Renewable Energy Entrepreneur Talks Benefits, Challenges Of Going Green In N.H.

Amanda Loder / StateImpact New Hampshire

The crew at Revolution Energy are behind one of the Green Launching Pad's biggest success stories. (From left: Co-founder Mike Behrmann, Chief Scientific Officer Jon Spencer, and Co-founder Clay Mitchell.)

This week, StateImpact will be checking-in on the progress of the University of New Hampshire‘s Green Launching Pad initiative.  Begun in 2010 with $1.5 million in federal stimulus money, the GLP’s goal is to provide seed money, UNH faculty business expertise, and student interns to entrepreneurs in the state’s growing green sectors.

One of the Green Launching Pad’s biggest success stories has been Portsmouth-based Revolution Energy.  While the company started in 2008, it didn’t really start taking off until 2010.  That’s when it received a competitive $60,000 grant from the GLP in the initiative’s first round of funding. In a lot of ways, Revolution Energy looks and feels a lot like a classic start-up.  At the office, the team wears casual clothes, and the decor alternates between Dungeons and Dragons classic geek-chic and internet-age irony.

Good humor, hoodies and 20-sided dice aside, sustainability is serious business for the crew at Revolution Energy.We caught up with 29 year-old co-founder Mike Behrmann and asked him about the role of the Green Launching Pad in his company’s success, and the challenges and rewards of launching a green start-up in the Granite State.

Q: What does Revolution Energy do?

A: “Revolution Energy is a renewable energy developer.  And we focus on a financial model called a ‘Power Purchase Agreement,’ to help deploy renewable energy in an affordable manner to all hosts and clients we see within the state and within the region.  Revolution Energy comes in and takes all the upfront financial hurdles off of our clients.  We take the ownership of the system, we get it financed, we put all of the capital out so that at the end of the day, our clients have no upfront costs, and can witness the benefits of renewable energy.  They pay us for the power we produce.  We meter it, we do all the maintenance and operations, upkeep to the system.

We got tired of hearing the issue of, ‘I’d love to do this, I just can’t afford it.’  We wanted to take away that issue of it’s too expensive.  This was the best way that we could come up with to do that.”

Q: How many projects do you have so far?

A: “I’d say we are now up to somewhere around 10 projects, that includes both New Hampshire and Massachusetts at the moment.

Here in the state, located at the Sanborn Regional High School, is a solar-heated air system that is a very innovative and cutting-edge technology that is as simple as you can imagine.  The idea is this similar metering structure, but rather than electricity, we meter and bill heated air.  That directly goes against the cost of heating fuel right now, which as most people are aware, is very expensive.  And it’s all alternative, it’s all clean…it’s hot air!”

Gabriele Diwald / Flickr Creative Commons

Behrmann believes renewable energy is a promising, growing sector of New Hampshire's economy.

Q: Ten projects doesn’t seem like a very big number.  Is that a huge amount of growth in this industry?

A: “Yeah, our growth has been quite exceptional over the past couple of years.  To try and quantify it, it’s basically like saying we’ve grown 1,200 percent each year.  Because of the scale of the projects that we’re developing now, because of the dollar figure that we’re working with, it’s enormous.  And certainly there are challenges to that type of growth as well.  We’re at an opportunity in our economy where entrepreneurs should be encouraged and supported, and this is one form where we’ve been able to see the benefit of that support in what we do, and the industry that we work in.”

Q: And when you first got Green Launching Pad funding, how many projects did you have at that point?

A: “We had one.  Yep…one.  We’d worked with the Exeter Cooperative School District, it was our first project.  The people at the school district were willing and courageous to step out, do something different in the state, worked with a lot of technologies and approaches that had never been done in the state.  And so they deserve a lot of credit for seeing what could be done within their school district and working  a local partner and business, such as ourselves.  And Green Launching Pad saw that, and they said, ‘We think we can replicate this,’ and we knew we could replicate it, and they believed in that concept.”

Q: And how does the Green Launching Pad  fit into your success?

A: “ The Green Launching Pad provided us a platform to not only establish ourselves, but to really grow.  And the resources that the Green Launching Pad provided, the legitimization that the GLP provided, and the expertise that was provided to us, we’re extremely fortunate to have had.”

Q: What do you mean by “legitimization?”

A: “When you deal with a developing industry, such as the green economy, you can get some skeptics.  And you can hear questions along the lines of, ‘Are you going to be here next year?’  Or, ‘How do I know, that you guys know what you’re doing?’  The Green Launching Pad provided us the ability to say, ‘Look, we have had a type of vetting process through the University of New Hampshire, the expertise that’s over there, and we have access to that expertise.’  By saying that connection to them, they begin to understand that what we’re proposing to them is not magic, we’re not pulling the wool over anybody’s eyes, that we are legitimate and we’re here to stay.”

