Chris Straka of Ascendant Energy and Stanley Bennett II, president of Oakhurst Dairy
Solar — Delivered Daily to Your Door, Free
— by Georgeanne Davis
“Solar — Delivered Daily to Your Door, Free.” The slogan, coined by Chris Straka, chief executive officer and founder of Ascendant Energy of Rockland, has echoes of an old-fashioned advertisement for milk delivery. Dairy is much on Straka’s mind these days: on April 11 Ascendant Energy’s latest solar project was announced by Oakhurst Dairy of Portland. One of the largest commercial systems in Maine and New England, there will ultimately be 2,700 square feet of panels installed atop the building’s roof that will create enough hot water in the milk facility to save up to 7,500 gallons of heating oil yearly — 4,500 from the rooftop thermal solar system and 3,000 from technology Ascendant is installing that will recapture heat from liquids going down the drain and then be used to preheat incoming water. Stanley Bennett II, Oakhurst president, says the cost of the system is around $200,000 and the payback period is expected to be five to seven years.
In addition to the plant installation, Oakhurst and Ascendant Energy are working with 16 local Oakhurst farms, offering thermal solar energy systems for their properties. “Milk comes out of a cow at 97 degrees,” Straka points out. In addition to a solar thermal system to heat water, Ascendant installs a system that cools the milk and transfers the heat to boost the 47-degree temperature of incoming cold water. The projects are essentially cost-neutral — the cost to pay off a loan would replace the cost for energy for eight years. After that, the savings would be profit.
Oakhurst and Ascendant are a natural fit, in retrospect: the 87-year-old, third-generation dairy company widely advertises its use of biofuel in its delivery fleet and promises that no artificial growth hormones are used by their dairy farmers, and Bennett sees great value in being environmentally and socially responsible. But the connection with Ascendant came about because of a new approach to marketing, brought to the company by Kurt Penney, Ascendant’s head of sales. “Rather than wait for the phone to ring,” says Straka, “we approach a business.” Penney e-mailed Bennett and essentially said, “What about solar?” The next day Bennett called him.
Chris Straka, chief executive officer and founder of Ascendant Energy of Rockland
Solar technology is available and companies are screaming for environmentally and economically sound energy systems, says Straka. “The part missing was financial.” Ascendant showed Oakhurst that they would put money out and then be generating energy for free. Ascendant has put together financial packages and systems for other entities as well, working with Maine State Housing Authority, for example, on multi-unit properties. “Housing is suffering right now because of fixed rental rates,” Straka says. When property managers finance a solar system, they are taking out loans that cost less than paying for conventional energy costs, and eventually they, too, will be generating their energy for free, with no worries about rising oil costs: “It’s predictable, because it comes from the sun,” Straka says. “Our job is to calculate how many gallons of oil are saved per square foot of solar collector.”
People have been biased against solar, Straka says, thinking of it as a kind of backwoods technology. “Early entrepreneurs were put out of business by the loss of federal tax credits,” Straka says. The original solar systems put in place had no one to service them any longer, so they were taken down. Imagine what it would be like, says Straka, if you were sold an oil furnace and then had no technician to service it. Now, for the first time in history, he says, the supply and demand, the sheer economics, make solar attractive.
Straka founded Ascendant five years ago, working out of his home in Owls Head. His background was in IT, but while living in the Boston area in 1993, he’d helped put together an environmental yellow pages, and saw the opportunity in solar. He moved to Maine and started his business with the idea of coming up with a “better mousetrap” — a co-generator. In January of 2003 he received the first of three seed grants from the state-funded, private nonprofit Maine Technology Institute (MTI), which supports research and development activity leading to the commercialization of new products and services in the state’s technology-intensive industrial sector, to come up with the cogenerator, which extracts both electricity and heat from sunlight.
Ascendant Energy completed this photovoltaic installation in February in Newington, Connecticut. The custom installation was the first pole-mounted photovoltaic system approved by the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund and the first commercial installation in the town of Newington. Sized at 28 kilowatts, the system will provide nearly 30 percent of the client’s annual electricity needs.
Conventional wisdom in the past has said that collecting heat reduces the efficiency of the photovoltaic panels. But Ascendant has designed a system that uses heat from the photovoltaic panels that would otherwise be wasted. “If you put your hand behind photovoltaic panels, it’s 160 degrees in there,” Straka says; their thermal system actually drains some of the heat from the photovoltaic system, allowing it to operate more efficiently. In the past the two systems weren’t integrated because one was seen as the province of plumbers, the other of electricians, said Straka. In putting the two systems together, Straka says, “We’re not unique internationally, but there are only four or five others doing this.”
In 2006 Ascendant received an MTI development grant to put the cogenerator into production. The grant is like an interest-free loan, to be paid back in full within two years of Ascendant putting the cogenerator on the commercial market. “It’s like venture capital, only patient,” says Straka.
Customizing and installing all kinds of systems, not just their own, is the heart of Ascendant’s business these days. They have six employees at their facility in Rockland’s industrial park — three newly hired — who are assembling SHP units (for solar heat and power) that have been manufactured elsewhere to their specs. These are being combined with other companies’ products to deliver “the right solution to our customer’s needs,” says Straka, whether dairy farming or affordable housing. Federal tax credits for solar hot water systems and state rebates “make the economics of solar hot water sing,” Straka says; and, while Maine has no rebates for photovoltaic installation, as Massachusetts does, with cogeneration’s efficiency getting more energy overall from every square foot of solar panels, installation of a strip of panels brings the cost of photovoltaic down to an eight-year break-even period.
Ascendant has also been developing an innovative system that combines both solar and heat. The SHP unit (for solar heat and power) will be unveiled at an installation in Wiscasset on April 26 during the Chewonki Foundation’s Conference on Sustainable Energy. The SHP is designed for pitched-roof installation, both small commercial and residential, and credits are available for installation.
At Chewonki, Straka will give a presentation on “Improving the Solar Quotient,” talking about how energy consumers can have a net-zero energy balance, producing as much on-site energy as they use. Right now, he says, with Maine’s thermal hot water rebate, anyone with an electric or gas hot water heater would break even in five years if they replaced it with solar. [ReVision Energy of Liberty will be giving a presentation on solar hot water installations at the Chewonki conference.] Home solar quotients can be further balanced by other energy-saving efficiencies, such as tightening up insulation, caulking, and drain-water heat recovery.
Straka is very focused on energy needs and uses at both local and national levels. He hates to see the U.S. putting all its eggs in “one fossil fuel basket” and would like to see an energy model that is community scaled. The farther electricity has to travel, the more energy is lost; only 60 percent of generated power is delivered to the consumer from a typical centralized source. Straka would like to see cities such as Rockland put up wind and solar installations for a municipal light and power company on a community scale. “When capital markets wake up,” Straka says, “they’ll see that this is a place to invest in our economy.”