By Jim Cavan (The Green Alliance):
From a distance, it must have been a sight to behold: two youngish, professional men, one clad in a black three-piece suit complete with tie, heaving wood pallets and other refuse into an enormous dumpster outside a high school.
Strangely enough, it’s more than likely the second time that day the two had sweated clean through their suits.
That morning, Mike Behrmann and Clay Mitchell had been meeting face-to-face with Governor Lynch at a UNH event touting the school’s Green Launching Pad (GLP), a grant program to help aid entrepreneurs in the green energy and products sector. Back in May Mitchell and Behrmann’s Revolution Energy was one of five startups to receive a GLP grant, designed to help each business take the “next step” forward in developing, producing, distributing or marketing their respective green products or services.
After a brief but constructive private meeting with the Governor, Behrmann and Mitchell were off to meet with fellow green entrepreneur Andrew Kellar, owner of Simply Green Biofuels. The three discussed their two companies’ partnership with Regeneration Park, a sort of green business incubator housed in the old Toyota dealership along Route 1 which is slated to be up and running by the end of the year.
By 3pm the two were on the road again. This time the destination was Exeter High School, where the Revolution team put online a full solar energy system they’d helped construct last November. Tied for the second largest array in the state – and the largest for a school building – the system had been “ready to launch” for months, but needed to get a few last minute go-aheads before the switch could be officially thrown.
A few minutes after the near 100 kilowatt array was turned on, the two could be found tossing leftover waste and shipping materials into the orange 8-yard dumpster near the grounded array. After helping the Exeter School District launch a system expected to save the school district an estimated $20,000 a year, Behrmann and Mitchell were still willing to get their hands dirty.
“That’s pretty much a typical day,” says Behrmann. “And by that I mean there is no typical day for Revolution.”
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Revolution was launched in 2008 as a spinoff from Mitchell and Behrmann’s sister company, Sustainable Development and Energy Systems Group (SDES). Founded a year earlier by Mitchell, Behrmann, Tobias Marquette and Chris Dundorf, SDES provides solutions for clients interested in saving energy, reducing energy costs, and helping foster a cleaner, greener environment – everything from conducting energy audits to energy planning, alternative energy system installation to general contracting and low energy residential design.
Revolution, meanwhile, deals with the real thing: the hardware and machinery of the system itself… along with the occasional cardboard box and pallet. But Revolution neither manufactures nor installs the systems themselves. Instead, because investing in alternative energy systems can be prohibitively expensive – particularly for cash-strapped cities in a stagnant economy – Revolution secures the actual financing, contracts the system’s construction, and then charges the client the equivalent of a monthly electric bill to satisfy financing obligations.
The model, at least on its face, was as obvious as it was ingenious. In fact, founder Clay Mitchell was shocked that no one was really doing it around these parts.
“It”s funny. We get this question all the time when we talk to people about what we do,” Mitchell exclaims. “They say, “Why isn”t everyone doing this?” And out only real answer is, ‘we don”t know!” It’s truly baffling.”
Instead of being burdened with having to shell out 100% of the cost of a state-of-the-art solar array up front, now businesses and other entities could achieve their dreams of “going green” and only have to worry about paying the monthly bill. The whole arrangement makes what was once a pie-in-the-sky luxury for only the most fiscally unchained clients accessible to just about anyone.
But even coming up with Revolution’s unique financing model wasn’t so much planned or thought out as it was thrust upon them. Mitchell’s wife, Sarah Cook, has for years been a 7th grade teacher at Exeter, and in that time had become friends with the district’s Chief Financial Officer, Nathan Lunney. For his part, Lunney had always been interested in the prospects of incorporating clean energy into Exeter’s overall portfolio, and became doubly intrigued when he discovered that Mitchell’s Revolution could potentially provide the kind of financial flexibility that would be all but necessary for the school district.
There was only one stipulation: Exeter didn’t want to pay for any of it up front.
“Needless to say, that was a challenge,” recalls Behrmann.
It was at this point that the Revolution team started exploring the financing route. They called dozens of banks and spoke with countless financial gurus, seeking a partnership that would both provide the necessary incentive for Exeter, without driving Revolution itself into a fiscal hamstringing.
Eventually Revolution landed Provident Bank, who was equally enthusiastic about the model and what it could mean for local commerce. The terms were simple: Exeter would pay $150,000 a year to Revolution for the system, while Exeter would save roughly $170,000 a year compared to current energy cost – witnessing a true $20,000 in energy savings.
While the process took well over a year – local and state laws, ordinances, and energy policy aren’t the easiest things to navigate – by December 2009 the equipment had been put into place. Although, truth be told, even the build day itself became a totem to the unpredictable nature of the beast: just days before, Behrmann and a friend had flown to Albuquerque, New Mexico to drive a Penske truck full of specialized mounting racks in a 48-hour sprint across the country in order to make it in time for the ground-breaking.
They made it – barely. “That was a rough trip, but a fun one,” recalls Behrmann. “There’s nothing quite like driving an enormous truck with equipment worth probably more than your life through a three day rain storm on no sleep and terrible food. But we made it.”
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A few days after dumpster stomping, Mitchell and Behrmann are back at their office – a rare and welcome blip in an otherwise jumbled radar screen of meetings, designing the next projects, conferences, and hobnobbing. The down time is as rare as it is necessary: between mounting press for the Exeter project, creating a district-wide curriculum to teach Exeter students about the science behind their new system, and working on future projects – the solar array atop Regeneration Park is slated to be one of the largest in the state – there’s no shortage of forms to fill out and file away, calls to take, or deals to make.
Oh, and Hurricane Earl is headed up the Atlantic towards Northern New England. While not the best news for an untested and unproven solar array, the system is designed to resist winds of up to 100mph. Still, the irony doesn’t escape Mike Behrmann.
“Of course there’s a hurricane coming,” says Behrmann, with not a little trepidation. “At this point, after all the work and effort of getting this project off the ground, we would have been shocked if we’d put this thing up and there wasn’t a hurricane coming.”
“Just chalk this up to another day in the life of Revolution Energy.”