Integrated Clean Energy Tech, Zero-Energy Buildings, and Four Decades of Clean Power Experience: an Interview with Alden Hathaway of Sterling Energy Assets - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]
- Jan 28, 2019 3:21 pm GMT
Late in 2018 when I was settling into my role as a Community Manger for Energy Central’s Clean Power Group, I put out a ‘Casting Call’ to find members of this great community who had been in the trenches of the clean energy transition from the beginning to participate in our Energy Central Power Perspectives™. My goal here was to get to know some of the most valuable community members better, help the current and prospective members of Energy Central’s Clean Power Group see into the mirror of the fascinating and incredible work being done by members of the network, and see what lessons we can all learn from the people who have seen the most in the clean and renewable energy sector.
Among the first to respond to me was Alden Hathaway, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Sterling Energy Assets, and I couldn’t be more grateful that Alden ended up as my first interview. His email in response to my casting call noted that he’s worked in the clean energy industry for his entire 37 career and has been on the ground floor of some truly influential and critical programs and movements, particularly in working with the voluntary energy programs at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Knowing this, I expected some great insights from Alden when we talked, and he certainly delivered. His career accomplishments are quite impressive, but rather than list them here I’ll get right to our conversation and let Alden speak to his impressive resume himself.
Matt Chester: Alden, thanks so much for taking time out of your schedule to share some of your insights into the past, present, and future of the clean power sector with me. To start with a proper background, can you give me an overview of how, when, and why you got involved in clean energy?
Alden Hathaway: I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1982 (interviewer’s note: Wahoowa!) with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering after writing a thesis on the future impact of the electronic fluorescent lighting ballast in the energy industry, which could save up to 50% of total lighting power.
I was initially hired by the Georgia Power Company, though I transferred to GTE Sylvania Lighting in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1983 where I pursued the integration of electronic lighting systems into lighting retrofit projects for buildings. In the early days, we would borrow old Weston wattmeters from Washington University’s Electrical Engineering school to show the savings with the new electronic systems as we proposed the upgrades.
Then we worked on the integration of lighting with HVAC upgrade opportunities, recognizing that lighting energy produces heat in the building and if we lowered the lighting load to save energy, it would also open up opportunities to upgrade the HVAC. In some cases, we had mechanical contractors specify our electronic lighting systems, solely because they were using the reduced heat load of the lighting to downsize the AC on prominent jobs going to bid.
MC: So you were among the early realizers about how whole building energy systems needed to be looked at holistically to manage the load and find savings. That’s really cool—where did those efforts take you next?
AH: In 1989, I relocated to Washington DC with GTE Sylvania and worked with the EPA to help launch a lighting energy efficiency program known as EPA Green Lights. The success of that program got me promoted to Boston to work at the Sylvania Lighting headquarters and our national lighting contractor Sylvania Lighting Services. I continued my engagement with EPA to promote an integrated lighting/HVAC solution and got an invitation to the White House in 1993 to promote additional energy integration ideas, including solar and lighting.
Then in 1993, Sylvania was sold to Osram and I returned to Washington to promote the new ENERGY STAR Buildings Program. This program was a staged and energy-integrated approach designed to foster comprehensive energy efficiency in buildings, starting with lighting load reductions, energy management systems, building envelope improvements, and HVAC systems, in a methodological approach that would capture all the potential synergies that exist between the technologies. At the same time, I also aggressively promoted integrating solar roofs and walls into the building. Unfortunately, although I strongly advocated for it, we (the USEPA Energy Star Program) missed an opportunity to formally incorporate solar into buildings to achieve zero energy buildings and support the nascent building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) industry, in which America at the time was leading the world.
In about 1996 or 1997, I worked briefly for Solarex, an American solar energy company, where we developed more projects to integrate solar into buildings.
Separately, my father—a retired Bishop of Pittsburgh—and I launched Solar Light for Africa, an organization that’s been dedicated to providing electric light powered by the sun for 20 years.
Photo Source: Solar Light for Africa
MC: You certainly don’t seem to have ever been light on ambition! So that only takes us through the 90s—what came next?
AH: In 2001, I participated in the launch of a third EPA program, the Green Power Partnership Program, in which we had to devise a renewable energy certificate (REC) product to transact green power to companies that signed up as partners, thus launching EPA formally into the renewable energy space.
That same year, I also displayed our first solar house on the National Mall to prove that we already had the technology at that point to build zero-energy homes. We lived in it for six years in the Northern Virginia countryside.
In 2007, I relocated to Georgia to work directly for Sterling Planet (interviewer note: Sterling Energy Assets, where Alden works as SVP, is the sister company to Sterling Planet that has focused specifically on renewable energy asset development) where, in addition to RECs—or Green Tags—we launched energy efficiency certificates—or White Tags—and carbon offsets.
These days, I continually pursue integrated applications for the company. We are actively pursuing microgrids, community solar programs and natural gas carbon programs.
MC: And what has come of the zero-energy home you lived in for those six years?
AH: Well we had to sell the first one when we moved to Georgia, and I documented the design and development; the living in it; and the sale of it in 2007 showing that we made a 22% return on cash investment for all the energy technology used to make it zero energy. The documentation is in a book I wrote for Designing an Affordable Solar Home.
