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October 2011
Turning Green into Gold
By Casey Jacobus

     In 2007, Paul Wittemann, now founder and CEO of Greenspring Energy, was at a crossroads. He had spent 11 years working for EchoStar Corporation, a premier global provider of satellite television operation, the last eight of those years in Baltimore, and had to decide whether or not to relocate to EchoStar’s headquarters in Colorado.

     During his tenure in Baltimore, he saw the delivery of television programming shift from cable to dish. In his dealings with the independent retailers who sold and installed those satellite dishes, he had learned a lot about small businesses. Wittemann had to decide: stay in an industry which he saw evidence was slowing, or move in a different direction.

     Also during this time, Maryland was enacting legislation to remove rate caps on the power companies’ delivery of electricity. Wittemann saw utility customers growing worried about the predicted 80 percent increase in utility rates over the next few years. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to take a serious look at solar energy.

     “The more research I did, the more interested I became,” says Wittemann. “I had seen new products like satellite TV and home security systems become widespread across the U.S. I believed solar energy products would be the next big success story.”

     “In 2007 solar was not a mainstream industry,” Wittemann explains. “But you could see the trends coming. The Al Gore documentary created a lot of interest. People were frustrated about the growing cost of utilities and were eager to talk about alternatives.”

     What sealed the deal was when Wittemann, attempting to contact existing solar contractors in the Baltimore/Washington area, never received any return phone calls.

     “I knew I could do better than that; I had to do better than that.” And so Greenspring Energy was created to focus on the customer experience; delivering top of the line brands, with the most dependable performance and lasting warranties.

 

A Place in the Sun

     Wittemann made an initial investment of $50,000 from his personal savings and found an “executive” office on Craig’s List for $500 a month. Greenspring Energy opened in late May 2007 in Towson, Md. There he could serve the Baltimore/Annapolis metro area, and the central Maryland region.

     Wittemann’s first goal: to learn everything he could about the solar industry. He attended trade shows, conferences and training courses; learning how homes and businesses use energy, and how they could save energy. He attained the first of his many certifications from RESNET, the Residential Energy Services Network.

     “I spent the first six months in training, learning about the industry and figuring out what brands I should offer, “says Wittemann. “I also did some grassroots marketing.”

     In July 2007, Wittemann hired his first employee. In September he started advertising, trying to get the word out about Greenspring Energy. That same month he sold his first solar system to a builder in the Annapolis area. In October he added a sales person to his now 3-person staff. By November he had his first big month, selling four solar installations at $6,000 to $7,000 each.

     During that first year, Wittemann worked 6 to 7 days a week, learning, researching, getting training and certifications and developing marketing materials. He traveled constantly; attending a lighting show in New York, a conference in Cleveland, and a green expo in Toronto. His goal was to make Greenspring Energy the premier solar, and energy efficiency, company in the mid-Atlantic.

     When Pennsylvania adopted a solar incentive program in 2008, Wittemann opened a company branch in Reading, Pa., so Greenspring Energy could serve the Philadelphia/Harrisburg metro area.

     In 2011, he welcomed a new partner, Jay Radcliffe. Radcliffe had grown up in Atlanta, Ga., and graduated from the University of Mississippi. He had gotten to know Wittemann in Baltimore when he worked for Georgia Pacific, an international manufacturer of tissue, pulp, paper, packaging, building products and related chemicals. Radcliffe had 15 years’ experience at Georgian Pacific managing, distributing and purchasing products.

     Radcliffe was intrigued with the green energy concept, and, with a preference for the South, suggested to Wittemann that Charlotte might be the next place for Greenspring Energy to expand. Wittemann agreed.

     So Radcliffe opened the Greenspring Energy branch here in Charlotte to serve the Charlotte metro area, extending from Greensboro, N.C., to Greenville, S.C.

 

Planting Roots in Charlotte

     Charlotte is a very sunny city,” says Wittemann. “It was very appealing to be able to shift our resources to North Carolina in the wintertime.”

     In addition to its sunshine, Charlotte has a business climate that encourages both small businesses and solar energy. A recent PEW Center report titled “The Clean Energy Economy: Repowering jobs, businesses, and investments across America,” listed North Carolina as one of the top 12 states growing green energy jobs.

     Both the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and the Charlotte Regional Economic Development Partnership are actively and aggressively promoting the importance and benefits associated with renewable energy.

     “We are proud that North Carolina was the first state in the southeastern U.S. to establish a renewable energy portfolio standard,” said Dale B. Carroll, Deputy Commerce Secretary, of their entry into the marketplace. “It is exciting to now see companies like Greenspring Energy establishing operations in our state, including in this case joining the growing energy cluster in the Charlotte region.”

     Before Radcliffe opened the Charlotte office of Greenspring Energy, he spent time talking with and getting to know some of the key leaders in both Charlotte and the state—people like Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. Urlaub has been instrumental in creating the core state policy and market drivers of North Carolina’s clean energy economy, resulting in annual double-digit gains in clean energy industry growth, passage of more than 70 clean energy bills, and installation of more than 1,800 renewable energy systems statewide.