Q: When you get a grant like that, what does the money go for?

Sam Evans-Brown/NHPR

One of the most innovative projects Revolution Energy has taken on, Behrmann says, is the installation of solar hot air panels at Sanborn Regional High School.

A: “Well at the time, it truly helped keep the lights on!  We had just moved into an office space.  We are your typical, start-in-the-basement, have-an-idea type of company.  We maximized those funds as much as we possibly could.  That included hiring accounting services, business development services, beginning to network into some areas that we knew we needed to get into, but we never had the funds to be able to do that. The funds were critical, but I would still say that the support and expertise provided ultimately have meant a great deal more than the simple cash infusion at that time.”

Q: Have you been able to make any more hires, create more jobs, as you’ve grown?

A: “Absolutely.  We’ve now hired, internal to Revolution, another three full-time staff members.  We are potentially going to hire another one to two over the course of this year, depending on how things go.  At various times, we’ve had part-time employees.  In addition to that, however, which is something that I think is extremely important, is the jobs that we’ve created in the construction industry, on the electrical industry, and even engaging outside consultants that have to do with the financial industry, with engineering.  The products that we purchase, that also has a reciprocating effect on all of the projects that we do, because we keep those industries employed and the manufacturers keep moving product.”

Q: You hear a lot from UNH that New Hampshire is a strong place for continuing growth in the green economy.  What are your thoughts on that?

A: “I think everywhere has opportunities.  I think New Hampshire in particular has an enormous amount of opportunities that we’re going to begin to see over the next couple of years, expand.  I think the state in general has lagged a bit, compared to other parts of the country and other parts of the Northeast.  But it’s never too late.  There are an enormous amount of people within the state who are enthusiastic and encouraged about where we’re going as a state, about the potential of the green economy.  And we’re at a point right now where we not only should do it, we need to do it.”

Q: What, if anything, do you think the state could do to help Revolution Energy and companies like yours? / Flickr Creative Commons

Behrmann believes a thriving sustainable energy sector could help draw young people to New Hampshire--and keep them here.

A: “The state has done an enormous amount to support us.  I think the state has an opportunity right now to further support what we do, and people similar to us, by continuing to look at the policies and programs that are set up that may need to be adjusted in order to see an expansion of the industry.

Some of the policies are outdated.  I think there needs to be a focus on changing that, because our society, in the way that we use and view energy, is changing as well.  We’re at a unique position in this country where we need to start making some very, very big decisions around energy, and how we get energy.  And right now, New Hampshire, although small, can be a major player within the discussion that occurs.  The state can continue that discussion by actually carrying out projects, by demonstrating its commitment to renewable and alternative forms of energy.”

Q: When you talk about ‘outdated policies,’ what do you mean?

A: “Certain things like net metering policies where you’re not allowed to transfer energy to different accounts.  Things like outdated types of facilities that the state owns that can be updated, [but] the state doesn’t have the money to do so.  By working with companies like ours, by taking that financial burden off of the state, you create an opportunity to leverage private funds and import them into a public setting for the benefit of both the public and the private.  The way that we look at the function of public and private partnerships, that’s the type of policy that needs to change, and I think we have a lot of opportunity to do so, within these next two to four years.”

Q: A lot of New Hampshire start-ups get a lot of pressure to move to Massachusetts.  What are your thoughts on the future looking forward?  Have you encountered any of that pressure?

A: “We have seen that type of pressure.  We have no interest in moving.  New Hampshire’s our home, we have our roots here, and we’re going to continue to expand those roots to a very deep level.  We want to see New Hampshire become one of the leaders in this industry, and we’re here to try and make that happen.  New Hampshire’s a very special place, and we know that, and we want to stay here, and we love where we live.

I did grow up in Massachusetts, so I’m well aware of what Massachusetts entails.  I’m very happy here.”

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: “I think one of the key things to also look at in this equation is the ability for this type of industry to retain a younger demographic into the state.  New Hampshire has an opportunity, and a need right now, to have younger students from the various colleges within our state, as well as 20-to-30-somethings that are out of school to come back.  This is the type of industry that can really see and help that growth for the state so that NH doesn’t have to worry so much about the silver tsunami, that we can actually begin to see a little bit more of sustainability on a couple of different fronts.”

Tune in to NHPR tomorrow on Morning Edition and All Things Considered to hear more about Revolution Energy and the Green Launching Pad.


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