Joe Walsh stepped onto the pathway six years ago when he bought a 4,800-square-foot former radio station on the outskirts of Portland to expand his cleaning service.
Walsh didn’t realize it at the time, but the shock over receiving a $1,200 propane bill would propel him on a journey toward the ambitious goal of phasing out all fossil fuels at his business, Green Clean Maine.
He isn’t there yet. His biggest challenge now is transitioning his fleet of 22 cars to electric vehicles.
“I’ve done almost everything on the building that’s cost-effective,” Walsh said recently, standing in his parking lot next to a Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, sunshine glinting off the solar panels on his building’s roof. “It’s going to take me a while to turn over all my vehicles.”
Walsh’s energy expedition has made him a model for a new statewide business project called On the Pathway to 100% Clean Energy. A group of 20 companies from Biddeford to Brooklin kicked off the effort this month. The nonprofit project is supported by corporate sponsors and features a website designed to help businesses find the tools and partners to develop a specific plan to start on a 100 percent renewable-energy pathway.
“Part of the value of this project is creating a plan to get to that goal,” said David Swardlick, a Portland entrepreneur who’s promoting the initiative. “It’s the difference between having an interest in reducing fossil fuels and making a commitment to get to 100 percent renewables.”
The notion of running a business on 100 percent renewable energy got a high-profile boost last month when Hannaford Supermarkets announced plans to shoot for that target in 2024. Hannaford is a regional chain and one of Maine’s largest employers. It has the technical resources and capital that many smaller enterprises lack.
But in 2022, it’s becoming increasingly possible for nearly any retail or small commercial enterprise to start making a clean-energy transition, said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine. LED lightbulbs and heat pumps for warming and cooling space and for heating water are widely available. Solar-electric farms are popping up all over, and automakers are transitioning to electric vehicles.
“It’s incredible that we’ve arrived at a place where you can do this now,” Stoddard said. “Even 10 years ago, people were skeptical when you talked about 100 percent clean energy. But if you’re not in manufacturing, you can do it all with electric appliances and equipment. Then the only question is, ‘Where are you getting your electricity from?’ ”
Efficiency Maine this month launched a free online consultation service for businesses. They can sign up for a virtual chat with an expert who will assess their needs and guide them before they start an energy project.
Taken together, these developments are coming at a critical time.
Energy prices are at extreme highs and are expected to stay elevated for the foreseeable future, so companies are considering long-term investments to use less petroleum and electricity. State policies are encouraging a shift to an eventual electrification of the economy, fueled largely by solar, wind and storage.
They complement Maine’s climate action goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent in 2030 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2045. Getting more Maine businesses on the clean-energy pathway could help achieve these larger ambitions.
GOING ALL-IN ON CLEAN ENERGY
The ideas for the pathway project sprang from discussions Swardlick had last year with Fred Horch, co-founder of Spark Applied Efficiency, a South Portland energy services contractor. Horch observed that many of his clients wanted to save money and were focused on a specific area of their business, but hadn’t considered a holistic goal of weaning themselves off fossil fuels.
Swardlick has years of background in strategic marketing, so he developed a public campaign and message for the effort.
Horch is well versed in sustainability issues and energy efficiency. He developed online tools and software, including a calculator for businesses to benchmark their carbon emissions.
Horch also is putting together do-it-yourself guidebooks for small business owners, commercial property landlords and restaurants. The small business version is already online.
Swardlick and Horch were able to line up like-minded financial sponsors. They include retailer Lamey Wellehan Shoes, which cut its carbon emissions by 50 percent in 2020 and is striving to do more.
Another participant is Geiger, the promotional products distributor, which renovated its Lewiston headquarters in 2019 to strict green building standards and has a solar array that supplies 100 percent of its net electricity. Androscoggin Bank, which last year became Maine’s first Certified B Corporation bank and is making plans to get all its electricity from renewable sources, also is on board.
These companies and the other pathway pioneers have signed a commitment letter pledging to work toward zero fossil fuel emissions. They get an emblem they can post at their businesses, a way of publicly communicating their intentions. Swardlick hopes the visibility will encourage Mainers to patronize member companies.
“We hope the branding and commitment will be meaningful for the companies and their customers,” he said.
EFFICIENCY IS THE TOP PRIORITY
The renewable energy label could help reinforce the branding at Green Clean Maine, a growing, non-toxic cleaning service in Greater Portland. But for Walsh – and for any business – the first step on the pathway is to reduce overall energy use through efficiency. With the help of an energy services consultant, Walsh discovered many opportunities in the drafty old radio station.
Among his first actions was to switch out wasteful lights for LEDs. With rebates from Efficiency Maine, Walsh was able to retrofit the entire building for around $600, an investment that paid for itself in months.
A cleaning service does a lot of laundry, eight to 15 loads a day of clothes and other items. Walsh pointed out an 80-gallon heat-pump water heater in a closet that replaced a conventional electric unit. It’s upstairs from a bank of high-efficiency, front-loading washers and dryers.
“That made an immediate difference on our electric bill,” Walsh said.
Fourteen ducts blow warm or cool air into offices from air-source heat pumps mounted outdoors. They replaced the old propane boiler, at a fraction of the operating cost.
Scrambling into the attic, Walsh showed where dense-packed cellulose insulation was blown into the rafter bays. Cracks have been sealed with spray foam. There was virtually no insulation in the building when he bought it. And aside from lower bills, the work has had a dramatic impact on comfort. The first winter Walsh moved in, the staff wore sweaters and jackets inside.
Solar panels on the roof supply roughly 60 percent of the building’s electricity consumption. The rest is offset by subscribing to an offsite solar farm.
The missing piece now is transportation.
The cleaning crews drive up to 80 miles a day in fuel-efficient models, such as the Nissan Versa and hybrid Prius. But switching to electric vehicles is tricky.
First, global supply chain kinks have all but dried up availability this year. Second, many of Walsh’s cleaners take their vehicles home at night and live in apartments with no outside charging outlets. An interim step might be moving to an all-hybrid fleet, Walsh said, if he could find enough used models for sale. It’s a process that could take years.
“Switching to all hybrids would double my efficiency,” he said. “That’s a big gain.”
Walsh’s experience suggests that even dedicated business owners will need perseverance to approach the 100 percent goal. The pathway project anticipates that. But it is asking for accountability, to avoid the appearance of corporate greenwashing – that is, merely presenting an environmentally responsible facade.
To validate that pathway, members are staying the course. Swardlick said companies will be asked to update their plans each year and report their progress, based on their carbon emission calculations. Then they will be issued a new emblem to display.
The project intentionally has no target dates, Swardlick said, because of the understanding that every business will move along the pathway at a different pace. A company that uses natural gas for a manufacturing process, for instance, will face a steeper road.
“Everyone knows that the last 20 or 30 percent is the hardest to get to,” Swardlick said.