Power players: Could Charlottesville be the next big hub of renewable energy?

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Photo: Skycladap.com Photo: Skycladap.com

In 2017, renewable energy generated 18 percent of U.S. electricity, doubling its share from 2008. Here in Charlottesville, a growing cluster of companies is developing and building projects that draw power from the wind, sun, waves and more. And the bulk of those booming businesses, according to many in the industry, owe their existence today to a single key company that began just 18 years ago.

Starting with a greenlight

When the Berlin Wall fell, Sandy Reisky sensed opportunity. From Munich, where he worked in finance, “he rented a jackhammer, drove to Berlin, and took as many pieces as he could,” recounts Jonathan Baker, Reisky’s longtime friend and fellow UVA alum. “He fashioned them with a little stand and sold them to whomever he could. This was before eBay and before the web, so this took hustle!”

Apex Clean Energy’s Sandy Reisky started thinking green in 1989, when he sold parts of the Berlin Wall and donated the profits to clean up East German pollution. Photo: Jackson Smith

Even in 1989, Reisky was thinking green. He donated half his profits from selling parts of the wall to clean up East German pollution. In 2000, he followed up by starting his own company to develop wind energy projects.

When he decided to found Greenlight Energy, Reisky says, “Charlottesville seemed like the most logical place.” It was Reisky’s home, and here he found a supportive network of investors and a vibrant community of entrepreneurs and creative workers.

“To my knowledge, Greenlight Energy was the first renewable energy company in Charlottesville,” says Matthew Hanztmon, who served as its managing director. “Greenlight [showed] that a nationally competitive energy company could successfully grow and compete with a base in Charlottesville.”

Let a hundred powers bloom

BP bought Greenlight in 2006, but its core talent stayed here and kept starting businesses.

“Out of the Greenlight headwaters flowed Element Power, Apex [Clean Energy], HelioSage, Columbia Power, Axio Solar, Greenlight Biofuels, Hexagon Energy, and Lumin,” says Baker, who invested in Greenlight and served on its board of advisors.

After Greenlight, Reisky founded or co- founded Axio, for utility-scale solar, which he sold to SunEdison in 2011; Columbia, which develops technology to generate power from ocean waves; Greenlight Biofuels, acquired in 2015 by Valley Proteins; and Apex Clean Energy, founded in 2009.

Reisky is chairman and chief strategist at Apex, which builds wind and now solar projects nationwide, then sells them to utility companies, sells those projects’ generated power or operates the plants under contract to organizations such as the U.S. Army and IKEA.


Firefly and ReThreads owner Melissa Meece participates in C3’s Better Business Challenge, a year-long program that presents energy-smart ideas to local businesses in a friendly competition. Photo: Eze Amos

Power to the people

C3 sparks business opps through climate consciousness

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”  

Back in 2012, the city of Charlottesville committed to a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. It’s a commendable goal, but its success hinges on daily decisions by residents and businesses. To that end, in October 2017, Grey McLean founded Charlottesville Climate Collaborative. C3 seeks to educate and empower individuals, businesses, schools and other communities in Charlottesville and Albemarle County to make environment-protecting changes.

McLean envisioned Cville Renewable Energy Alliance, the trade association trying to put Charlottesville on the map as a hub of the renewable energy industry. But C3, he says, is a broader effort to meet local goals. That begins with giving people practical steps to take. 

“When it comes to this issue, people say, ‘I know I should do it, I agree with it,’ but people are busy, and it takes time to research this and understand the economics,” McLean says. “We are trying to make it as easy as possible; to tell people, ‘Here are the top five things you can do. If you want to take action, here’s a resource for you to take action.’”

