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GoGreenET Achievers nominations open

We're looking to tell the stories of companies that have made significant progress in recycling/waste reduction, energy efficiency, renewable energy and community outreach, or in another area we may not have even considered.


We're looking for a specific project, process change or initiative in each category that can be used as a model for other organizations.

The nomination form can be found here. The deadline to submit a nomination is March 20. 

Winners will be featured in the Greater Knoxville Business Journal's May issue.

 

Pioneer Heating and Air doubles generated solar energy

Pioneer Heating & Air expanded the solar PV system at its Mill Branch Lane facility. The company has increased its solar energy system to 47.48 kW, effectively doubling the solar energy it generates.  The system was commissioned and has been producing power since Sept. 8, 2016. 

 With the combination of solar radiation exposure and high quality modules, the addition of the 74 module system is estimated to produce 28,491 kilowatt-hours of clean, renewable energy annually.  The system designer and installer, Green Earth Solar, LLC estimates that the system will reduce emissions by 30 lbs. of nitrogen oxides, 70 lbs. of sulfur dioxide and 41,603 lbs. of carbon dioxide each year.  Through TVA's Green Power Provider Program, the grid tied solar PV system will also generate income every month to help offset the electricity bill for Pioneer Heating & Air.

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Small businesses in the clean-energy sector again will have access to the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory resources with use of the DOE Small Business Vouchers Pilot. The voucher program will allow businesses to access expertise and technological resources that might not otherwise be available in order to bring innovative clean energy products to market.

The pilot is part of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's National Laboratory Impact Initiative portfolio, which supports the relationship between the EERE and the national laboratory enterprise and works to increase the industrial impact of DOE national labs on the U.S. clean energy sector. 

Small businesses with little to no experience with DOE labs are encouraged to submit requests, as EERE hopes to increase the number of new small businesses participating in the pilot. The pilot started in fall 2015 and launched in second round of funding spring 2016. During the first two rounds, 76 small businesses from 25 states were awarded almost $15 million in vouchers. 

Vouchers range from $50,000 to $300,000 per small business to be used to perform collaborative research or to access lab instrumentation or facilities. Businesses interested in SBV funding must be U.S.-based and U.S.-owned with no more than 500 full time employees worldwide. 

A total of $12 million is available for vouchers in the third round, as well as the upcoming fourth round of funding. To check company eligibility or submit a request, visit SBV.org. The deadline to apply is Nov. 10, and selected companies must provide a 20 percent in-kind cost share for completing voucher work. 

More contractors needed for Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover

By: Ed Marcum 

The Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover program, launched to help weatherize the homes of low-income families, has been a boon to contractors.

John Underwood, whose company Castles of Choice LLC does subcontract work on the homes for ABC Weatherization, said KEEM was an opportunity that came along at just the right time.

"We were a young company and ABC got us involved in the program," he said. "It really helped us get going," he said.

Part of the idea behind the program is to help minority-, women-owned and other small businesses, and organizers want to get more of them involved, said Erin Gill, director of the city's Office of Sustainability. To accomplish this, a workshop will be held at 10 a.m. on Oct. 21 at the Knoxville Area Urban League headquarters at 1514 E. Fifth Ave.

There will be a presentation to explain the program, and a chance to talk with representatives and learn how to get involved, Gill said. There is a bit of urgency because the program is running out of time and money, and organizers want to get as many homes weatherized and as many contractors involved as possible, she said.

"The program is in its final year, so we want to make sure the doors are wide open for people who want to participate," Gill said.

The program kicked off in August 2015, funded by a $15 million grant awarded by the Tennessee Valley Authority to the city, the Community Action Committee, Knoxville Utilities Board, and the Alliance to Save Energy. CAC administers the program.

"Generally, CAC goes into low-income homes that have electric heat, and if the family is income eligible and meets other qualifications, CAC evaluates the home and does a full audit to find out what the home needs in terms of energy efficiency," Gill said.

CAC makes a list of improvements needed and hires a contractor to do the work. This usually involves sealing doors and windows, replacing or repairing HVAC units and water heaters, and/or installing insulation and repairing duct work.

However, a stipulation of the TVA grant is that all the $15 million should be spent by September 2017.

"We are ramped up and will continue at full speed until we are out of money," Gill said.

