(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I’m used to getting emails touting some startup’s plan for world domination. So when I got one from the CEO of a wind-energy firm with the subject line “Heading for the cliff,” I actually read it. It helped I had spoken already with Jereme Kent, who founded and runs One Energy Enterprises LLC, about a year ago. But it was more what you might call the radical candor of the message that got my attention.
Based in Findlay, Ohio, One Energy designs, installs and runs distributed wind turbines and associated high-voltage site networks at industrial facilities. Distributed wind power — as opposed to big wind farms of multiple turbines — accounts for only about 1% of the overall wind fleet but capacity rose almost four-fold in the 10 years through 2018(1). One Energy has been around for a decade and installed roughly 40 megawatts of capacity so far, with appliance-maker Whirlpool Corp. and cement giant LafargeHolcim Ltd. among its clients. It touts the benefits of, among other things, reliability, hedged power costs, optimized energy use and, of course, green bragging rights.
With turbines running at $3 million apiece, and maybe 1-3 per site, these aren’t utility-scale projects, but they are big-ticket items for a startup nonetheless, with contracts paying out over 20 years or more. So liquidity and access to capital mean everything. As Kent put it to me on a recent call: “Look, you have to learn about money and finance because if you’re an engineer who figures out how to cure cancer, but you can’t finance it, cancer’s not cured.”
In 2016, One Energy needed a step-change in funding to fuel its next phase of growth. Having tried (and failed) to securitize projects with wind bonds, the company announced in January 2017 it had closed on an $80 million package of institutional funding, structured as senior and subordinated debt. This seemingly addressed both of One Energy’s broad financing needs, with the majority earmarked for projects and some to run the business too. Rather than financial covenants, it stipulated a certain pace of development in terms of project installations.
The problem with this approach began to dawn on One Energy relatively quickly: namely, lack of flexibility. According to Kent, a delay of several months in the delivery of some turbines put the company in default on its installations covenant. This was waived, but it wasn’t the last time.
In each instance, One Energy had to recalibrate itself to get back on schedule, ultimately creating a “growth at all costs mindset,” as Kent puts it. Growth is essential, of course, but the risk is spiraling costs and strains on operations. While Kent says “we didn’t have kombucha in the fountains,” the growth imperative had a negative impact in other ways. For example, with the emphasis on getting any new projects executed as fast as possible, the company hired preemptively to have people in place ahead of new contracts being signed. This was a change of pace from the prior approach, inevitably raising overhead (and compounding the default). Kent says that while turnover was low at the operating level, all executives hired after 2016 ultimately left. That’s a lot of invested time and money slipping out the door.
One Energy has spent much of the past year or so trying to find new investors to take out the existing debt facility and provide a new source of project financing. Besides the distraction involved, when potential new funding deals fell through — one on closing day — that meant suspending new sales and, ultimately, firing more than half the employees. It’s the definition of a spiral.
The nub of the problem here was One Energy’s reliance on debt, in effect treating the higher-cost subordinated tranche in its original financing round as something approximating equity. However, while equity tends to be patient about stuff like project delays, debt is debt — and default is toxic. Ideally, the company would have raised a big slug of project finance to feed the project pipeline and then hustled up an equity buffer to fund the business and absorb the inevitable setbacks.
Rob Day is a partner at Spring Lane Capital, a Boston-based fund that invests project equity and corporate funding in startups operating distributed assets in sustainability-linked industries like energy and water. “Rarely have I seen in clean-tech that companies fail because they picked a bad market or the tech didn’t work out. What hits these companies more often than not is financing,” he says. A particular problem, according to Day, is a relative dearth of funding options between venture capital and traditional project finance targeting large-scale projects.
Apart from describing the gap Spring Lane aims to fill, that also pretty much sums up One Energy’s struggle to secure a capital structure that fits its in between model: small-but-big-ticket and poised between initial projects and accelerated expansion. Competition between centralized and distributed resources is a defining characteristic of today’s energy market, with the narrative often framed in terms of this or that technology. One Energy’s experience is a reminder that new entrants need as much innovation on the money front as they do in the workshop.
(1) Source: Department of Energy's "2018 Distributed Wind Market Report".
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Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.
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