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Bright power: helping companies run greener

Jeff Perlman guarantees that he can find ways to cut energy consumption in just about any building in the world.

Jeff Perlman is the president and founder of the renewable energy consulting company Bright Power.

Big words for a guy whose main weapon resembles an electric garage door opener. Perlman talked to faircompanies about light bulbs, energy leasing and the future of solar. 

faircompanies: What do you look for before advising companies to install solar panels?

Jeff Perlman: To use solar energy, you want to start with a roof that has an area to really be able to generate a lot of power so a warehouse is a great example, a factory, a single story factory, shopping malls are fantastic, big box stores are great because they are using a lot of energy but they have a large rooftop where they can place the panels and really generate a lot of energy.

The first thing you really want to do before you put the panels in though is figure out how they’re using energy. So you want to see are they wasting a lot of energy because their motors are running inefficiently, because they have old lighting because of these other things.

So you can reduce their demand so that enables us to be able to create more of their electricity from the sun because they probably have a limited use of roof area whereas their electricity use is very high. 

You were saying the first thing you do with a company is look at how they’re using energy, what do you mean by that?

For example, you go into a factory or a warehouse, look at their lighting, People have florescent lighting, but it’s the older style of fluorescent lighting. We have a gizmo. (Pulls out small white plastic gadget that resembles an electric car door opener.)

This little gadget here, when you point it at a florescent light and you press this button- this light is either going to look green or it’s going to look red, and if it’s red it’s the old style of florescent light- a magnetic ballast.

That means it’s using about 30% more energy than a newer version of fluorescents would use. 

What’s the newer version?

They’re called electronic ballast and usually they’re T8 so it’s a thinner tube than the T12 which is a fatter tube. Or you can use T5 which is even thinner.

To use this to test the lights we’re able to see that these lights should be replaced and that’s got probably a 3-year payback on it. It’s actually a very good deal to change your lights, especially because they’re on so often. Similarly we can look at the motors that are running their equipment.

Okay, these motors are 30 years old so these aren’t the most efficient motors to use; this machine is running all the time. Or we can look at their air conditioning system and see that that’s 20 years old or even if it’s a newer system there are devices we can put on it to make it run more efficiently.

Doing these kinds of things are more cost-effective ways of reducing the amount of energy they use than putting solar panels up and by coupling that up with solar energy we’re able to come up with a package that’s more cost-effective for the customer.

The other thing that we provide as a service is a real in-depth knowledge of the different rebate and benefit programs that are available to entities from the city, state and federal government. We really try to maximize those benefits so we can minimize the costs of putting those systems in.

Often that is the main barrier, the technology is old. This solar panel works. This technology is not new. This technology has been around for 15 years but the real benefit has been cost so that’s why we want to look at ways of making it the most cost effective. 

What is your advice for types of solar panels?

There are flexible modules, which are nice for certain kinds of architectural applications, but really right now the supply of solar panels is constrained.

In Germany, in Japan, in California to an extent so many people want to install the panels and the governments have done such a good job of incentivizing people to install these things that there’s actually a shortage for the next year or so. What that means is that the price hasn’t come down lately. 

So if you want solar you have to wait for it?

It’s about 3 to 6 months. That’s another reason we like to do the solar efficiency stuff. We can get started, order the panels, get them comfortable with us. 

Do you ever go into a company and say you guys are great we can’t do anything for you?

No. In every building there’s always something that you can do better. It might not be a 3-year payback, it might take a little longer, but there’s no building, I don’t think anywhere, including my own apartment, that’s using energy to its optimal degree. 

We’re not just talking about being a better citizen; you’re saving money?

Yeah, There are very few things you can do to your building that actually pay for themselves. It’s funny, when people ask about energy they automatically want to know payback. When you put in a granite countertop you don’t ask what the payback is, but for energy you’re always asking about energy-efficiency.

For whatever reason, we have to play that game right now. Once people get used to the fact that maybe there are other reasons why you might want to own a solar system than simple payback it may be a little bit easier to sell. 

Bright Power has also worked with solar training programs.

Recently we worked on a report for CUNY, the City University of New York, that is helping to show the need for their photovoltaic solar electric system installer-training program.

It’s really important that we have these training programs because about 25 years ago there was a big push for solar energy during the Carter administration- I guess a little bit more than 25 years ago now- but when that happened they put in all these tax credits, they really tried to get the solar industry going, but the industry wasn’t ready.

There were installers that didn’t really know what they were doing and there was equipment that went in that wasn’t very good. Most of those systems are not working today so it really hurt the industry for a long time.

The technology was ready, but it became much harder to do systems because it got a bad name. Also, as soon as the 80s came when Reagan came into office he cut all of the solar programs so when he did that all of these installers went out of business or they went and did other things.

So this time around it’s really important that we have these trainings and certification programs so that when systems go in customers can be assured that they’re getting an installer that knows what they’re doing so that the systems are of quality. 

As a company, how difficult is it to install solar?

It’s becoming increasingly easy. I think the real impediment has been the cost. There are some very interesting companies that are working to relieve that initial cost burden for a commercial business, particularly for a large store, by owning the system.

So there are companies now that will own the system and they’ll act like a utility- a solar electric utility- and they sell the power to the company that’s put the system up on their roof. 

Is it a lease?

It’s not even a lease. It’s a power purchase agreement. Basically, a company will buy the system and put it up on the roof for this other company that has this agreement, that says we’re going to do this and that company then signs an agreement that for 10 years they’re going to pay x amount for every unit of energy generated by this system and that amount is lower than the amount that the utilities are charging so they get.

It’s a no-brainer, why wouldn’t they sign up for cheaper electricity. From the company that owns the system, they need to be very well-capitalized. So it’s a matter of raising the venture capital so they can own these systems because they’re going out fairly long on the system. 

Do you see the market as changing as the type of photovoltaics?

The technology is really pretty mature. There are some newer, possibly cheaper technologies on the horizon, but they’re really more in the 5-10 year time frame. We’re predominantly talking about silicon-based solar cells, which are made similarly to the way computer chips are made. It’s there. It’s proven.

There are new factories opening up all the time in Asia, in the US, in Europe. Like I said, there’s a shortage right now in supply and that is being alleviated, I’m told, in the next year or two.