Zoe Berkery of CleanCapital | From White House Intern to COO of CleanCapital, the IRA, & Remote Work
What was it like to transition from a White House intern to eventually become the COO of CleanCapital, which now manages 250 MW of clean energy assets in over 20 states & 150+ sites? In this Green Light episode, Catherine spoke with Zoe Berkery about this, CleanCapital’s recent $500 million funding round led by Canada’s ManuLife & why more senior women leaders are needed to accelerate the energy transition. Zoe also spoke about CleanCapital’s acquisition of BQ Energy, adders in the Inflation Reduction Act for brownfield projects, remote versus hybrid work, & CleanCapital’s Allyship Committee & DEIJ-focused internship program. This episode was recorded at the SunCast PowerUp Live stage at RE+, as you may hear some conference attendees in the background.
Catherine: Hi, I’m Catherine McLean, Founder and CEO of Dylan Green. And today I have with me Zoe Berkery, COO at CleanCapital. Thank you for joining me.
Zoe: Thank you so much for having me, Catherine.
Catherine: So for those people who don’t know, can you please introduce yourself and what you do?
Zoe: Absolutely. So I am currently the Chief Operating Officer at CleanCapital. So what does that mean? Me and my team oversee all things asset management or our growing fleet of commercial scale solar and battery storage projects across the country. We currently have about 250 megawatts across 20 states and 153 sites. It’s a lot to manage, national scale is no joke. And throughout the history of CleanCapital, we’ve put over a billion dollars to work in this space. So our portfolio has ranged as large as 500 megawatts right now it’s 250. And we’re continuing to grow and great, it’s wonderful.
Catherine: And I knew that you started out as a White House intern. And then you worked your way up to your current role. Do you think having more senior women leaders in clean tech could help advance the energy transition as well as the DEIJ initiative?
Zoe: Of course, I mean, climate change is not just a white male problem in order and in order to effectively solve any problem, you need those affected by it to be part of the conversation. I think barring that you’re not going to find effective solutions to what we’re at the end of the day, all here because of climate change and when wanting to support the clean energy transition. So I think increasing the diversity of perspectives, voices, faces, in the industry is mission critical. Without that, I think we will fall flat. And countless studies show that women in particular are actually savvier investors. So the data shows that it’s a good thing.
Catherine: We’re allowed to open a bank account without a male, right?
Zoe: So we actually need more women and investment committees and are driving where we’re putting our capital into it in order to continue to accelerate this transition. And I think I’ve been very lucky in my career to have had a lot of really strong female mentors that have really helped champion me to get to where I am right now. And I hope to be doing the same to others. And in pushing the DEI conversation as much as possible.
Catherine: Yep. You’ve grown through mergers and acquisition Associate at CleanCapital to running the place. So Chief Operating Officer. What was your progression like and do you have any advice for those that want to make similar strides?
Zoe: Absolutely. So I can’t stress this enough that I think it is so important to do a lot of learning by doing in your career, I was given an excellent opportunity in the earliest founding days of CleanCapital, where we were really just getting our feet under ourselves. There was so much work to be done, and we all wore a million hats every single day. I was definitely the most junior person at that point. I didn’t say no to a single project or ask that was thrown my way. I would have no ego and I just dove in and I had prior to that then on the policy side of things, so finance and investing and capital markets was brand new to me, right at the very start of my time in this space, so I use a lot of grunt work putting in the hours. Again, not saying no, and Googling every little thing. I didn’t understand and not being afraid to ask questions along the way.
Catherine: It’s one of the number one things I get asked when I’m taking briefs for job descriptions, and they want somebody that has that intellectual curiosity completely. I’m like somebody that Google stuff like, exactly.
Zoe: That’s the number one thing I’m looking for in interviews. I asked how people deal with a challenge that they come across and what are the steps that they take? And if their first response is I asked someone and they haven’t even delved into the problem or looked at potential solutions, even if it’s wrong. I know that that’s maybe not not someone who’s going to be the right fit. We always say we want to hire athletes at CleanCapital, people that are able to potentially play a number of different roles and really just get their hands dirty in any problem that we might have. And so, kind of back to starting as an M&A associate as the team grew as our assets. Under management grew, we really needed someone full time overseeing all things performance and asset management and reporting out to investors, finding ways to harvest more value post operations, we just knew that there was there was more that could be done in terms of contract extensions, property tax optimization, so that really spoke to me a lot of people think I’m crazy, but I like how tangible asset management can be. Seeing those kilowatt hours turn into real real dollars just attracts more investment. So it’s been a cool, cool ride. building out the team.
Catherine: What are some of the projects that you’re most proud of working at CleanCapital?
Zoe: So I actually alluded to one where we’ve done a major push in terms of extending existing contracts and some of our customers so over the last couple years, we’ve extended the 18 megawatts of capacity, but what that really resulted in was an additional $40 million in revenue that had not been previously underwritten, or in our financial models. That can be you know, somewhat lower, lower dollar value, but when it’s when it’s hadn’t been in the initial investment thesis. It’s an incredible win for the company and for solar in general. I would also add just actually building out the asset management team, we had previously outsourced a lot of these services. And now we have we do the full suite of asset management services in house from technical management and oversight, finance and accounting, and then optimization, kind of looking at those additional opportunities in this phase, on kind of not just in the asset management operations phase, I would say championing or being being a champion of CleanCapitals allyship committee and our internship program that looks to offer interns or internship opportunities to individuals that don’t have any experience in the space. Okay, potentially come from a DEI community, and we’re really challenging ourselves to expand our network. Because if we’re only hiring people, we’re not solving the problem.