     “We applaud Greenspring’s expansion and job creation in North Carolina,” says Tom White, Economic Development Director at N.C. State University. “We welcome this exciting new partnership with open arms.”

     Radcliffe promised Bernard Torian, a leader in the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Business and Industries Division charged with the effort to increase jobs in the state, that Greenspring Energy would hire 20 people in its first two years. Now, they are on track to hire 30 to 40.

     “This is an exciting time at Greenspring,” says Wittemann. “Not only are we continuing to grow, but we also keep getting better.” The Charlotte branch of Greenspring Energy has already completed 30 solar installations, and doubled its office space from 3,000 to 6,000. In the next two years, Radcliffe expects to open a second location in the Carolinas.

     “We’re selling a product that really matters, that’s surprisingly affordable,” explains Radcliffe. “Solar energy is the only true investment that pays you back from day one. When you use the sun to power your home or business, there is a huge opportunity to save money, and you are also doing your part to save the environment.”

 

Return on Investment

     In the relatively short time that Greenspring Energy has been operating, it has become one of the largest solar energy providers to commercial and residential customers from the mid-Atlantic to the Carolinas. With over 1,300 solar installations completed company-wide, it has become one of the most experienced independently owned solar providers on the East Coast. In an industry where 83 percent of solar companies are less than two years old, Greenspring has a long-term commitment to its customers.

     “We pride ourselves on our quality, products and experience,” says Wittemann. “We are a full-service solar company that handles everything from the paperwork to the installation. We professionally install and service everything we sell.”

     Greenspring Energy has grown 8,700 percent over the past four years. Last year it did $10.5 million in business; it employs 57 people in three locations. In 2011, Inc. listed Greenspring 15th nationally in its Small Business Fast Growth category, and the fastest growing energy company in the United States.

     By providing a unique combination of solar energy and energy-efficient products and services, Greenspring Energy offers its customers a quick return on their investment and a comprehensive approach to permanent utility savings. The company’s goal is to cost-effectively and permanently reduce its customers’ utility costs through a combination of solar electric systems, solar thermal systems and innovative energy-saving guidance, products and services.

     Greenspring Energy’s size and specialization allow it to offer high-quality products and services at competitive prices. It is an authorized dealer and installer for some of the industry’s highest quality solar and efficiency companies including: Schuco, Solarworld, SMA, Rinnai, Solatube, Kingspan, and Kohler. Greenspring Energy is also a Building Performance Institute-accredited energy auditing company and has been awarded the2009 and 2010 National Residential Dealer of the Year by Schuco Solar.

     Greenspring Energy’s customers are small businesses and homeowners. Solar electric installations account for 70 percent of its revenue, with solar hot water and efficiency products constituting the remaining 30 percent. However, as the company grows and expands, they look at ways to improve its portfolio of products and service offerings.

     “In an industry which is expected to grow 40 percent in the next decade,” Wittemann says, “we expect to focus on more than just growing sales. Our role is to look toward smart growth, to position the company strategically, and to increase the type of customers we service.”

     While many of Greenspring Energy’s business customers have been professional offices such as doctors or dentists, Radcliffe sees a whole new commercial market in rural North Carolina.

     “Agricultural and industrial businesses are among those who can benefit from solar installations,” Radcliffe says. “We need to reach out to nontraditional customers.”

     One of these emerging, nontraditional, segments are homebuilders. “In my professional career, I have dealt with the building channel,” says Radcliff, “so I know for homes to sell in this type of market, builders need to differentiate their communities from others. Our products help them reach that goal.”

     Whether mainstream or nontraditional, Wittemann and Radcliffe believe solar is for everyone—particularly now when a variety of federal, state and other incentives can pay for up to 70 percent of the initial investment.

     In August 2007 North Carolina overhauled its renewable energy rules with Senate Bill 3, which authorized a tax credit for up to 35 percent of a solar system, capped at $10,500 for a residence and at $2.5 million for commercial and industrial systems. The bill also requires the utilities to generate at least 12.5 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2021—the first state in the Southeast to adopt a renewal energy standard.

     The federal government also offers a 30 percent personal tax credit for property owners who opt for more energy efficient products in their homes. A solar electrical system will not only reduce utility bills up to 90 percent, it will also earn homeowners a discount on their tax bill. A solar water heater earns the 30 percent federal tax credit, while reducing bills by up to 25 percent.

     Adding more energy efficient products, such as a solar attic fan will reduce energy bills up to 15 percent and earn the 30 percent federal tax credit and 35 percent state tax credit.

    “There has never been a better time to get a solar electric system on your home or business,” offers Radcliffe. “With utility rate increases expected to continue throughout the mid-Atlantic region, incentives and prices are creating a compelling story: Solar is one of the best investments you can make.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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