April/May 2016 Issue
North Little Rock-based Seal Energy Solutions
promotes energy efficiency by leveraging
that ‘big fusion reactor in the sky.’
Illustration by Chad Maupin
Top Image: This illustration demonstrates the energy-efficiency
problems that many structures have. This is for illustrative
purposes only, and does not reflect a real-life situation.
Many view energy efficiency and renewable energy as progressive-leaning, Democratic-party-type issues. Seal Energy Solutions, a young company based in North Little Rock, is trying to change that perception by educating customers and the public. In the process they are pioneering a new kind of industry in Arkansas.
“Part of our mission is education, and we tell employees that 50 percent of any given day your job is to educate,” said Heather Nelson, co-founder and chief operating officer of Seal. She related the matter of energy efficiency to an old-fashioned virtue many Arkansans heard about at a young age — waste not.
“What we find is that a lot of clients are spending a lot more on their utility costs than is necessary, and they have no idea. You know the old adage that our grandparents and our parents taught us of: ‘Shut that door, we’re heating everything outside.’ Literally that’s happening on a much broader scale than we were ever taught or that we realized. And, there’s actually something that you can do about it.”
“That’s the biggest hurdle,” Seal’s co-founder and chief executive officer Josh Davenport said. “Just getting people to realize that they can change their energy bills.”
Seal Energy Solutions has grown rapidly since starting out in 2012 as a contractor participating in the Home Energy Affordability Loan program, an initiative aimed at helping people lower their utility bills through energy retrofits. After realizing that it was hard to find good sub-contractors in the state for this type of work, Seal decided to bring those functions in-house, putting together their own work crews to do retrofits. Later they acquired an HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) company and after that an energy assessment firm. Today, Seal has largely integrated the components for a new type of firm capable of diagnosing, planning and implementing energy-efficiency improvements in residential, commercial and industrial spaces.
Saving vs. Generating Energy
“We try to take a holistic approach to any space, whether it’s a home or building,” Davenport said. “We don’t just look at one measure. We look at all the measures. If we go into your home, we will look at the duct leakage, your air leakage and your insulation. But we also want to look at your HVAC equipment to see if we can service it and get it back to its manufactured specs. We also want to look at the air quality and maybe duct cleaning. Basically anything from your thermostat to your lighting.”
Seal now has satellite offices in Fayetteville and Ridgeland, Mississippi, and has grown from helping customers save energy to helping them generate it.
“Last summer,” Nelson said, “having done thousands of homes at that point, we had clients coming to us saying ‘What’s next? We’ve had a great energy retrofit. Our home’s really tight.’ And so we started tossing around the idea of moving into solar. So we actually expanded and started doing solar design and install, basically because we had clients coming to us saying they were really interested. We look at solar as just the next extension. First things first, you get your energy assessment or a ‘physical’ done on your space. The next thing is to do the energy retrofit and make it as tight as possible and get your bills where they really should be. And then the next thing is to maybe create something through a renewable like solar that then helps you start controlling your utility costs further.”
The ultimate level of control is becoming what she called a “net zero” space. That’s when a building generates as much energy as it uses. It’s an idea that might logically concern those entities generating traditional electric power. But Nelson disagrees.
“If suppliers are nervous about solar moving into Arkansas, they need not be,” she said. “Because I don’t think that what we’re talking about with solar in 2016 is getting to a net zero space in Arkansas. There are people who want to do that, but I think that more realistically it’s about ‘How do you control your costs?’ Because the reality is that utility costs are going up because of increased use of electronics, because we’re getting more and more technology based. So it’s just a matter of…giving people some options and control.”
“Now we do have some of the lowest electric costs in the South,” Davenport said. “But we’re also one of the most inefficient states. So, as costs rise, it becomes a pretty tough paradigm, where right now we might not feel [the inefficiency], but as costs rise and our efficiency doesn’t change, it puts everybody in a hard place. So our goal is to try to make homes and businesses more efficient to combat the rising utility costs.”
Benefits of the Retrofit
But efficiency can also be about more than just cost, in cases where a building’s air is not healthy to breathe.
“Sometimes your home can make you sick,” Nelson said. “Some people just can’t have a lot of dirt and dust. And there are a lot of times you have broken ductwork or poor air sealing in your home. So literally you’re letting a lot of things into your home that you don’t even realize.”
That said, energy assessments and retrofits still cost money. How do people afford it in an uncertain economy? One way is through incentive and financing programs offered through a variety of sources such as utilities. Those can help customers pay for efficiency improvements.
“Statewide, we have on-bill financing models and PACE [Property Assessed Clean Energy] financing that will help grow this industry,” Josh said. “All of these financing models are making projects cash-flow positive, meaning that the savings from the energy retrofit are paying for the retrofit itself…anytime you can get a project cash-flow positive, it’s a no brainer.”
And Davenport views efficiency as something more than a product to pay for. He sees it as an investable asset.
“I think…you can use energy efficiency and renewable [energy] as a strategic alternative to traditional investing. The stock market’s all over the board, but there’s a way you can invest in energy efficiency or renewables that, for the most part, as long as that big fusion reactor in the sky called the sun keeps going, and energy costs do what they’ve done for the past 30 years, it’s not only a good investment, it’s a safe investment.”
He further believes the benefits of the investment will extend beyond the space in question.
“We have always thought about the economic improvement of what energy efficiency means. For instance, if you go into a small Arkansas town, if there are only 900 households, and say you cut their bills by 30 percent, and that saves them $75 a month, then every month that’s another $67,500 in that 900-household community. That’s more money spent at the Dollar General, at the gas station, for clothing, for medicine. That’s a stimulus in a little town.”
Magnify such a stimulus statewide (and into western Mississippi) and you get an idea of the kind of impact Seal Energy Solutions would like to have.