C3’s largest initiative is the Better Business Challenge, a year-long program that presents energy-smart ideas to local businesses and creates a good-natured competition among them as they implement money- and environment-saving actions. The Better Business Challenge was last held in 2014 by Teri Kent (founder of Better World Betty and now C3’s director of programs and communication). Local businesses switched to LED light bulbs, changed thermostat settings, evaluated water fixtures for leaks and took dozens of other practical steps. Seventy-eight businesses participated in 2014, and Kent hopes to see that number double in 2018. The competition is open to schools, nonprofits and congregations as well as businesses, and registration is ongoing. Participants compete for awards and enjoy connecting with one another socially; they also stand to see substantial savings.  

“So often in the business community, where the conversation starts isn’t with the climate but with, ‘How can we help you improve the financial operations of your business?’” McLean says. “These changes make sense on their own. That’s where we meet businesses. Solar, LEDs and energy efficiency make sense in their own right. We provide help in these areas so that it becomes a no-brainer.”

C3 seeks to connect with individuals and families as well as organizations. Later this summer, it will launch its pilot model for the Home Energy Challenge, an initiative that connects neighbors, through house parties and an online platform, around the goal of reducing energy costs and environmental impact.

As C3 deepens its roots and extends its influence, it holds to an often-unsung priority: learning. C3 has met with environmental leaders, small business owners and faith leaders.

“Right now we are doing a lot of listening,” says Kent. “We are asking, ‘What issues are you already tackling? And if climate were to be a part of that, if you were to take action on climate, what would that look like? Where can climate fit into what you are already doing?’”—Joanna Breault


Meanwhile, Baker, along with Hantzmon and other Greenlight alumni, founded solar developer HelioSage in 2008. “Most of HelioSage’s early partners were from the Greenlight team,” he says. Panasonic-backed Coronal Energy bought HelioSage in 2015; today, Baker is Coronal’s chief talent officer.

Hantzmon, a Columbia co-founder and HelioSage COO, has now founded Hexagon Energy, which aims to develop green energy projects via multiple sustainable technologies.

Other local players include solar developer SunTribe; Lumin, whose “smart panel” helps homeowners and utilities monitor their energy use; and Fermata Energy, working to smooth out peaks in the electric grid with the power stored in parked electric cars.

In 2017, SunTribe Solar began installing more than 1,000 solar panels on three different buildings at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. Photo: Skycladap.com

Green shoots and gray clouds

“Energy-related businesses play a vital part in our economy,” says Jason Ness, the city’s business development manager. These companies offer well-paying jobs at multiple rungs of the economic and educational ladder, with career possibilities that help retain valuable employees, he says.

“We employ nearly 300 employees in the clean energy space,” says Charity Pennock, director of the Charlottesville Renewable Energy Alliance. “We’ve developed over $6.5 billion in clean energy projects. And those projects are providing power to the equivalent of 750,000 homes.”

But despite renewable energy’s growth in Charlottesville, the industry faces local and national obstacles.


Good credits

Four federal incentives make it easy to adopt solar power

Businesses that install solar power systems stand to see a substantial bump to their bottom lines over time. But the initial installation can be pricey. To mitigate this hurdle, both city and federal governments offer incentives.

The city of Charlottesville offers a credit on real estate tax bills for five years after installing solar. The credit is a portion of the total cost of certified solar energy equipment, facilities or devices that are attached to real estate within the city of Charlottesville. Claiming this credit involves arranging an inspection by the city’s building inspector and filing an application. 

Thanks to a grant from the city of Charlottesville, LEAP (Local Energy Alliance Program) and the UVA Community Credit Union offer commercial property owners access to low-interest loans for energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. Rates are as low as 0 percent.  

In addition, there are two federal programs that can benefit businesses considering environment-protecting measures. One is the Solar Investment Tax Credit, a 30 percent credit for solar systems on residential and commercial properties. This dollar-for-dollar reduction was extended in 2015, and the program is guaranteed to continue through 2021. 