Catherine: So it’s definitely or maybe like more people from like an LMI background.
Zeo: Yeah, exactly.
Catherine: So CleanCapital recently closed a $500 million round led by Canada’s Manulife as well as surpassed a billion human capital deployed solar storage project. Can you share a bit more about these milestones and why you think they’re significant?
Zoe: Yeah. So we’re really proud of the relationship we built with John Hancock Manulife. They were our first investor back in 2016, on our first eight megawatt portfolio across 15 sites, they came in as a debt capital provider. And so being able to revisit that relationship in a much bigger scale equity partnership that we closed initially in April 2021. And just recently, upsized, three months ago, I think really speaks to them trusting our investment thesis and how we see the world ready, how we want to really push the clean energy transition and grow in the space and they’ve been absolutely amazing to work with and have made my life overseeing asset management really, really much better. They’re just kind of nice, having that one point of contact and working with them so closely, and then the $1 billion milestone is still so surreal, because underneath that quick dollar value that you can use spit out there, it’s hundreds of 1000s of kWh generated, it’s hundreds of 1000s, potentially, maybe hundreds of truck rolls maintaining the sites. There’s just so much work that went into that. It’s just a very cool milestone.
Catherine: I would get confused on the spreadsheet. Have I put enough zeroes in? I am not a finance guru, that would throw me. So what are some opportunities and challenges you see with IRA?
Zoe: That’s it. It’s top of mind, I think on every single team call we have and I think it will be for a long time and that’s a good problem to have. Prior to the IRA being announced CleanCapital acquired BQ Energy Development last spring, they are a solar developer focused on and battery storage focused on developing in brownfield sites. So that was with the IRA attars on investments in development on in you know, brownfield and less, I guess less desirable land. Where we were very excited about that. And it’s a great space to be in regardless but with the IRA matters, that’s only made us more excited. And then from the asset management perspective, I think exploring how prevailing wage and the apprenticeship requirements will play out in terms of our assumptions, and you know, how the contracting changes and how the reporting will be required is still something. We’re wrapping our heads around, around, but again, good problems to have. And then another item that’s top of mind is repowering. And how the IRA incentives may actually encourage folks to jump into a repowering scenario maybe earlier than they would have or at all in terms of getting those recapturing the ITC, if you were to replace about 80% or more of this of an existing site.
Catherine: Okay. So my next question was going to be a bit about some of the investment trends. So I know you’ve just touched on it a bit. Can you talk a little bit more about you guys come out with a market predictions article? Yeah, some insights there.
Zoe: Sure. Yeah. Each of the executives kind of gave their insights into where they saw everything going. But I think in general CleanCapital takes a lot of pride in building long term, performing assets. We’re not looking to flip them the next year. So we we have we ensure that our asset management team, a lot of my championing of this are involved in the earliest days of the investment right thinking through kind of how we’re going to do this on the technical due diligence, side, property tax insurance, I want to make sure we’re thinking about that all on the front end or don’t have surprises later. Hopefully not post COD. I mean, things always happen. But I think that that has only grown the trust from our investors, and it’s made us a stronger investor in the space as a result, you’re very thoughtful.
Catherine: Yeah, exactly. And you can try a woman, maybe they’re right. So speaking of trends, what are your thoughts on a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, remote versus hybrid?
Zoe: So it’s something that we are constantly grappling with, at CleanCapital. We’ve always been a very remote friendly company, even prior to COVID. And then of course just only grew during COVID But I am a firm believer that to have a strong culture within your company, which we take a lot of pride in. And I’ve really tried to foster over the years, and as we grow, that gets harder to do when you’re fully remote. So I think in order to foster a very healthy and strong culture, as well as for junior folks to learn most effectively you need that face time. So we are debating maybe a two day a week in office, sort of a soft requirement for those that live around the New York area where we have headquarters but we do have satellite offices in Buffalo and San Diego and North Carolina. So trying to get folks you know, together as much as possible.
Catherine: Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t know that you had a presence in San Diego.
Zoe: We do, even though it’s small, two folks. Yeah, I have a little co working space and they love it because they wanted that, that connectivity.
Catherine: Well, that’s it, I mean, you only just need to to co work right. So I just want to thank you for your time and sharing this with me.
Zoe: Likewise, I really appreciate it.
Catherine: And I just just big shout out to CleanCapital because I’ve known you guys for so many years and like the amount of candidates I speak to her like I want to work for a company like CleanCapital. Just honestly to get to that point. It’s just doesn’t go unnoticed in the industry.
Zoe: That is music to my ears. And I hope we are doing everything we can to maintain them. So I really appreciate that and it’s been excellent working with you over the years.
Catherine: Awe, thank you.
Zoe: It is amazing. Thank you so much.