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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.

 

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.

Sustainability news roundup

The last few weeks have been a buzz of good news for Tennessee and the Knoxville area in general when it comes to sustainability and envrironmental awareness.  

1. More clean energy jobs

About 2,600 jobs were created last year by employers operating in the energy-efficiency, renewable-energy, clean-transportation, and greenhouse-gas management and accounting sectors -- an increase of 6.3 percent, according to the Clean Jobs Tennessee report. That's nearly triple the state's overall employment growth. Businesses told the report's authors they expect to fill an additional 2,500 positions by 2016.

2. TVA gets behind the Clean Power Plan

TVA is reviewing the more than 1,000 pages of new regulations released this month to regulate CO2 from existing power plants and a second rule that regulates emissions from new fossil plants, all part of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 32 percent cut in greenhouse gases by American power plants by 2030, compared with 2005 emissions.  

"For our coal and gas fleet, this plan really won't have much impact at all," Brooks said. "Most of our decisions on which coal units to retire, etc., are already in place and being driven by a 2011 agreement between TVA and EPA. We have already reduced our carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels. It remains to be seen what the other impacts will be."

3. A new hotel is leading its brand, and possibly the state, in sustainability

The Knoxville location of Home2 Suites is unique among hotels in the Hilton chain and a sustainability leader in the Tennessee hospitality industry due to the investment in a full-roof solar array by property owner and Oak Ridge native Chandler Bhateja. Some other measures include recycling bins in every room and throughout the hotel's public areas, the use of recycled paper products whenever possible, low-flow faucets and energy-saving LED lighting with timers.

4. Sevier County is one step closer to zero waste in landfills

Sixty percent of all trash gathered in Sevier County, as well as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is recycled into compost. That's the highest recycle rate in Tennessee, and one of the highest nationwide, but two multimillion dollar projects on the horizon aim to get the county to 100 percent: new sorting equipment to remove recyclables from waste and a gasification system to convert waste into fuel.

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.

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This year the USDA's Rural Energy for America Program wants to spend more than $2 million in East Tennessee on its program to help deliver technology and economic opportunity to the rural parts of the country.

"It will be the most that we've ever had as far as funding we've actually got to spend," said Dan Beasley, director of business and cooperative programs for USDA Rural Development in a recent interview with Business Journal reporter Larisa Brass.

Last year the office had only 23 applications for the program, which provides up to 24 percent of project costs in grants and up to 75 percent in loan guarantees for renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects to rural small businesses and agriculture-based businesses in either rural or urban settings. For more information on applications, see the USDA's Tennessee state page.

Projects in 14 East Tennessee counties have utilitized the program, including Holden Nursery in Mascot.

The owners used funding from the REAP program, along with TVA's Green Power Providers incentives, to install a solar generating system on their property.

Owner Kim Holden says the system pays for the company's electric bill and can produce far more in the summer.



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Mawuli Tse has already brought solar power to hundreds of residents in urban Ghana and other African countries.

Now thanks to a $100,000 grant, he's creating a solar product for street vendors in rural areas, reports Jamie McGee of the Tennessean.

The device uses solar panels, which can be attached to umbrellas often used by the vendors, to power mobile charging stations for customers.

Vendors may also use the system for light, allowing them to stay open later or for use at homes, Tse said.

Read the full story with video at The Tennessean: Nashvillian's solar device helps vendors in Africa

Photo:Mawuli Tse detaches a portable solar panel from the top of an vendor umbrella at his home in Nashville on Friday.(Photo: Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean)

When moving into it's new home, the owners of Three Rivers Market made energy efficiency and sustainability a priority.

Much of the old building was reused and new portions incorporated energy-conserving materials inside and out. Three Rivers has also long participated in TVA's Green Power Switch program, purchasing renewable energy.

As of June of this year, the co-op will also participate in TVA's Green Power Providers program, and generate some of its own power with new 50 kilowat solar panel installation on its roof.

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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