The past decade has shed a lot of light on solar power, and needless to say, Matt West is enjoying the time in the sun.
West is the chief construction officer for Onyx Renewable Partners LP, a New York-based renewable-energy development company that pursues both development opportunities and partnerships with other companies focused on solar and wind power. A couple of years ago, West was one of just four people in the company. Now, Onyx employs more than 50.
That growth isn’t just a reflection of strong leadership, either. It’s an indication of the power that renewable energy is gaining in the marketplace. As West explains, even as recent as five years ago, the financial market for building solar power wasn’t fully bought into yet. He saw scope gaps, cost overruns, schedule delays, and other complications deterring investors from putting their money in the fledgling markets. Some construction industry know-how, however, has turned things around.
Building a Bulletproof Plan
Matt West of Onyx Renewable Partners LP says he prides himself on being able to build “a bulletproof plan” when it comes to a new solar or wind development, but given that Onyx works in 15 states across the country (and Canada), a variety of weather patterns can threaten to put holes in that plan.
“Weather is the most unexpected factor in the construction industry in general,” West says. “Snow, wind, rain—even heat in certain regions—can get in the way of operations. We just try to account from a planning perspective the best we can by setting up a contingency plan, studying the weather in certain regions, and making sure we set up our contractors accordingly on a contractual basis.”
In the early days of solar development, weather factors weren’t taken into account, which West says is one reason why more investors weren’t interested until recently. Only thanks to proper diligence and engineering has investing in renewable energy become more attractive.
“The finance world doesn’t want you to tell them later, ‘We had four days of snow and lost production,’” West says. “You account for that when you build the model. Whether snow in the northeast is going to curb activity for a few days, or heat in California, we do our best to build it into the contract.”
“Writing great scopes, understanding your project, building a tight and manageable budget, and basically following schedule—when you’re able to do that, people see it as a reliable energy-producing asset,” West says. “When the investor realizes a proven construction operation is behind the project, it starts to get credible. I think now you see that.”
That know-how has been ingrained in West since his earliest days in construction. His first years in the industry were spent with his family-owned company Spangler Construction in Delaware, where he realized how hard work pays off. He says the lessons he learned on jobs in his time with the company stick with him to this day.
“I worked in an environment focused on quality, craftsmanship, and attention to detail that was built off a lot of integrity,” he says. “It also shaped how I treat contractors and channel partners. In the building trades, you’re responsible for so many different partners, and you’re relying heavily on their performance. They can choose where they would like to work. I saw firsthand, early in my construction career, that if you treat your contractors respectfully, pay them honestly, pay them on time, and have your responsibilities organized, then it adds up to total team success.”
A budding interest in renewable energy spurred West to become LEED certified—entirely on his own—and he worked on his first solar project in 2008. He’s still involved in large-scale solar projects now, including a major collaboration with a private military-housing company that installs solar panels on thousands of rooftops throughout the country.
One of the primary goals at Onyx is to not only produce more efficient energy, but also make it cost efficient. West explains that the company’s engineers are constantly looking at ways to optimize designs, and its construction team continues to seek the most efficient building practices. As chief construction officer, West takes a more hands-off approach to project details, but a hands-on approach to leading these teams.
“I now study people’s strengths and weaknesses and put those people in positions to be successful for us,” West says. “I definitely hold people accountable, because I’ve had many positive and negative experiences in the industry. Those experiences now provide a great level of confidence to lead. People that are following want to see that confidence.”
That confidence isn’t just reflected in West’s team, either. He says Onyx is forming an increasing number of partnerships on both the solar- and wind-development fronts, opening up further opportunities for the company as a premier renewable-energy investment firm. As the industry pays more attention to not only these energy sources, but also the competitive electricity costs that come with them, Onyx is poised for further growth.
For West, the success is that much sweeter because it connects his two passions: building and renewable energy. “I get the best of both worlds,” he says. “It feels great to be doing this in a way that’s contributing to a healthier environment. I really believe what we’re doing is on the cutting edge of an energy revolution and being mindful about climate change. It’s rewarding to have worked my way up literally from the trenches to be an executive and experience all of this.”