Recharge4040: Matt Hendrickson

It was 2003, and it began with a late-night conversation in a bar.

Despite holding a recently minted magna cum laude degree in electrical engineering, Matt Hendrickson was managing a restaurant in Houston when he first learned of the wind industry through a chance conversation with a man having a drink.

That man was John Calaway, chief executive of Superior Renewables (which after several twists and turns has become what is now Pattern Energy). Having grown up in Houston, Hendrickson had been applying for jobs in the fossil-fuel sector. “Renewables were not at all on my radar,” he tells Recharge.

Calaway did not offer Hendrickson a job, but his bullishness on wind was infectious. Hendrickson went home that night and started researching. He was soon hired by Zilkha Renewable Energy, a family-owned firm that had been buying up prime real estate for wind development, and, given its small size, wanted a young engineer willing to wear multiple hats.

Zilkha was moving into project development, and in order to find investors for its projects it needed to undertake wind-resource assessments. Despite having no training in the field, the task fell to Hendrickson. He quickly learned the ropes in an area that was still “a raw science” at the time, with “not a lot of experts”.

It is true even today, but was especially so a decade ago, that there can be huge pressure on the consultants doing such assessments to come up with figures that make projects appear economically attractive. But Zilkha’s long-sighted chief executive insisted on ironclad integrity in Hendrickson’s assessments — a demand that has come to define his career, and ultimately affect the entire wind business.

In 2005, Goldman Sachs acquired Zilkha (and renamed it Horizon Wind) and Hendrickson’s career went into overdrive. Goldman Sachs poured billions of dollars into Horizon’s projects before selling the company in 2007 to Portugal’s EDP.

In the span of a few years, Hendrickson went from heading a group of one to being director of energy assessment for a company with 2GW of installed capacity and a 200-project pipeline. His responsibility was huge, incorporating resource assessments, meteorological-tower campaigns, project layout and designs, uncertainty analyses, research and assessments of operating wind projects.

Yet his biggest contribution to the industry was still to come.

Hendrickson, who has a reputation as a thought leader in wind-resource assessments, has been at the centre of a push to update the way these assessments are carried out — making them more conservative and accurate.

Methodology adjustments that Hendrickson fought for were central to an industry wide effort of calibration. This calibration has led to billions of dollars of impairment being swallowed across the wind industry - never an easy sell - but it has put it on much firmer footing.

Two years ago, he left EDP Renewables North America for Seattle-based 3TIER, a much smaller company whose lack of ties to the old ways of doing things has allowed Hendrickson, now 39, to fulfil his “passion” of developing a “next-generation approach” to managing risks and assessments for the wind business.

Finland’s Vaisala acquired 3TIER last year, and is quickly becoming a key player in the global wind sector, which Hendrickson helped to modernise.

“In some parallel timeline I’m sure I would have had a fulfilling career developing gas fields somewhere,” he says. “But I was lucky enough to have been bitten by the renewables bug.”

Matt Hendrickson is vice-president of energy assessment at Vaisala

Recharge4040 brings together the world's young new-energy pioneers from the worlds of renewables technology, finance, development, social engagement and advocacy. The list includes people from major wind and solar companies, banks, investment funds, crowd-funding platforms and governments. For the full list of nominees and news about the initiative, visit the 4040 website