There still is much to be done, she said. The program aims to weatherize 1,278 homes and has done 725 so far. To quicken the pace, more contractors are needed, Gill said. Only nine general contractors are involved, she said. One of those is ABC Weatherization.

Jim Beardsworth, co-owner of the company, said it has about 26 subcontractors, representing about 40 or 50 people, that work on KEEM projects.

Beardsworth said that a subcontractor must be trained and accepted as a TVA contractor, and he believes that probably inhibits some contractors from trying to get KEEM work. The workshop will provide information and help guide subcontractors through the process, he said.

The Smarter Cities Partnership, a coalition of 20 organizations looking to make homes in Knoxville's core more energy efficient, is looking for funding sources to continue KEEM after the current funds run out, Gill said.

So far, the program has had an impressive impact, Gill said. It has resulted in $6 million being invested into the community, including $4.5 million to small businesses.

The weatherization jobs that have been completed thus far have resulted in an estimated 3.7 million kilowatt-hours of electricity saved, enough to power about 225 average homes, she said. The energy savings have prevented an estimated 2,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being produced, which is the equivalent of taking 549 cars off the road.

For more information on KEEM or the workshop, call 865-244-3080 or visitwww.keemteam.com.

Aries Energy powers way into community solar

Aries Energy, a Knoxville-based company founded in 2011 to deliver simple, profitable and responsible renewable energy solutions, has jumped head first into community solar, one of the hottest topics in renewable energy.

Community solar is a large-scale system that allows solar energy to be deployed through a utility.

"The very nature of the business structure of the project is a win for everybody," Aries president Harvey Abouelata said. "If it goes through a utility, the utility's not left out of the picture."

A utility has power distribution, management expertise and could perform the ongoing operational maintenance, said Abouelata. Public partners then could be brought into the business structure to take advantage of tax credits, incentives and depreciation.

"You have the scale of the community, the tax credits and incentives because you have a private partner in there, so that's lowering the costs, and then you have the community," Abouelata said. "If I'm an individual that's renting, and I want to participate in clean energy, how do I do it? I can subscribe to this community solar project that's controlled by the utilities and I can put my money where my mouth is.

"It's really exciting, because whatever level I want to participate in ... I can be an individual and subscribe to essentially one panel, or I can be a corporation and subscribe to half a megawatt. But, I don't have to worry about people walking on my roof or construction or maintenance. That's all done by the utility. Again, it's a win for everybody."

According to Abouelata, that's why community solar is a popular topic.

"We joined the South Carolina Clean Energy Business Alliance, and one of the first meetings we went to, the topic was community solar," he said. "I just came from one of the subcommittee meetings that (Nashville) mayor (Megan) Barry put together. The topic? Community solar. Every time we turn around.

"There was a project in Spartanburg, S.C., that was largely surrounded by community solar that Harold Mitchell put together. It's one of those things you're going to see more and more."

Aries is putting the finishing touches on a 1.37-megawatt community solar project for Appalachian Electric Co-op in New Market. The company in August broke ground on Tennessee's first utility-scale community solar installation, which will serve 35,000 members in the electric cooperative.

The Tennessee Valley Authority provided a grant for the AEC project, and costs will be fully funded through revenue generated via power purchase agreement with TVA.

"(TVA provides) low cost and reliable power," Abouelata said. "We're very fortunate, because that's a huge part of economic development for Tennessee. Tennessee is on the map because of those partnerships with TVA. And TVA getting behind renewable energy has been huge in the economic development in Tennessee. ...

"Bringing the two together, utilities and renewable energy, has been brilliant, because millions of dollars have come into our state and it has been an economic boom because they have supported solar."

Aries made news in September when it announced a working agreement with SMS Energy Group of North Carolina to expand its large-scale solar projects in the Southeast. The venture will allow both companies to take advantage of the other's strengths.

"SMS Energy is a company that has a long history with utilities," Abouelata said. "They've got tons of experience over there. We've got tons of experience on the solar side of it. We're going to hit North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee very hard with this working relationship, and take advantage of each other's skills. That's pretty exciting. That puts us into a whole different world, because now we have that utility, high-voltage experience mixed with (our experience).

"We've been working with them on bids and sharing each other's knowledge base. It makes us both stronger, so we're excited about that."

