The Future Is Green

Posted on May 1, 2009 :: Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Manitowoc Area Visitor & Convention Bureau

It’s not a coincidence that Kevin Crawford has traded in his 20 years of service as Manitowoc mayor for a seat at the table of one of the nation’s leading “green” companies. Crawford, who helped spearhead Manitowoc’s “go green” initiative, left office on April 21 to become vice president of business development for Orion Energy Systems, the Manitowoc-based provider of energy-efficient lighting systems.

“Some of the first green initiatives were happening here before a lot of people knew what green was,” says Crawford, who credits Manitowoc City Planner David Less for providing much of the initiative.

Manitowoc was one of the first Wisconsin communities to establish itself as an “eco-community,” committing itself to energy-efficiency and the use of alternative fuels in its fleet of municipal vehicles.

Through a combination of design and good fortune, Manitowoc County has developed a luster of “green” manufacturers that bodes well for the county’s future, despite recent layoffs and a 12 percent unemployment rate.

There’s Orion, of course, which got a plug from President Barack Obama during a March 23 White House roundtable on renewable energy and energy conservation.

Orion President and CEO Neil Verfuerth says his company has installed energy management systems in more than 4,000 facilities since 2001, displacing more than 423 megawatts of electricity demand and saving customers more than $514 million in energy costs. Orion was recently recognized with an international Platts Global Energy Award for the most innovative and sustainable green technology of 2008.

Then there’s Tower Tech, the Manitowoc company that manufactures towers for the wind energy industry and Manitowoc Crane, which produces cranes used to erect wind towers.

And there’s Manitowoc Public Utilities, which gets “green” credits for burning paper pellets produced by the region’s paper industry and for producing more power than the city needs, selling electricity back into the grid. The utility also installed circulating fluidized bed boilers, a “clean coal” technology that is designed to reduce fuel costs and plant emissions.

“The improvements made at MPU to introduce clean energy technology have helped reduce emissions, increase profit margins and save money for rate payers,” says Crawford.

“The green economy is an industrial sector that we see a lot of potential for. It’s a great time to be green, and we’re positioned very well for that,” says Ken Stubbe, executive director of the Manitowoc County Economic Development Corp. “We have a long tradition of manufacturing and fabrication in this area, and alternative energy production gives us an opportunity to expand on that.”

Orion, Tower Tech and Manitowoc Crane have gotten some play in the media for their roles, but GreenSky Energetics, another Manitowoc County energy pioneer, has flown under the radar so far. Founded in 2007 by Whitewall tire Co. President Richard Larson, GreenSky is already making waves with its installations of solar water heaters and radiant heating systems.

Larson, who had already earned kudos for his work in helping to recycle more than 1,300 abandoned tires in Manitowoc County’s Point Creek Natural Area, says he was brainstorming with his soon-to-be business partner, UW-Green Bay graduate Andrew Williams, when they hit upon the idea of a company that would focus on alternative energy sources.

“We started from scratch – from zero,” says Larson, “but we’ve already seen good growth. We installed 26 units in 2008 and we already have 11 installations so far this year.”

Most of the installations have been in residential settings, but GreenSky also has several commercial installations, including hidden Valley Farm & Woolen Mill in Valders, Rapid Wash car wash in Manitowoc Rapids and Woodland Dunes Nature Center in Manitowoc. The City of Menasha is also exploring the idea of using solar power to heat its Jefferson Park municipal pool, and GreenSky has helped with the site assessment.

GreenSky also installed solar collectors atop the roof of Lisa’s Laundry Land in Two Rivers. The solar array heats up to 150 gallons of water per day, according to business owner Tom Simac.

Simac had already installed high-efficiency, tankless water heaters two years ago, and the solar installation includes super-insulated hot water storage tanks that lose only about one degree of water temperature per day, says Simac.

Two Rivers City Manager Greg Buckley notes that the project was supported by a business development grant through a city TIF district that contributed $11,681 toward the $15,000 project. Wisconsin Focus on Energy also provided funding assistance. Simac says his private investment in business and energy-conservation upgrades totals $90,000.

Larson says the 30 percent federal tax credit for energy-efficiency projects should keep companies like his busy for the foreseeable future. Besides solar systems, GreenSky also plans to sell and install anaerobic digesters and small-scale wind turbines.

Stubbe says initiatives like Orion, Tower Tech and GreenSky Energetics bode well for Manitowoc County’s future.

“As we become known as a nexus for green technology, we’re going to be turning some heads,” says Stubbe. “We have a competitive advantage in that we have manufacturing experience and know-how, and we’re lean enough that we can be quick to respond to the market. It’s tough here as it is in other places, but we’re poised very well for the inevitable rebound in the economy.”

Crawford agrees.

“We have a lot of momentum going,” he says. “We have the ‘go green Manitowoc’ committee – a grass roots group that is committed to providing practical information to people who have to make difficult decisions about the way we use energy. There’s also been great leadership from Ken Stubbe and others at the Economic Development Corporation to help keep our manufacturing sector going strong, particularly in the area of the green economy. A lot of people considered the environment touchy-feely until gas hit $4 a gallon. Then all of a sudden everyone thought it was a great idea.”