Carper visits booming renewable energy company

In just three years, Flexera, a Delaware-based renewable energy company, has grown from just three engineers to a staff of 26, including employees with expertise in areas ranging from sales and marketing to architecture and engineering to installation. On Monday, Sept. 28, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper visited their Harbeson facility to see, in person, what the excitement is all about.

Coastal Point • Monica Fleming: U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, center, visits the Flexera alternative energy plant in Harbeson, Del., where the company is developing a vertical-axis turbine prototype. Also pictured are Flexera’s Finn McCabe, President Brian Lisiewski, Cameron Haughey, CEO Bob LiCoastal Point • Monica Fleming
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, center, visits the Flexera alternative energy plant in Harbeson, Del., where the company is developing a vertical-axis turbine prototype. Also pictured are Flexera’s Finn McCabe, President Brian Lisiewski, Cameron Haughey, CEO Bob Li

Carper asked Flexera CEO Bob Light what the company is doing to maintain such growth and how they attract their talent.

Even in the economic downturn, the technology draws people, Light explained.

“It boils down to luck,” he said. “We have been very fortunate hiring people.”

“Where do you find them?” the senator asked.

“In most cases, they come to us,” said Light. “They have a passion for the sector of alternative energy. Some of the controls we have, Fortune 500 companies wish they had. What better way to build a business then for talented people to seek you out?”

Carper also asked what seemed to be working and not working for Flexera in regard to the federal stimulus package, some of which has been focused on green jobs like those at Flexera.

Flexera Vice President Benn Farr said investment tax credit refundable grants are “huge” for commercial customers, adding that it makes a lot of those commercial projects viable. Farr also suggested that there should be a national removable portfolio standard, to send the message to investors and manufacturers and companies that the country is serious about implementing alternative energy strategies.

Carper noted that a fair amount of stimulus money had been spent on the electrical grid, and Farr agreed that it was money well spent, although there is room for improvement, he said.

“The current model is utility-centric,” he explained. “Almost 50 percent of power is lost in transit. It’s just lost electrocuting squirrels, or whatnot,” he said to laughter.

Farr expressed frustration with Delaware Senate Bill 85, which was adopted after the state’s most recent legislative session and designed to ensure that those generating electrical power with their own equipment – such as residential wind turbines or solar-powered generating systems – could receive payment when selling their generated power into the larger electrical grid.

But Farr said the interpretations of the bill’s real meaning have varied based who is doing the interpreting.

He pointed to a situation in which a farmer with 2 or 3 acres might want to put up windmills to generate excess energy to sell back into the grid.

“Senate Bill 85 supposedly allows that, but the utility companies have seized against it, saying, ‘Sure, it’s allowed, but we won’t approve interconnection.’”

Light said Flexera had actually had a situation in which the power company agreed to interconnection and then rescinded that agreement. Farr added that, compared to Pennsylvania, Delaware lags behind in that respect.

“You can hook 3 megawatts into a lightbulb and sell the rest to the grid [in Pennsylvania],” he said. “It’s unfortunate for Delaware.”

“It’s a power struggle. No pun intended,” added renewable energy consultant John Donato. He said Flexera is working on ways to change the way SB 85 is currently handled to better serve its customers.

The senator toured Flexera’s plant and also got a chance to view their work on development of a new wind-energy system. Flexera received a $250,000 grant from the State of Delaware to develop a higher-efficiency drive-train system for wind turbines and they already have a patent-pending prototype.

Most vertical-axis wind turbines have a direct drive to the generator, but the one Flexera is currently building and testing will more much more efficient and user-friendly, explained Flexera’s Cameron Haughey.

“The idea is for it to be plug-and-play,” he said.

Vertical-axis wind turbines are different from the horizontal turbines that can be seen at Nantucket’s near Fenwick Island or at the Center for the Inland Bays on Route 1 – both installed by Flexera. Both systems have pros and cons, depending upon the type of site where they will be located. For example, vertical-axis wind turbines fair better in urban and suburban mixed-use areas, and the horizontal ones are most often used for open-air or ocean projects, such as the one proposed by Bluewater Wind.

In addition to the new prototype research and installation of both wind and solar renewable energy projects for residential and commercial customers, Flexera also works with customers to do energy efficiency assessments, so they can first conserve what they are using and then create clean renewable energy that will further lighten their carbon footprint, and their electrical bills.

“Small changes can make huge differences,” said Haughey. He mentioned that changes to lighting, insulation and new, more efficient transformers can mean a lot of money and energy saved, for businesses and homes.

Donato added that, by decentralizing the grid and having it work smarter, with little “power houses” all around that are generating their own clean, renewable energy, he believes it will benefit everyone in the long run.

“You are not going to replace coal,” added Haughey. “But you have to diversify your systems.”

In 2008, Flexera was the largest solar and wind integrator in Delaware. They designed and installed 48 percent of all solar megawatts and 78 percent of the state’s wind power. As for the company’s growth, Donato said have no plans on stopping, and he thanked the Carper for his support.

“We are creating jobs and bringing new opportunities to the state,” said Donato. “Sen. Carper’s visit is another example of how our elected officials are supporting growth and helping our state move to the forefront of the renewable energy industry.”

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