The other federal program that helps offset cost is the USDA Rural Energy for America Program. Charlottesville and Albemarle County businesses (as “rural small businesses”) may be eligible for a grant for up to 25 percent of the cost for purchasing, installing and constructing renewable energy systems.—Joanna Breault


Pennock says local businesses have to work hard to draw talent to a relatively smaller market than most energy hubs. Knowing that there are other companies here is a big plus in attracting employees, she says.

Beyond talent, Reisky notes tough competition for real estate. “Office space in downtown has run at over 95 percent occupancy and has only trended upward,” he says. Apex, currently spread across three buildings throughout the city, will soon consolidate in a newly built headquarters on Garrett Street.

“On the national level,” Reisky says, “wind and solar have been the dominant sources of new electricity for the past several years. A combination of low prices and extraordinary public demand for clean energy has driven this shift. While the trend lines are clear, we can’t be complacent.”

The Trump administration has slapped new tariffs on cheap foreign-made solar panels, and current federal wind and solar tax credits will likely expire in 2020. “The challenge over the next two to three years,” says Hantzmon, “is to navigate this change through a combination of innovative financing structures as well as increased efficiency in wind turbines and solar panels.”

Apex Clean Energy develops, constructs, and operates utility-scale renewable energy facilities, such as this wind farm. Photo: Courtesy Apex Clean Energy

Eyes on the future

Rich Allevi, SunTribe’s co-founder and director of operations, says these “artificial headwinds” pale compared to local obstacles.

Residents assume that the city’s progressive bent means it’s doing more to battle climate change than it actually is, Allevi says. “We know the desire is there, but our community needs to put pressure on the local government and challenge them to make a strong commitment towards carbon offset.”

The University of Virginia has set goals to cut emissions 25 percent from 2009 levels by 2025, says its sustainability director, Andrea Trimble. Photo: Eze Amos

In 2012, Charlottesville pledged to cut municipal carbon emissions 10 percent by 2020, and 10 percent community-wide by 2035, says Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator. Despite sustainability initiatives such as solar installations on municipal buildings, the city won’t know its progress toward those goals until it completes a new greenhouse gas inventory in midsummer. By comparison, the University of Virginia set goals to cut emissions 25 percent from 2009 levels by 2025, says Andrea Trimble, UVA’s sustainability director. At the end of 2016, those cuts totaled 11.6 percent, despite a growing university. That same year, she says, “We launched UVA’s first sustainability plan, with 23 goals and specific actions.”

But last summer, the city joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, Riddervold says. “I know that there are a number of communities both within the commonwealth and across the country that have very recently set aggressive goals,” Riddervold says, “and that’s going to be a very good point of reference for us to use.”

Riddervold says local green energy companies are working with her office to shape more ambitious targets. In Charlottesville, city buildings contribute less than 3 percent of carbon emissions, she says. “So if we’re really going to be serious about community emissions or energy reduction, it’s going to take all the sectors to see what that means on their side. Having a robust [renewable energy] industry in Charlottesville is a big deal in that regard.”

When local green energy companies push Richmond for friendlier regulation, everyone wins, Riddervold says. “What makes it easier for them to do business in Virginia is going to make it easier for businesses, residents and nonprofits to access solar [power], for example.”

Home sweet home

The city could eventually gain even more private- sector partners in pursuing its climate goals. “I expect to see additional startups begin to appear,” Matthew Hantzmon says. “The same ingredients that drove the growth of Greenlight and Hexagon are also attractive to a new generation of companies.”

“The university helps attract tremendously talented individuals, and many people who attended UVA or one of Virginia’s other great colleges or universities want to stay here after graduation,” says Sandy Reisky. “Apex’s roots in Charlottesville have been absolutely vital to our growth.”

The city’s appeal motivated Rich Allevi to start SunTribe here in 2015. “Charlottesville is on track to become the renewable energy hub of the Southeast,” he says. “With a vibrant culture, access to the outdoors, and the family-oriented community, the choice was obvious.”