SMS Energy Group also has operations in South Carolina. Aries is evaluating the Aiken, Columbia, Greeneville and Spartanburg markets and soon will open an office in South Carolina. The office will initially be home to one full-time salesperson, but the company expects to hire several more employees there by the end of 2017.

Jonathan Hamilton, who joined Aries earlier this year as a customer service manager, will lead the Southeast expansion.

Abouelata said that the time was right for Aries to develop a working agreement with SMS.

"The growth idea, one of the things for us and SMS getting together, is we realize that growth is going to be in the utility side," he said. "They realize they're getting more customers asking for solar, so they needed a solar partner. We just came together. The timing was right. It was perfect."

Knoxville helps pave way for Grow Bioplastics

Grow Bioplastics is a Knoxville startup company that is working to commercialize plant-based biodegradable plastic made from lignin, a renewable waste stream from the paper industry.

It also is the epitome of what entrepreneurship is in the Knoxville area. The company has been touched by the University of Tennessee, the UT Research Foundation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and others.

"The number of people that have come up to us, offering just their assistance, free conversations, that has been the biggest part," said Tony Bova, 32, co-founder of Grow Bioplastics. "And the fact that it is so tight-knit, that everybody knows each other personally. Honestly, that's been the biggest of all it.

"How quickly we've been introduced in a matter of nine months to all of these parties, and they're all interested in what we're doing and eager to help drive that mission, that Knoxville is good for this."

Grow Bioplastics' goal as a company is to create a family of plastics that have applications throughout industry. It currently is focused on plastic mulch film.

Mulch film is used in farming to keep soil warm and moist. It extends the growing season for plants and blocks weeds. The problem, Bova said, is that farmers have to remove the plastic and send it to a landfill. Only about 10 percent gets recycled, mostly because it is covered in pesticides and recycling facilities won't take it, or will charge an extra fee.

"What we're trying to do is make a material that has the same properties, and performs just as well for all of their uses, but at the end of the season, they can just plow it into the ground where it will break down naturally because it is biodegradable material," Bova said.

The idea for Grow Bioplastics came in 2014 while Bova was taking an entrepreneurship course for his Ph.D. program at UT. The challenge in the course was to find different pieces of intellectual property that either existed at ORNL or UTRF and do a business model canvas around it. Through the advice of Tom Rogers, the director for industrial partnerships and economic development at ORNL, Bova picked a technology based on lignin-based plastics.

"I was fascinated by them," Bova said. "I really fell in love with that technology and I switched my research group in the Ph.D. to go work for the inventor of that technology out at Oak Ridge, Dr. Amit Naskar."

Several people are named on the patent for the technology, which is licensed by TennEra. According to Bova, Grow Bioplastics is in talks with TennEra to work out a sub-license agreement so that it can have access to that portion of the technology.

Bova and a team of students entered a pitch competition from another class based on the technology "just to see what our class work had put together," Bova said.

Grow Bioplastics won.

"It was like, $1,000, and we split it between the four of us," Bova said. "We didn't yet have a company, and at the time, we were talking about making 3-D printing materials out of lignin. And then I took a few more entrepreneurship classes. I took plenty, as many as I could."

Bova credited the Ph.D. program at UT's Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, which unites resources and capabilities from UT and ORNL to promote advanced research and to provide innovative solutions to global challenges in energy, engineering and computation. Bova's undergraduate work was in chemistry. Co-founder Jeff Beegle is a biosystems engineer.

"We have people who are nuclear engineers, computer scientists, geographers. All of us focusing on different aspects of energy in general," Bova said. "As part of the interdisciplinary need, we are required to take a few classes in either entrepreneurship or public policy. I took one in public policy. It was interesting and I learned a lot. And I took one in entrepreneurship, which I was interested in before I came here, and was just hooked."

Since then, Bova has taken as many entrepreneurship classes as possible. One was a MBA course called "New Venture Planning" taught by Lynn Youngs, the executive director of the Anderson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Haslam College of Business.

"In that class, I took that idea we originally had and worked with another team of students to pose a new question," Bova said. "What's a better application than 3-D printing, what's higher volume and something that's specifically targeting these biodegradeable plastics? That's where the mulch film idea came out of."

By the end of semester, Bova and his team had a full business plan in addition to one-page canvases. Bova emailed Youngs, saying "This is really interesting. I'm really actively pursuing this in the future and I'd really like to sit down and talk with you about it."

