The Distributed Energy Revolution with UGE’s Ryan Gilchrist

September 29, 2015

John Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good in beautiful downtown Chicago, and we’re so honored to have with us today, Ryan Gilchrist. He is the Assistant Director of Business Development of Urban Green Energy, which is now called UGE. Welcome to Green Is Good. Ryan Gilchrist: Thank you. Thanks for having me. John Shegerian: Ryan, before we get talking about UGE and all the great work you’re doing there can you share with our listeners and our viewers a little bit about yourself. How did you even get here? Was this something you dreamed about as a kid growing up? Were you always sustainably minded or was this something that happened sort of in high school or college where something turned you really into a greenie? Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. Growing up, I did a lot of hiking, a lot of mountain biking. I’ve always been a lover of the outdoors. Then in college, I enrolled in a program called “Environmental Thought and Practice,” which was very interdisciplinary, involving urban planning, conservation, all kinds of different – environmental law was in there so that kind of brought together the whole picture of environmentalism. I was also studying a little bit of physics at the time so got a picture of the energy situation in the country as well and it kind of clicked for me that that’s one of the biggest problems that our society has was dealing with our energy issues and I got into solar energy immediately after college. John Shegerian: Where did you go to college by the way? Ryan Gilchrist: University of Virginia. John Shegerian: OK. Got it. A little shout out for University of Virginia. Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. Go ‘hoos. John Shegerian: Go ‘hoos. And then after college you got into solar. Let’s talk about that a little bit. Ryan Gilchrist: So yeah. UGE – we’re a wind and solar company. These days primarily a solar developer, but back then, we did even more wind and that’s really what we got into immediately. I started off as an intern for them, worked my way up on the sales team and now I have a very distinct focus on our commercial and industrial market for large commercial projects. John Shegerian: How many sales people do you have working for you? Ryan Gilchrist: About a dozen right now. John Shegerian: Really? Ryan Gilchrist: We’re still a fairly small organization, yeah. John Shegerian: Is it east coast or state-based, or is it beyond that? Ryan Gilchrist: It’s actually very international. We’ve done 2,000 projects now in 90 countries. John Shegerian: Whoa! Ryan Gilchrist: And they way we actually tackle that is we don’t have 12 people going out to 90 countries. We have something called the “Partner Network,” which is a network of contactors throughout the world and they’re out there installing our systems. They’re our boots-on-the-ground sales force for a lot of these projects. We engage them on a daily basis through webinars and we do a couple of biannual events where they all come together as a network for training and to meet each other. John Shegerian: When did you join UGE? How many years ago? Ryan Gilchrist: 2010. So five years ago. John Shegerian: 2010. Five years. And for our listeners and viewers that want to learn more about UGE, you can go to www.UGEI.com. So UGE started – what year did it start? Ryan Gilchrist: 2007 we were started. John Shegerian: And so now you’re based out of …? Ryan Gilchrist: New York City. John Shegerian: New York City. And how many employees or so do you have now? Ryan Gilchrist: Total, it’s close to 100. John Shegerian: About 100. So talk a little bit about the last five years, the journey. Is it what you thought it would be? Is it much bigger? And where are you now on the journey? Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah, it’s been interesting. I would say where we’ve landed is really focusing on this commercial and industrial space. We see not only is it scalable in the sense that you do – for example, one Whole Foods market will install a set of solar carports and wind energy then they have hundreds of other facilities where they can implement it. At the same time, though, it’s scalable to their consumers, so these people who shop there every day are seeing these green technologies and they realize they can do that in their personal lives as well, so we love the fact that it’s scalable both from a business perspective but also more of a social movement where people are noticing this in their daily lives. John Shegerian: So you’re saying if they see solar that you’ve put in at Whole Foods – or wind – then they can actually then employ it for their own household. Ryan Gilchrist: That’s right. John Shegerian: There’s a way that they can buy it or lease it or get it for their own household. Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. John Shegerian: Wow. Ryan Gilchrist: As a company we’re not very focused on residential, but there is a huge residential solar market right now and we like to think that we contribute to that through some of these projects. John Shegerian: Got it. You said you’ve done about 2,000 projects around the world. Ryan Gilchrist: That’s right. John Shegerian: You’ve done some very high profile projects. Can you share them and how they went with our listeners and our viewers, such as the Eiffel Tower? Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. The Eiffel Tower is a really interesting one. That – wow – we couldn’t believe it when that lead came in that they were serious about it, but it’s a real project and we’re producing – so we have two wind turbines actually installed on the second platform of the tower. It’s about 100 meters up in the air so it’s some high-flying artists – basically – up there installing the system for us, and it’s offsetting a good amount of the power that goes into the lighting of those platforms. John Shegerian: Have you been there for this? Ryan Gilchrist: I have not. I have been to Paris once before but not since they were installed. John Shegerian: And it’s already installed? Ryan Gilchrist: It is, yes. They’re up and running and commissioned. John Shegerian: And how is it working so far? Ryan Gilchrist: It’s going well. There are actually some great winds up there that come through the middle of the tower very high up, which helps. And it’s going very well so far. We’ve had 100 percent up time since they were commissioned, so we’re extremely excited about that project. John Shegerian: I mean, talk about high visibility. Ryan Gilchrist: Exactly. John Shegerian: This is about as great as you can get. Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. Can’t ask for a better – it’s an iconic landmark that the entire world knows about. John Shegerian: Wow. Talk a little bit about the Bayer one. Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. So Bayer MaterialScience at their China facilities, they installed a system on one of their facilities that offsets 40 percent of the power, so they’re saving 40 percent of their energy costs. John Shegerian: What kind of system was it? Ryan Gilchrist: All solar on that one. John Shegerian: Solar. Ryan Gilchrist: It’s about a 50 kilowatt system. It’s offsetting 1,000 metric tons of CO2 per year, so they’re making a big offset on economics as well as carbon. John Shegerian: And Lincoln Financial. Talk a little bit about Lincoln Financial. Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. And that’s really what brought us to the Green Sports Alliance here. Lincoln Financial Field – home of the Philadelphia Eagles football team. John Shegerian: Sure. Ryan Gilchrist: They installed a couple years ago a three megawatt solar carport system plus 14 of our turbines above the end zones, so it’s a hybrid wind and solar system, and it’s offsetting all of their energy that they use on game days. John Shegerian: And talk about, again, another high profile to see your technology right at work. Ryan Gilchrist: Absolutely. John Shegerian: Is that messaged anywhere? Where is that messaged so that way more leads come into your organization? Ryan Gilchrist: Well, to be honest the turbine itself can be our messaging in a lot of cases. There are not a lot of companies making something that looks so iconic as the vertical axis turbine that we actually manufacture, so that certainly helps. Solar is more of a commodity these days, so we have to rely on the client saying who they bought it from and who they worked with and – a lot of how our leads take place now it’s really a network of trust advisors who have done this before and are telling other people in their network who they worked with and what worked well, so we rely on those referrals quite a bit. John Shegerian: What does “distributed energy” mean in your industry? Just for our listeners and our viewers, I would like you to explain what “distributed energy” means. Ryan Gilchrist: So distributed means anything really off of the central utility grid. So you have central power plants, but then you also have the ability to produce power locally, so that can be in the form of micro grids, which can operate fully autonomously from the utility grid, or it can be a system that is net metering where you’re feeling a lot of power into the grid while the system is producing, and then you still have the ability to produce off the grid. And this is really taking off all over the world because it’s checking a lot of boxed for the developing world, where there is no power system yet. It’s oftentimes the cheapest way to get power to these remote villages. In the developed world, it’s more about just saving money on your utility bills, which in most states in the U.S. now it’s actually at grid parity, where if you install solar, you’re actually paying less for the energy over the lifetime than you would from the utility. John Shegerian: Explain, though, a distributed energy project that you would be working on that we can understand. Bring it to life. Ryan Gilchrist: OK. For example, there is a skyscraper that is being built right now in Boston that I’ve been working on. They’re going for LEED certification so they need to offset a certain amount of their energy onsite. We’re hitting a 2 percent target for them with rooftop solar. It’s about a 12-month process typically to get these started. You’re working with the architects on the front end, making sure it fits into the building plans. You’re working with the electricians for the building so you understand how you’re going to tie into the grids. Of course, if you’re in an area like Boston, you want to have utility power as well, so you’re really supplementing it with your renewable energy. Construction will take about two months and then we’ll be up and running for them this fall. John Shegerian: It sounds funny, though. Boston, I don’t think about solar as much as I would think about wind. Wind did not make sense for a building like that? Ryan Gilchrist: I should have mentioned they have wind turbines on the building too. John Shegerian: Oh, they do? Oh, OK, so they have both? Ryan Gilchrist: So that’s another hybrid system, yeah. John Shegerian: And that’s your wind turbines? Ryan Gilchrist: It is, yeah. John Shegerian: Wow. What does C&I mean in your industry? Ryan Gilchrist: Commercial and industrial. John Shegerian: OK. So that means C&I, with regards to distributor energy, fits well for that. Ryan Gilchrist: That’s right. So they have big enough facilities where we can do large projects for them, and they’re also very scalable. John Shegerian: When you’re making sales and doing your deals, what percentage is wind and what percentage is solar? Roughly speaking. Ryan Gilchrist: That has changed over the years as a company, so now I’d say it’s 95 percent solar. When I first started, it was much more skewed towards wind, but we’ve really distinguished ourselves as an industry-leading solar developer these days. John Shegerian: Wow. If you’ve just joined us we’re so honored to have with us today, Ryan Gilchrist. He is the Assistant Director of Business Development at UGE – Urban Green Energy. You can find him and find his great company at www.UGEI.com, and of course, you can find the Green Sports Alliance at www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. Let’s talk a little bit about micro grids. What does “micro grids” mean to you and to your company? Ryan Gilchrist: So a micro grid has the ability to operate autonomously from the utility grid, so you have the ability if the power goes out you that still have power to that site. That could be as small as one home going