By Lisa Oram
At a time when being an environmentally-friendly business is as much a marketing strategy as it is an ecological one, Lise Dondy, president of the CT Clean Energy Fund (CCEF), says she is seeing a “huge interest” in solar and fuel cell energy from businesses in Connecticut.
“Our pipeline of requests for information about on-site generation of alternative energy has visibly increased” in the last 12 to 18 months, says Dondy.
Green energy, also called clean or renewable energy, is energy that creates less air pollution than traditional energy and is produced from abundant sources such as the sun, wind, water, plant material, and even from landfill gas emissions. Fuel cells, which produce energy from a chemical reaction similar to a battery’s, are also a kind of green energy. By contrast, conventional energy derived from coal, oil and natural gas is one of the greatest contributors to carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and the resulting climate change known as the greenhouse effect. Conventional energy also ties the U.S. to dependence on limited, imported resources.
Dondy believes that the recent surge in interest she’s seen is a reaction to both “the high electric prices that have hit all these companies,” and to an “increased consciousness about environmental concerns.”
She points to Staples, whose 300,000-square-foot distribution center in Killingly now boasts New England’s largest solar power installation—built at no capital cost to Staples. The project, unveiled in January 2007, was financed by a $1.7 million grant from CCEF and by Baltimore-based SunEdison, a solar power provider that claims to be the largest in North America. In an innovative arrangement, Dondy explains, the solar equipment on Staples’ roof is owned by SunEdison. Staples buys the power from SunEdison in a predictable quantity, at rates equal to or lower than the cost of electricity off the grid. According to figures provided by the CCEF, Staples’ solar power meets 14 percent of the electrical needs of the facility and reduces annual carbon emissions by the same amount that would be produced by driving 420,000 miles in an average car.
But green energy is not only for the big guys. Barrett Outdoor Communications Inc. and Curtis Packaging Corp., both family-owned businesses operated in Connecticut, are models in their industries—and in the state—of how to use green energy to the benefit of both the environment and the bottom line.
An array of solar energy panels at the Barrett Outdoor Communications headquarters in West Haven produces renewable energy onsite. John Barrett, chief operating officer of the company—builds and maintains outdoor signage along all the major highways in Connecticut—says its solar installation produces 60 percent of the firm’s peak energy usage. Barrett also sells any excess solar power he produces in excess of what he needs to the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance. Ultimately, Barrett is reducing overall reliance on traditional energy in New England by reducing his personal use and by sending his excess solar power to the regional grid.
“In the first round of phone calls I got after the solar went in,” Barrett recalls, “everyone was asking me, ‘How can I make money putting solar cells on my roof?’ ”
You can’t, says Barrett. While he does believe that conservation pays off in the long run, and a company can make money if there are unexpected spikes in energy costs, Barrett’s goal when it comes to environmental practices is to break even. For him, the payoff is on the environmental side. “It’s the right thing to do,” he says.
And, Barrett adds, with a 50 percent financing on his solar array from CCEF, a property tax exemption on the equipment from the City of West Haven, and the bit of income he receives from Mass Energy, the break-even premise works just fine. “In the worst-case scenario, things stay the same for me, but the environment is better.”
Don Droppo, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing and a principal at Curtis Packaging, has a different view. Certainly, he says, going green is an important part of being a responsible corporate citizen, and he believes in that. But, he adds, “I tell people all the time: green equals gold.”
A case in point: Curtis Packaging, a designer and manufacturer of custom folding cartons for the cosmetics, pharmaceutical and other consumer goods industries, has grown in the last four years from $20 million to $40 million in annual sales, according to Droppo. While he insists there are many factors to which this success can be attributed, he also believes there is a clear cause and effect between the company’s growth and its step-up in environmentally-friendly practices over the same period of time.
Its move to green was prompted a few years ago, when a client, cosmetics maker Estee Lauder, asked that thepacking for its Origins natural products be as eco-friendly as possible. Further research led Droppo to make the change company-wide.
In August 2006, Curtis Packaging engaged in a 3-year agreement with Community Energy, Inc. in Madison to purchase renewable energy equal to 100 percent of Curtis’ energy use, making it the first company in Connecticut to do so. The agreement involved the purchase of nearly 4,525,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year.
According to the web site www.climatechange.com, “the estimated environmental benefit from Curtis’ clean energy purchase is equal to offsetting more than 7.1 million pounds of carbon dioxide per year, an impact which is equivalent to planting more than 480,000 trees or reducing driving by 6.2 million miles oer year.”
Unlike Barrett Communications, Curtis Packaging has not changed the way it gets its energy, just the way it pays for it. Droppo explains it this way: “Imagine the electric grid is a giant bathtub being filled with electricity from many different faucets. Each faucet is a different generation source, like nuclear, coal and wind. Every time you turn on a light switch, you drain a little electricity from the tub. Buying renewable energy means that more electricity going into the grid to replace what you’ve used comes from non-polluting sources. When we purchase renewable energy, we are reducing the need to generate electricity from other, nonrenewable sources.”
To buy renewable energy, Curtis Packaging pays a premium of 10 to 15 percent on top of its monthly energy bill, a cost that Droppo says comes out of the company’s marketing budget and is not passed on to consumers.
“With all the press we’ve received,” he says, “we’ve more than gotten our money’s worth.” In addition, Droppo says, he’s gotten a slew of calls from top Fortune 500 companies such as Target and FedEx, who want to learn about what Curtis Packaging is doing. “If I sat in a conference room and tried to get those guys on the phone, I’d never get a call back. Now they’re calling us,” he says, amazed and laughing.
Thirty percent of the green energy that Curtis Packaging buys comes from CT Clean Energy Options, a program in which Barrett Communications also participates. CT Clean Energy Options is a Department of Public Utilities approved program that allows any Connecticut Light and Power or United Illuminated customer—business or residential—to purchase clean energy though a small surcharge on his or her electric bill.
The program also works in conjunction with the “SmartPower 20% by 2010” campaign, a challenge to “cities, towns, faith communities, colleges, universities and businesses” to start using clean energy, and commit to a total of 20 percent usage by 2010. Municipalities that sign on to support the campaign and reach certain benchmarks of participation can earn free solar equipment for a town building.
“We encourage Connecticut businesses to be good partners with their host towns,” says Bob Wall, director of energy market initiatives at CCEF, “and we’re very pleased by the willingness we’ve seen on the part of businesses to help us promote clean energy among their employees and their communities.”
Connecticut has been a national leader in motivating the voluntary market through education and awareness, says Dondy. “We’re seeing other states adopt what they are now calling ‘the Connecticut model,’” she adds. The “SmartPower 20% by 2010” campaign was also awarded the Green Power Pilot Award from the EPA. To date, nearly 50 towns have joined the campaign and about two dozen have qualified to earn at least one free solar energy system.
Curtis Packaging discovered that sourcing the local wind and hydro power from CT Clean Energy Options was more expensive than the 100 percent national wind power it had intended to buy. Nonetheless, the company felt it was important to be a leader in its town, and, in fact, single-handedly earned Newtown its first two kilowatts of solar equipment.
Pushed to say if there is a downside to being a green energy consumer, Droppo says it might look, at first, as if it’s the cost. “We just don’t see it that way,” he says. Similarly, Barrett advises that there are many ways a company can go about being more environmentally respectful. “The first step,” he believes, “is looking at what you’ve always done in a new way.”