"He was like 'I don't know if you realize, but with this business plan, you have everything you need to start one,' " Bova said. " 'Start entering some of these competitions if you want to raise money, but get your business going. What better time than now? Don't wait.' "

So, on Dec. 29, 2015, Bova was in Chicago with his girlfriend, visiting her parents for the holidays.

"It was maybe one in the morning and I couldn't sleep," Bova said. "So I decided to start a business. I popped open the secretary of state website and entered all of my information and $300 later, I had an LLC. I was like 'Wow, this is really great.'

"I talked to Lynn later and he said 'Yeah, you probably should have waited until Jan. 1 because then you wouldn't have to pay the mandatory tax for those two days that you existed.' ... It's a fun story."

Since then, Grow Bioplastics has entered several business competitions. It started with "What's the Big Idea," hosted by the KEC and the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce.

"We had a three-day bootcamp weekend where we really dove into what the business model would be and we learned a whole lot," Bova said. "We didn't win."

Grow Bioplastics then entered the Rice Business Plan Competition in Houston.

"That experience, I think, has shaped us the most because we were immediately thrust into a situation where we weren't being judged by judges, but actual investors, industry experts," Bova said. "There were 300 different judges across the competition. We pitched four times, each to a room of at least 20 people, and we had great, great feedback and we evolved a lot in our presentation skills and everything there."

Grow Bioplastics has since been accepted to 14 competitions and won a total of $68,500 in cash prizes.

"It's super exciting," Bova said. "We've gone from $300 out of pocket to just over $68,000 in non-equity funding. We've come quite a long way. Now we're in the process of writing some additional grants to a few government funding agencies to get up a bit more funding and looking to bring on our first employees in the next three or four months so we can be ready for the next phase."

Grow Bioplastics has been invited to the SXSW Eco pitch showcase in Austin, Texas. It's a three-day event featuring "a ton of people, all of them interested in sustainability and green things in some way, shape or form."

Bova said that he has since learned that Grow Bioplastics wasn't ready for the competition at Rice in April.

"We had only been around for four months and hadn't been able to craft everything and understand exactly what we were," he said. "But now we have a much better understanding of that. SXSW is a well-recognized name on a national stage. It's really exciting for us to be able to get to that point where we can go and ask for the support, either connections or funding, that we need to get us to the next step."

Grow Bioplastics has proved that it can make some of the material in a lab. The next challenge is to show it can produce the material on a large scale and that it can make the plastic in a continuous production.

"The way we make them right now is small batches at a time," Bova said. "I can maybe make 25 to 300 grams, so like a pound of it at a time. So, moving forward to something where we can show that we have continuous production and a smoother manufacturing process and then getting a partner in the plastics processing industry that can be interested in helping us get this to a point to where we can form it into these thin films for that specific application. Those are our biggest milestones right now.

"So, can we make a lot of it? And does it actually do what we say it does? Which, from an educated standpoint, based on all of the literature we have and all of the results we have, it should. But we want to make sure all of those claims are sound and we have science to back them up."

The Knoxville entrepreneur community has been a huge help to Bova and Grow Bioplastics.

"The groundswell of support has been the biggest help," Bova said. "We won the Vol Court competition that was sponsored by the Anderson Center at UT two times in 2014, with our first idea of 3-D printing materials, and this past spring. The prize for that was $1,500, which is enough money for us to fill out more paperwork and get to the next point where we are applying for things, a little bit of travel money that allowed us to go to Rice.

"But we also got a year of free legal services from David Morehous, who is a local lawyer in the startup community, a year of free office space at the research incubator, and then a year of free consulting for finance and general business consulting from Pershing Yoakley & Associates, specifically from Tom Ballard. And I think those three things alone ... have been way more valuable than the dollars. Because, one, it has a dollar value to it, but at this stage in our company, money won't teach us the things that we don't know. Those things will."

Bova, originally from Mentor, Ohio, near Cleveland, is thankful he chose to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee.

"Knoxville is a newer, more progressive city, so there is definitely a different vibe here than the other places that I've lived, and I really like it," he said. "It feels like this new, young community. There's almost something new opening once or twice a month, be it a new restaurant or some other new business. I like to see that kind of growth and I'm excited to be part of it.

