, as I’m sure has been mentioned ad-nauseam at this conference, is the lack of transmission. Our strategy as an onshore wind developer is to site our projects near retiring coal farms. So a number of our projects are in proximity to retiring coal farms. Specifically, we have an Arizona project that is close to a retiring cold farm. A second issue we face as a developer, which is kind of a good issue, is we face there’s a land grab going on in the industry. So we now, as an onshore wind developer, have other developers competing for the same land that we’re trying to get. So we go up against competition a third, a third thing we compete for is employees. And as we all know, like the employees are the engine that that builds the project, that develops the projects and gets them from an idea to being something that’s constructible, and we try and we overcome that with our with our culture, which is really built around, again, transparency, meaning we’re very transparent, on decision making with our employees, and then again, on diversity of thinking, diversity of of people on the team, and then on blending experienced people with with Junior folks who want to be in the industry.

Catherine: Triple Oak was recently acquired by Energy Capital Partners. Can you share a bit more about this and how it’s impacted your work, if at all?

Labeja: Energy Capital Partners allows us to be a win plus platform and is a believer in our view, in terms of contrarian thinking, a lot of our competition is focused just in solar, as opposed to us with our wind plus strategy. The group at Energy Capital Partners are very much our partners in the way they think and the way they support us. So it’s been, it’s been a really great transition, and we look forward to success with them.

Catherine: So given the success that you’ve experienced in your career, what advice do you have from others with marginalized identities who might be looking to advance their careers in the clean energy industry?

Labeja: So the biggest advice I can give them is to lean into who they are, to identify allies and work with those allies, and then to build a core experience set that’s valuable. So with those three things, I think, any company that looks at the data knows that the decisions we make are so difficult that having people from different communities allows your decision making to be that much better. And just having the same group of people making decisions doesn’t allow you to progress. So I think there’s a great opportunity set out there for people from marginalized communities.

Catherine: You’re a strong advocate of increasing diversity in the industry. You’ve participated in the energy scholars Mentorship Program, which is sponsored by Level 10 Energy, Energy GPS, Microsoft, University of Washington, Clean Energy Institute, Investa, Steelhead Americas. Can you share more about this program and why you think it’s important?

Labeja: So the Energy Scholars Program was formed in 2020 and it had their first cohort of students in 2021. The group that formed it, the person I know really well is Tim Belden from Energy GPS. He’s a big proponent of the program, and the program, frankly, was formed kind of as in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, and looking inward at our industry and the lack of diversity in the industry, the program targets students of color, students from marginalized communities, and hires them in as interns. Hires 12 to 14 interns every year, and looks across the country for these students. So practically speaking, we did the same. We tried to do something similar at Triple Oak Power, tried to hire students and like it was very, very difficult and I know that this program struggled as well, in that first year. My role in the program is specifically to come in and speak to the students, talk about my experiences. And something I like to do is, and if you, if you ever meet me in person, I’m always happy to talk about race and issues that affect all of us, but which most people are uncomfortable talking about, I’ll talk about them. So I do that in the context of the program, and the students really enjoy it. So I kind of going back to the program and how it was formed, and what’s happened with that program is that in that first year, the program struggled to find candidates, and over time, the Program has grown. It’s got sponsorship as has been mentioned from Microsoft. The University of Washington participated. And the way it works is a good grid store, which is a Goldman Sachs company. And the way the program works is these students do a rotation through the different companies. They get mentorship, they get informational interviews, and it essentially positions them for careers in the industry, and a number of them have gone on to other full time employment. So we’re now sitting in 2024. The incoming cohort coming this year had 400 of their applicants, which was amazing, because I reached out to the organizers, hey, I have a candidate for you. Are you interested? And she said, We’re full. They filled up within weeks. So it’s really exciting for me to have seen the program go from an idea struggle to get candidates, to now where it’s really full and like it’s feeding the industry. And I think, like the sky’s the limit, because you’re gonna end up with a great alumni network from that program.

Catherine: It’s such a short period of time though.

Labeja: It has been, and it speaks to how when you nurture something when you nurse your plant and you water the plant, you get this, this amazing growth.

Catherine: Yeah. Oh, I really love that. I’m so glad that we are ending on that. So, thanks for speaking to me today.

Labeja: You’re very welcome. Thank you.