To the source

Here’s who’s shaping the local renewable energy surge

Apex Clean Energy is headquartered on Fourth Street, but works in more than 20 states. The company started in 2009 as a developer, builder and operator of clean energy projects—big solar and wind farms—that it often sells to local and regional utility companies. To date it’s installed 2,226 megawatts of clean power: enough, it says, to light up both Maine and Vermont. And Apex says it has 13,000 more megawatts in development. Three of its current projects are right here in Virginia—one, a solar project south of Lynchburg, will power 15,000 homes when it’s completed next year. 

SunTribe Solar serves enterprise and government customers, installing and maintaining solar arrays on the ground, on roofs and atop carports. It’s a local company, focused on Virginia and Washington, D.C., with 60 megawatts of energy in development. One big client is the University of Virginia, for which SunTribe designed, engineered and constructed 140 kW of roof-mounted solar power. A smaller local project: Blenheim Vineyards’ 17 kW array on the roof of its tasting room. Entering its third year, SunTribe says it’s Virginia’s fastest-growing large-scale solar provider—to the tune of 408 percent growth year-over-year. 

Fermata is bringing V2G technology to market—that’s vehicle-to-grid, meaning that electric vehicle batteries can actually provide storage capacity to the energy grid when the vehicles aren’t in use. Fermata was founded to serve commercial and municipal-government clients that have electric vehicle fleets, like the city of Danville, which since 2016 has operated three Nissan Leafs under Fermata’s demonstration project. CEO David Slutzky, a former Albemarle County supervisor, heads the company.

Sigora Solar is the local go-to for residential solar systems: Since its founding in 2011, Sigora has installed solar on 740 homes in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. And it has bigger clients, too: In 2016, the city of Charlottesville hired Sigora to install 121 solar panels on the roof of the Smith Aquatic and Fitness Center. Its workforce of around 50 is, the company says, constantly expanding, and it plans to open offices in other states by the end of the year. Meanwhile, company founder Andy Bindea is now running a sister company, Sigora Haiti, which is leapfrogging the traditional electricity infrastructure in a country that’s never had reliable power. Sigora Haiti currently provides power to 10,000 people.

Columbia Power, founded in 2008, is a patent-holder on a system that captures energy from ocean waves. Its projects are still in the pilot phase, but the company foresees selling its system to utilities and the Department of Defense. A “wave farm,” the company says, can be similar to a wind farm in capacity—between 25 and 250 megawatts—but the devices can be installed more densely, thus requiring a smaller area. Two Columbia employees in Charlottesville complement a nine-person R&D headquarters in Oregon.

A Coronal Energy project in Troy, Virginia. Photo: Courtesy Coronal Energy

Coronal Energy offers design, financing, engineering and management of solar projects for customers including businesses, universities, utilities and government. Its Charlottesville location is one of five North American offices, and it has an exclusive partnership with Japanese tech giant Panasonic, which has been in the solar energy business since the 1970s (yeah, we didn’t know that either). It’s big: Coronal’s portfolio includes 2.3 gigawatts of solar energy in 40 states, including a trio of North Florida projects developed with the U.S. military that together generate enough power for 18,000 homes. 

Founded less than two years ago, Lumin is a startup with a bright idea: a “Smart Panel” that can be installed between a home’s circuit breaker and its appliances, then synced with the homeowner’s phone to give detailed information about when and how the house uses juice. The device also makes it possible to, say, turn lights off remotely or use appliances when power’s the cheapest. With six employees and just three panels installed to date, the company is definitely in its infancy—but says it plans to have installed 100 Smart Panels by the end of June.

Altenergy has been creating solar solutions for both residential and commercial projects since 2005, when its founder, Paul Risberg, left his career at the New York Stock Exchange to apply his talents to solar energy. Now, 13 years later, Altenergy has offices in Virginia, Idaho, Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and boasts a list of awards in contracting and installing. One of its major initiatives, the Solarize Campaign, helps bundle costs for multiple families in a neighborhood looking to nab clean energy.—Erika Howsare

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