"To be honest, when I came here, I didn't know if I would stay here after I graduated. Now I think that I might for a while. With the business side of things, all of the pieces are starting to fall into place. We can locate ourselves here. There are people who are really encouraged that we may stay and really offering to help us get to that point.

"The knowledge base that exists between Oak Ridge and UT, it's so invaluable. There's a lot of really intelligent people here, who we can potentially hire as employees, or in the future, have as mentors."

Vonore-based biomass supply company Genera Energy has created a mobile crop planning and learning tool for the biomass industry.

"Often times it's very difficult to help technology users to understand the intricacies of the different biomass crops that are available for their use," said Sam Jackson, vice president of business development for Genera.

The app should help both growers of feedstock and users of the resulting biomass product -- whether that's actually as fuel or as an ingredient in plastics, polymers or other things -- understand their needs and scale, he said.

The Biomass app offers features such as a biomass crop library complete with detailed information, photos and range maps for the most utilized biomass crops in the U.S., along with the ability to overlap crop ranges in a live, interactive map function.

Another key function is a multi-function biomass calculator that helps the user determine how much biomass they'll need for their specific situation, including conversion technology, conversion rate, and location. For those wishing to convert biomass to biofuels, biochemical, bioproducts, or biopower, this app will provide realistic projections and crop suggestions based on actual, in-the-field studies and crop outcomes.

The app is currently free and available for both Apple and Android products.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory has new funds aimed at helping clean energy entrepreneurs get their product to market.

The lab received $5.6 million -- the largest of five awards -- as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Small Business Vouchers Pilot.

The program earmarked a total of $20 million in a public-private partnership that will connect clean energy innovators across the country with scientists, engineers and facilities at national laboratories.

The funding will be used to provide vouchers of $50,000 to $300,000 per small business to initiate collaborative research projects or get technical assistance.

DOE estimates more than 100 businesses will receive the funds when the program opens later this summer. Businesses interested in the program can email the Lab Impact Initiative at eerelabimpact@ee.doe.gov.

2015 Green Achievers

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Congratulations to our 2015 Green Achievers! Their stories are featured in the May Business Journal and available at the links below.

Harrison Construction is putting 20,000 tons of recycled asphalt back on the road as part of its Western Avenue paving project. The company also keeps construction and materials out the landfill by recycling concrete, brick, and other demolition leftovers into base material for contractors, use in its own manufacturing or as landscaping material. As an added benefit, every bit of recycling means less rock that needs to be mined from the region's mountains.

See their story at Demolished buildings get new purpose as road material

Sunshine Industries provides jobs and services to Knox County adults with disabilities, but is also trying to better the community as a whole with its recycling programs. Now the agency is rolling out an e-cycling program with the additional benefit of certifying electronics as destroyed -- rather than resold -- so customers know their data is secure.

Read about the new effort at Social-service agency creates e-cycling advantage

Cool Sports knows running an ice rink in an East Tennessee summer takes a ton of power. It's reducing that need as much as possible by taking advantage of the season's abundant sunshine to power facilities. The company's solar array generates enough electricity to power 14 homes and helps the facility shave off costs. It also eliminates 222,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions among others.

Get the details at Solar power shaves off costs for ice rink, sports facility

La-Z-Boy knows you probably aren't thinking of the environment when you kick back in one of its recliners, but the company is working hard nonetheless to reuse and recycle as much as it can. It's been an ongoing effort. Last year the company recyled 93 percent of its materials. The facility marked Earth Day this year by achieving zero waste at its Dayton, Tenn. facility. 

Learn about the process at La-Z-Boy Tennessee reuses, recycles to avoid landfill

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The Knox County school board on Wednesday approved adding solar panels to 11 county schools.

"I think if this was all of our schools, I would be much more cautious, but we're talking about 10-12 percent of all of our schools to give something a try," said Karen Carson, school board members.

The panels are expected to save more than $3.8 million in energy costs, a figure that could increase over the next 30 years.

The schools that will receive new solar roof panels are: Hardin Valley Academy; the L&N STEM Academy; A.L. Lotts and Amherst elementary schools; Bearden, Powell, South-Doyle and West Valley middle schools; and Central, Karns and West high schools.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Cortney Roark published on January 10, 2017 4:40 PM.

Grow Bioplastics named Sizzle TechStart's first incubator client was the previous entry in this blog.

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