Sharon Vocke gives credit to Judi Friedman and her organization, People's Action for Clean Energy (PACE), for inspiring the birth of Evergreen Energy, the company she started with her husband Rick to bring more options for renewable energy to the citizens of Connecticut and New England.
"PACE has worked to educate about the dangers of nuclear power and the benefits of renewables," says Sharon. "They organize tours of homes and businesses that use cutting-edge efficiency and renewable technology. They've motivated many, including us, to live more sustainably. After we saw Judi and Lou Friedan's huge solar array, we knew it was time for our own." We asked Sharon to tell us more about how installing solar on her own home led to running a business that brings solar power (and wind power, and geothermal power) to others.
Green America: What does your business do, and what are your most popular products?
Sharon's geothermal (ground source heat pump) system.
Sharon Vocke: Evergreen Energy sells, installs and services geothermal (i.e. ground source heat pumps) systems, wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, and solar thermal systems.
With the fluctuation in fuel prices this year, geothermal has been by far our most popular product. After that, we’re hearing from many people who want to put up wind turbines, from homeowners interested in 10 kW systems, to a horse farm wanting to install a 100 kW. There is plenty of interest in solar, but the state-level tax rebates in Connecticut are on hold right now. The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund is a victim of its own success. There has been far more interest in this wonderful program than funds allow. I’m confident they will work out the kinks in the system in 2009.
What makes your business green?
Sharon: Evergreen sells, installs, and services renewable energy systems. Our business is small, local, and diversified enough to serve the various needs of our customers. We enjoy our small size, as we are able to get to know our clients personally. Our clients get to know us too, and I think that promotes integrity. We don’t advertise. Our work speaks for itself. If we haven’t done a job well enough for our customers to rave about us to others, then we haven’t achieved our objective.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Sharon: My husband Rich was already working in the environmental field as a consultant doing compliance work with large corporations. I taught instrumental music in our local public school system for 23 years. My passion for trying to live more sustainably and leave a healthier planet for our daughters and the No Child Left Behind legislation (which leaves behind the arts) were strong motivators for my career change.
Sharon's husband Rich installing their solar photovoltaic system.
When we set up Evergreen, we decided to offer multiple technologies rather than promote one solution. We felt we would be better able to meet the needs of clients who want to be “green” but don’t know what would work best for their situation.
We began our coursework in geothermal, wind, and solar, and installed a geothermal system in our home office. We had heard many skeptics who are concerned about how much electricity these systems use. However, we’d learned from the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association that geothermal is a much more efficient way to heat and cool a building than fossil fuels, and we wanted to see for ourselves. We’re glad we did, as we’re comfortable and saving energy. We buy clean energy credits for the electricity we do use, and our 6kW solar array helps us keep that to a minimum.
These geothermal, solar, or wind appliances are a significant investment and for most of our clients, they are the first in their group of friends or neighbors to take this path. They’re wondering, “Will this system really work? Will I get the return I’m hoping for?
We’re proud of our customers for taking the leap of faith to install renewables and we want them to feel as comfortable as they can with their decision to do this. They are usually surrounded by skeptics, just as we are. Many people in Connecticut don’t know that geothermal works well here. In fact, Connecticut’s latitude and geology make geothermal systems an ideal choice for heating and cooling. In Connecticut’s climate, where our annual heating loads are roughly double our cooling loads, newer dual-capacity ground source heat pumps work especially well.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Sharon: We contract with a Native American community in an economically distressed area to produce our geothermal units in South Dakota. It is our hope that the benefit to this community will somehow mitigate the distance the equipment has to travel.
Also, there is a large, regional solar company that has been buying smaller companies and was itself recently bought out. Economy of scale makes it hard to compete against such a large company and I suspect that many other local, small solar businesses have similar challenges. However, we like our size, at least for now, while we’re new, and it is our hope that we can maintain our integrity and reputation for great service while we continue to develop our company. It will be our challenge to discover how to add staff and give them all the salaries and great health and retirement benefits they deserve and keep our prices low enough so our customers can afford this already expensive technology, all while remaining local and community-centered.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Sharon: We installed a geothermal system for a pool at a school for autistic children. When we went back to the school to do some testing on the system, we got to see and hear the students enjoying the warmed water. We knew from the shouts and splashes they were really having fun. It felt good to have a positive, if small, impact on these special kids.
