"Filling an Energy Niche"
by Jacob Kamhis
To see the original layout in the April-June 2014 issue of Pacific Edge Magazine, visit here.
When Aric Saunders, partner and co-founder of Hawaii ECO, wanted to expand his clean energy business he chose office space in an area that would soon demand a lot of power—Kaka'ako.
This waterfront district in Honolulu is slated for massive development with nearly two dozen condominiums with office, retail and community spaces. It will be on the route of the rail rapid transit system.
"There was a specific desire to be in Kaka'ako," Saunders says. "We support making the area energy renewable and sustainable."
The Hawai'i Community Development Authority, a state agency coordinating public and private sector development, met with Hawaii ECO for information and suggestions on how large-scale development could occur with renewable energy and sustainability.
With all the attention on big jobs, Saunders and Hawaii ECO do not overlook little ones. Company employees and their families adopted Mother Waldron Park, a few blocks from their Kaka'ako office. Once the site of Pohukaina School, the historic park borders Pohukaina and Cooke streets. On weekends, staff and volunteers clean, rake and make repairs to the park named for Margaret Waldron, who taught at the school around 1913. Plans call Hawaii ECO to install energy-efficient lighting on the basketball court and to add a dog run.
Saunder was interested in renewable energy even as a youngster in Mililani and Kailua. He attended Punahou School and studied business finance at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he enrolled in the university's first "green business" class. The major gave him the opportunity to learn about renewable energy from a finance perspective. In 2002, Saunders returned to Hawai'i and raised money for real estate developments. He delved into applying solar systems to the projects. It was the groundwork he needed to start his own company a few years later.
Before starting Hawaii ECO in 2011, Saunders and partners Jon Okada and Charles Wang were salesmen at a solar company. They watched potential customers turned away because their employer was not servicing small projects, according to Saunders. “Here were three young guys with a lot of passion for what they were doing," Saunders recalls, so they combined their intentions and set out to fill the small-market energy niche. The first job was a home in Waipahu.
By the end of 2012, Hawaii ECO installed 30 energy systems for a pilot project of single-family homes in Honolulu and Waianae, which was funded by a private investor. Hawaii ECO attended community meetings and found qualified home owners for the project. First, lighting in the home was made more efficient so that fewer solar panels were needed. With Hawaii ECO performing maintenance and billing, home owners saved an average of $1,000 per year, Saunders says.
The summer of 2013 brought Hawaii ECO a lighting retrofit job at Dole Plantation in Wahiawa. According to Saunders, Dole had reduced lighting usage after LED installations. A secondary benefit was reduced air-conditioning costs because LEDs emit less heat. By the end of the year, the 10-employee company had revenues of $2 million, with their customers split evenly between residential and commercial installations. With current bids, signed contracts and diversification of revenue streams, Hawaii ECO is poised for a 300 percent to 400 percent revenue increase in 2014, Saunders says.
More opportunity is on the way. Staff recently received training at Panasonic Corporation near Osaka, Japan. Hawaii ECO is now the first certified Panasonic Premium Installer of Panasonic photovoltaic products in the United States. “The way Panasonic runs its business aligns with us,” Saunders says. “It's not being the first to market. It is striving to be the best.” The company will market Panasonic energy products and offer optional maintenance programs. The partnership will evolve based on the market, Saunders explains.
Meanwhile, Hawaii ECO routinely services churches, schools and condominiums. Such non-profits are not eligible for tax incentives. Hawaii ECO's power purchase agreements (PPA) save 20 percent to 30 percent on electric bills, according to Saunders. The owner pays Hawaii ECO a reduced monthly electric bill but must pay the local utility for electricity at night and on dark days. Investors own the system; Hawaii ECO maintains it.
“We want to help everyone in Hawai‘i become more causative over their energy costs,” Saunders says. “The solar industry will change and we will change with the industry. We see this as a long-term business.”