TC Powers Up: Local energy companies continue to innovate

From using the sun to making buildings more energy-efficient, several area companies are finding ways to decrease their clients’ utility bills and help the planet at the same time. Here we profile some local firms, showcasing what they are doing, why they are doing it and how it is helping everyone’s bottom line … not to mention the environment.

Leelanau Solar LLC, Northport

What it does: Owner Tom Gallery is an engineer by trade who spent 35 years in the automotive industry. He worked in the alternative energy business on the wind side from 2005 to 2008. With the increasing viability and popularity of solar arrays, he switched over to using the sun’s energy. Now Leelanau Solar installs solar photovoltaic (PV) systems for homes, farms, businesses and schools in the Grand Traverse area. The company has installed more than 65 systems in the region.

How it is innovating: Gallery says he is constantly looking for the best value, and the pace of development in the industry keeps him on the lookout for innovation. He touts the company’s design and installations processes. “Solar can’t compete with … huge wind farms, but pull down to residential or small businesses, and that make our systems the most cost-effective in the region.”

Latest projects: Recent businesses that installed PV systems include Insight Optometry in Suttons Bay; Trillium Power in Northport, which installed a 42-kW system under Cherryland’s Buy-All/Sell-All program; and several area farms. Private homes include Larry Mawby and Lois Bahle in Suttons Bay, along with seven other homes in the region this year.

How it helps local businesses save money/use less energy: Gallery says a business installation will pay back in five to six years. He writes U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America Program grants for businesses that collect 25 percent of system cost, on top of a 30 percent federal tax credit and accelerated depreciation. Typical annual return on investment at 15 years is 13 to 18 percent.

Smart Energy LED Solutions, Traverse City

What it does: Owner Vince Chiaravalli provides light audits and installs LED lights in companies across the state.

How it is innovating: By providing light audits, Chiaravalli specifies how companies can save money on their energy bills. “I note what lighting they use for everything,” said Chiaravalli. His detailed spreadsheets offer specifics on how much money a company can save, which he says is typically between 35 and 75 percent.

Latest project: The most recent project was an industrial building in Alpena. He has also replaced the street lights at a mobile home park in Beulah. Other recent businesses are The Crown Golf Club and Northern Vision Eye Care.

How it helps local businesses save money/use less energy: While LEDs cost more, they offer substantial savings in both replacement costs and energy costs. The most substantial savings accrue over years, given the long life of LEDs as well as the energy savings. At 25,000 hours (the typical life of an LED) one bulb will typically use $40 of energy, while an incandescent may use more than $200 of energy.

Keen Technical Solutions, Traverse City

What it does: Provides energy-saving retrofits for existing buildings, primarily for industrial and commercial customers. Keen does consultation, installation, design, financing, measurement and verification. It can also provide the same services for new builds.

How it is innovating: The company analyzes current electrical usage and equipment, which includes everything from lights and switches to monitors, motors and insulation. It then shows clients how improving systems and technology can lead to cost savings, whether that’s through using LED lights or smart power-demand/response systems.

Latest project: Company President and Co-founder Tim Pulliam says the company does about 10 percent of its business in northwestern lower Michigan, with the remainder split equally among downstate efforts (mostly the metro Detroit area) and elsewhere across the country. Locally, it’s recently overseen the café expansion at Oryana, where it worked on HVAC, lighting and controls, and Centre ICE, where it brought in new cooling towers, resulting in using 50 percent less energy to create the ice.

How it helps local businesses save money/conserve energy: “I got into [the energy-conservation business] because I wanted to save the environment,” Pulliam said. “Some companies felt like it was the right thing to do, but the biggest wouldn’t spend a dime until we could show them it would increase profits and production. I learned I had to change my pitch.”

The company works with third parties, finds grants, and even occasionally fronts the money for projects, with the client repaying the loan. For example, he says a company could save $100,000 by spending $250,000. “They say, ‘Fine, but we don’t have the money.’ We’ll find it,” he said. “We leverage programs – state and local energy grants, third party funding, [and] we even fund some.”

E Three, Inc., Traverse City

What it does: E Three brings together the fields of architecture, engineering, electricity, and construction. The goal is to build or renovate/remodel buildings so they are energy efficient in all areas.

How it is innovating: By bringing together different fields it can help clients from conception to build out. E Three analyzes the efficiency of building systems – lighting, HVAC, controls systems, and the entire building envelope – to reduce energy consumption. “Five companies came together to form E Three,” said Brian Johnson, who heads the company’s sales and marketing department and is its building envelope specialist. For buildings erected under outdated codes, the company can reduce energy costs through improvement of the building’s thermal envelope.

Latest project: “We’re doing another building at Munson Medical Center. It’s uncomfortable in winter,” he said. “That usually tells you the cold air is getting in and the heat is leaking out.”

How it helps local businesses save money/use less energy: At the Leelanau County Law Enforcement Center, fluctuations in temperature saw various personnel turning thermostats up and down, while the sheriff reported papers curling on his desk in the summer from the humidity. At Radio Centre II on Park St. in Traverse City, Johnson said there were complaints in the winter about the cold, particularly the DJ booth and offices on the northwest corner of the third floor. “[Owner of Midwest Broadcasting’s] Ross Biederman’s tropical fish froze to death,” said Johnson. The company was hired to properly seal the building, resulting in cost savings and increased comfort.

Peninsula Solar, Northport/Marquette

What it does: Provides solar power to commercial and residential customers across the state.

How it is innovating: The company was started by electronics engineering technician Ian Olmsted, who also had a background in roofing. Those aptitudes dovetailed when he got into the solar business in 2011. The company was the first in Michigan to install a Tesla powerwall, a rechargeable lithium ion battery for storing power, often used in conjunction with solar power. In addition to solar installation, Olmstead and his team also assist with navigating the financing of solar projects through various programs such as grants and rebates.

Latest project: A community grid in Marquette. The 480-panel project is being billed as the upper peninsula’s first community solar garden. The project, in collaboration with the Marquette Board of Light and Power, is providing its electric customers the opportunity to support solar power without installing panels on their property.

How it helps local businesses save money/use less energy: “It’s an option for homeowners. For the first time ever [solar] is a competitive price with the grid,” Olmstead said. He said the fact clients can take responsibility for the cost of their energy is a key component in its increasing popularity. “It’s the ownership. You can purchase a system and own it and control your costs,” he said. “You limit your financial exposure.”