off the grid if you have a cabin in the middle of Colorado – for example. It could be an entire university. It could be a neighborhood or a district in an urban area even. John Shegerian: Really? And how popular are they getting? Ryan Gilchrist: I would say very popular. There are kind of three main motivations that people have when they’re thinking about micro grids. One is reliability – so you have power no matter what happens with the utility. The second would be cost savings – so you have the most economic mix of power so during the afternoons – for example, when utility prices tend to peak in a lot of areas. John Shegerian: Right. Ryan Gilchrist: The renewable power is still very inexpensive. Then the final one would be sustainability. Universities probably check all three of these boxes. They have very public sustainability goals and that is something very important to them. John Shegerian: The Partner Network seems – though – is a great leader for you in terms of bringing in leads. Ryan Gilchrist: Absolutely. John Shegerian: It sounds like you’re never bored. Ryan Gilchrist: Not at all. They bring us some very interesting projects. Some of them are pretty crazy like installing turbines on top of trees. We have to kind of filter through. They have a lot of great ideas. They really are the strongest part of our company I would say. They’re the reason why we’re able to operate in so many markets, why we have so much visibility internationally. John Shegerian: Ryan, was that a paradigm that you guys created – a Partner Network – or is that being already done in other industries and you guys modeled after that paradigm? Ryan Gilchrist: I think it’s certainly being done. It goes as far back as probably just electrical contracting. Some of these larger electrical distribution houses that have been around for 120 years now they have networks of distributors and then installers, so it does mirror one of those industries, I would say. John Shegerian: Let’s talk a little bit about Elon Musk for a second. Elon Musk recently came out with that new battery that’s going to be able to store energy. One day will your grids be tied up or will your buildings have those batteries there, and you’ll be able to with wind and solar be able to fill up the battery, and then – as you say – be able to sort of regulate the way they’re pulling energy off the grid because now they’ll just pull it out of the battery? Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. That’s exactly right. And battery technology is something we’re watching really closely, so it’s really the key right now to bring down the cost of these micro grids. The cost of solar equipment has come down. To give you an example – a project in 2006 would cost $10 a watt to install. John Shegerian: Right. Ryan Gilchrist: Today, it’s $2 and $0.50 a watt, so we’re looking at maybe 20 percent year over year decrease in cost. Energy storage hasn’t quite followed that yet, but we think it will now and that will give us the opportunity to have the systems that are fully off the grid also supporting the utility grid. So you’re doing frequency regulation with these energy storage systems, you can do demand and response. So we’re really excited about the maturation of energy storage. John Shegerian: On the other side of Elon Musk is Solar City. Ryan Gilchrist: Yes. John Shegerian: How has the advent and the explosion of Solar City as a brand been good for UGE? Ryan Gilchrist: They’ve helped make solar primetime. It’s really in the mainstream now. They’ve been a huge driver in the scalability of the industry. You’re bringing the cost down for solar equipment, bringing the awareness out there. They’re really the pioneers of the residential solar PPA so customers don’t have to pay anything upfront and that is the model we’re also pursuing with commercial and industrial but they’ve really done a great job of making consumers understand that you can have a system that has no upfront cost and you just simply pay for the electricity generated from it. John Shegerian: That education has then helped you make more sales, I take it? Ryan Gilchrist: Absolutely. I would say in some cases – we have a lot of competitors in the industry, but we’re all a partners in a sense as well. John Shegerian: What are you doing here? What is the excitement about UGE and GSA? Why did you guys come? Is this your first summit that you guys have come to? Ryan Gilchrist: Second summit. John Shegerian: Second summit. Ryan Gilchrist: We met through the Eagles project. John Shegerian: Got you. Ryan Gilchrist: And they convinced us that it’s a very powerful industry. John Shegerian: It is. Ryan Gilchrist: Obviously, I think Allen Hershkowitz – the president – this morning said that maybe 19 percent of people follow science, but 70 of people in the world follow sports, so it’s extremely high visibility and, certainly, large impactful facilities that need a lot of power. John Shegerian: How has been your experience at this conference? Ryan Gilchrist: It’s been great. It’s small enough where you can meet everybody and make some really great connections, but it’s just large enough that you feel like there’s going to be some global changes that happen from it. John Shegerian: Got you. And did you meet some potential clients? Ryan Gilchrist: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, there have been quite a bit of networking events and cocktail hours and the party last night was great and I’ve met a lot of people at the panels as well. John Shegerian: Ryan, so many of our guests come back and continue – because sustainability is a journey – they continue their journey on our show. We’ve been around seven years. We intend to be around a lot longer, so we want you to come back in the future and continue to share the great journey of UGE. Ryan Gilchrist: I’d love to, yeah. John Shegerian: Thank you for spending time with us today. For our listeners and viewers, to find Ryan Gilchrist and his colleagues at UGE, please go to www.UGEI.com, and to find the Green Sports Alliance and all the great work they’re doing, please go to www.GreenSportsAlliance.org. Ryan Gilchrist, you’re doing great work. You’re making the world a better place. You are truly living proof that Green Is Good. Thank you so much. Ryan Gilchrist: Thank you for having me.