What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?
Sharon saving the world.
Sharon: When we first started, we heard the "payback" question from many people. They wanted to know how long before the savings on their electric or heating bill would justify the cost of the system, and they were only considering their bank account, and not the world as a whole. What’s the payback of moving from big regional markets to local energy production? From fossil fuel to solar? From poison to pure? As hard as volatile gas prices and a shrinking economy are, they also carry blessings and lessons. There is an awakening awareness about the need for community and caring, and looking beyond the bottom line.
I am hearing from many people from different walks of life that the mindset around consumerism is changing. I am amazed at how many people are thinking about spending less because they want to focus less on the “what” and more on the “who and how”. Some people are spending less because they have to, but I also hear people wanting to be more conscious consumers. This shift is necessary to move our society’s values where they need to be—about caring for each other more than caring about prestige and stuff.
While we’re grateful to our clients who hire us to save money, and we really love it when people install our systems to save the world.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Sharon: We’re trying to continue to green our home office. Our first goal is to add more insulation to our attic. Then, we hope to install more photovoltaics on the roof of our garage and will also install some solar thermal panels on our sunroom. We’re also looking into Warm Window Quilts from Down East Quilting.
We also have a commercial wind project in the works that we’re very excited about. Right now it’s in the feasibility-study phase. We’re hoping to put up a 100kW turbine at Ski Sundown, a popular ski resort in the northwest corner of the state. It’s a great site, the wind looks good, and the business-owner is a terrific person.
What green product could you not live without?
Sharon: We are trying to work toward our zero-waste goal, and compost everything we can. I keep the interDesign Compost Helper on the counter next to the sink and everything possible goes into it. I love the hinged lid and simplistic design. It’s plain white and just the right size. Every few days it gets emptied into the compost outside. I got it at Pfau’s Hardware Store in West Hartford, CT, which is one of those wonderful old stores with creaky wooden floors where you find things that you wouldn’t see anywhere else. It’s a favorite.
The intangible product I can’t live without is Peter Sawtell’s Eco-Justice Notes. As far as religion and spirituality go, I consider myself an open-minded questioner. Peter’s online weekly messages never fail to challenge and inspire me. You can read them at eco-justice.org.
Questions from readers:
Q: I o nce lived in a wind- and solar-powered home and I am hoping now that I live in a regular all-electric house, I can retrofit it to become more green. What is the one thing that could be installed first for most bang for the buck, so to speak? — Rebecca
Sharon: Good for you for wanting to become more green! You'll get the most bang for your buck by looking for efficiency opportunities first.
Do you need any insulation? If your house is nice and tight with good windows and doors and the best insulation your house will allow, then start to consider renewables. Do you have a good wind resource? You can contact a wind turbine installer in your area to find out. It's also a good idea to check if your town has any ordinances regarding wind turbines. You may need a minimum amount of land or there may be height or view restrictions. With a good wind resource, wind can be very cost-effective. There is a federal tax credit of $500 per 0.5 kW with a $4000 cap. Check www.dsireusa.org to see if you state offers any incentives for wind.
Do you have a south-facing roof where you could install solar panels? If so, make sure it is free of shading. If not, you could consider pole-mounted panels which could be placed in a sunny, south-facing spot. There is a federal tax credit of 30% for solar installations and you can check www.dsireusa.org to see if your state offers any additional incentives.
What are you using for heating and cooling? Geothermal (i.e. ground source heat pump) is the most efficient means to heat and cool and can be retrofit into most existing homes. It can give you the most bang for your buck in the sense that most of us need to heat and cool, whereas generating your own electricity is optional, although a terrific idea.
Best green regards!