Eventually, we built a second zero-energy solar house in 2015 in Georgia and have maintained a zero-energy carbon footprint since 2012. Throughout my career, I have steadfastly maintained that we had the ability to live near zero-energy carbon neutral, and we could do so while achieving a reasonable return on investment. In charting our energy use vs. investment over some 21 years, we have achieved a 10% to 12% return on net investments totaling around $50,000 invested in clean energy technology, reduced our energy bills by over 75%, saved a total of $110,000 over 21 years, and eliminated our entire carbon footprint.
Photo Source: LinkedIn
MC: Looking forward, how do you see your work and career evolving in the coming years as the clean energy transition continues to take a more prominent role in the industry?
AH: I have always thought that the clean technology industry needs a kind of symphony conductor to coordinate the places where different clean energy technology plugs into the whole integrated sum of the parts. This conductor needs to be able to see the entire picture. Individual technology manufacturers do not see the big picture because they are only looking at their technology from the perspective of itself and maybe how it might fit with the nearest technology interaction.
So, as in the early days of the EPA Energy Star Buildings staged-integration approach, there was a program that fit all the pieces together. Today, the EPA is being taken over by leaders with completely alien objectives to what the EPA used to stand for. But still today, I advocate for a National Zero Energy Buildings Program following a proven integrated staged approach.
I see my work evolving either to help EPA return to that conductor level on energy policy or if not at the EPA, then for some of the states that have a vested interest in clean energy technology. I believe my role is as the conductor or at least coach to such a conductor of clean energy policy.
MC: Boiling it down, what’s been the most rewarding part of your career in clean power?
AH: Mastering the technology and writing about it. I am a regular writer on LinkedIn these days!
MC: I’ve taken to reading some of your LinkedIn articles and I will cosign those resources as quite valuable that anyone interested in clean energy should definitely check out. (interviewer note: I particularly recommend seeing how passionately Alden reopens up his home to the National Tour of Solar Homes and the invaluable insights he is able to offer on LEDs due to his experience in lighting).
Insights into the Clean Power Industry
MC: Shifting now into some the broad clean power industry, I’d love to see what I and the rest of the clean power community can learn from your experience and acumen. In your many years in the industry, what’s been the most surprising change you’ve witnessed take place?
AH: The most surprising development in the clean technology industry I have witnessed was the rapid reduction in the cost of solar from 2011 to 2014. During that time span, solar reduced in cost by as much as 65%, heralding in the era of large utility-scale solar power.
The second surprise I have seen has been the incredible breakthroughs in LED lighting improvements from 2014 to 2018.
Additionally, the cost reductions in storage are a third, but not wholly unexpected, development.
Combining all three of these trends means we are literally on the cusp of a large scale microgrid development.
Photo Source: Vox
MC: Your optimism in these answers is surely contagious. But on the other side, what do you see as the most significant challenge facing today’s clean energy sector?
AH: Unfortunately, the public seems slow to pick up these ideas and are instead still mired in older assumptions. For example, heavy investments in solar without reducing energy loads is wasting valuable resources, as the solar costs still soak up a large amount of capital, leaving little left over to reduce loads in the first place, which would have resulted in more comprehensive energy performance at lower overall cost.
MC: From the good to bad to now the unknown: if you were holding the clean power crystal ball, what energy-related question would you be most curious to have answered?
AH: What state is going to seize the opportunity to pitch its clean technology industry as a comprehensive solution for itself, and its industries, as well as for exports to other states generating more businesses and importing less fossil energy resources, thereby changing their balance of trade.
MC: I love that answer— seeing who will grab the opportunity that’s right there. Unfortunately, the clean power crystal ball doesn’t exist. So, if you had to make a prediction about the most important energy-related story of the next decade, what would it be?
AH: Energy resiliency and power security are going to be linked hand-in-hand with cybersecurity. Businesses, in an effort to insulate themselves from the vulnerabilities of the electric grid and cyberattacks, are going to turn in large numbers to interconnected electric microgrids that can be operated in parallel or independent from the electric grid.
These will be made possible because businesses will finally get the energy integration synergies necessary to make them work. We will see a lot more use of direct driven Direct Current (DC) LED lighting from solar to battery and to other potential DC loads. Why? Because DC is 30% more energy efficient and less costly than AC-based systems, especially when we start deploying batteries.
MC: As we wrap up our conversation, I wanted to see if you had any advice to share. The attentive audience will already be able to pull out plenty of wisdom from what you’ve shared with me, but what direct advice would you offer to people just entering the clean power field that you wish had been given to you?
AH: Do not enter the field with a viewpoint from one perspective. Understand all the dimensions of your technology and how it fits into the whole of the solution. Pay particular attention to building energy use, as zero-energy buildings are the next frontier with microgrids quick on the heels.
MC: What about the broader Energy Central community? What value have you gotten from them and what advice would you like to leave for those reading this interview to come away with?
AH: I’ve been with Energy Central for 10 years and have valued the exchange of information about energy technology the network has offered. I think perhaps Energy Central could become that energy conductor about which I spoke earlier.
If I could leave this community with a bit of advice, it would be to always be positive about the opportunities with clean energy. Be confident in knowing that investments in energy technology are the key to our clean technology future. View each new development in technology not just as a stepping stone, but a key that unlocks a whole new set of energy integrated opportunities.
If you’ve valued this interview with Alden Hathaway and the insights he was so kind to offer, please leave a comment below and check out his frequent publications on his LinkedIn. And if you know any other veterans of the industry who would have great wisdom to share in an interview on Energy Central, let me know in the comments below.
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