In today’s world, the human population relies heavily on smartphones, tablets computers, air conditioning, electricity, fuel, and gas for everyday life. With this comes a big challenge. The world’s energy consumption is constantly rising. There is a demand for change and UGE sees an opportunity to tackle this problem.
In this interview, Nick Blitterswyk, CEO of UGE, talks to AZoCleantech about the rise in shared renewable projects across America and Canada and how these projects are helping combat the energy crisis.
UGE is taking on the biggest challenge that there is, which is protecting our planet and providing the world with renewable energy. Can you tell us about the recent advancements that you've made within the company since the last time we spoke?
If I go back in time a few years to when we last spoke, solar was a very interesting technology that was getting increasingly economical, but at the same time, it was just getting past that grid parity mark, depending on where you were in the world.
If I fast forward over the last three to four years, we've changed considerably as a company. The most important aspect of this is our focus on commercial and industrial clients including government buildings and schools as well. We are really focused on providing cheaper energy to those clients through the low cost of solar energy.
The commercial and industrial clients we work with take on many different forms. From grocery stores to big box stores, malls, schools, and hospitals we help all sorts of clients who fall somewhere in between residential and utility scale.
We’ve really built up the overall company to be able to provide those clients with a turn-key, fully financed solution, where they don't need to put any money forward and we just provide them with an immediate value proposition from what has now become a very cheap source of energy, that being rooftop solar.
We’re mainly focused on the US and Canada, but we also do some international. In particular, we’re one of the leading commercial solar companies in the Philippines. We’ve only been there two years but we’re growing quickly there.
One of the main renewable energy sources out there is solar power. However, there is a common misconception that solar power is expensive to install. Could you tell us why there is that misconception surrounding solar power?
I think it starts with the fact that it was expensive, but when you look at charts of how costs of solar are changing over time, what you see is that solar costs are decreasing faster than any other source of energy in the history of the world.
They're coming down so fast that it becomes really evident that, looking not that many years into the future, solar simply will be the most important source of energy this world relies on.
That's a secret that hasn't gotten out to the mainstream yet, but one that we're really excited about and why we're investing so much in growing our solar business.
You explained how the cost of solar power is a misconception. How is UGE overcoming this misconception that it is expensive to install solar systems?
A few different ways. One of the ways we do it is by really focusing on the value proposition that we offer and just making it, what we call, a ‘can't-say-no’ proposition.
So, to the degree that we can offer clients cheaper energy than they can get anywhere else, then it begs the question, why wouldn't they go with solar?
The other half of it is education. We typically find that our clients are only experimenting with solar for the first time.
That sometimes means starting small or starting with one site when we’ll eventually look at doing ten, twenty, or fifty for that same client.
So, finding ways to educate them, getting them comfortable with what we're doing, and gradually ramping up the progress with them all helps to dispel misconceptions.
Could you tell us about community solar projects?
When myself or yourself or any of our readers are flying into an airport and we look out the window, many of us have probably noticed just how many empty rooftops there are out there.
The vast majority of roofs around the world are completely underutilized real estate. And so it begs the question, what can be done with that?
We're a distributed solar company and we're very excited about the opportunity to generate energy within cities and within areas where the energy is consumed.
It offers efficiencies by doing that, but it leads to questions such as, for example, what if you're a warehouse using energy near an airport? You might pay less for your energy, you might consume less energy than other people within the same city or utility zone. There might be other people who could benefit from that energy on your rooftop much more than you could.
When we're looking at these types of clients and these types of opportunities, community solar really interests us because what it allows us to do is install solar on, let's say, a big warehouse on the outskirts of a city, but then feed that energy through the transmission lines to other clients who, right now, have a much higher cost of electricity, and could benefit more from a community solar mechanism.
That's an area where we're growing very quickly in, right now.
What are the benefits of joining a shared renewables project such as community solar?
They're really two-fold, and the first one is economics. I'm a big believer that the best way for solar, and for that matter, any technology, to succeed is simply to be the most economical choice. So, we're always focused on making solar more and more economical.
The first benefit would be that solar is an affordable source of energy, and in many cases now, solar it simply provides cheaper energy than you could get from another source.
Building owners who install a community solar project on their rooftop gain an additional revenue stream, we pay them annual lease payments for access to their building's roof, and those who consume the energy pay less on their electricity bills.
The second benefit, of course, is environmental. A lot of the people who sign up to purchase solar energy elected to do so partly because of the economics, but also, of course, because of the environmental benefits.
Advances in recent technology, smartphones, security systems, and our constant reliance on electrical goods mean that the world's energy consumption is constantly rising. What impact can a shared renewables project have on the world's energy consumption. Can it lower it? What kind of benefits can it bring to that?
I would also add electric vehicles to that list. Electrification of transportation is something that I strongly believe we're in the early stages of but it is going to increase the amount of energy we need to use from the grid.
Big picture, I'm a believer that all these empty rooftops that are out there - and it's still more than 99 percent of them - are wasted opportunity. Using community solar as a way to get solar energy onto the grid for people that really want it and can use it is a really big help in doing that.
The amount of energy we could generate in and around our cities is currently a fraction of a percent versus what it could be.
Can you tell us about any case studies where solar projects have been implemented?
We're always active in project installations. In terms of some of our recent case studies, we just completed a project for a church called Christian Cultural Center, which is the largest church in New York State - that's in Brooklyn.
We've also been very active in schools. We just completed a 17 school portfolio near Toronto, Canada that we're very excited about as well. Looking forward, we're building several of these community solar projects in and around New York City in the coming months and quarters. That’s some of the ones we're most excited about through the rest of the year.
What do shared renewable projects mean for the future of the world?
I was looking at a chart just the other day about the number of smoggy days in Ontario. Ontario, Canada is not a place that we typically think about in terms of having a smog issue, but the number of smoggy days in Ontario was over fifty only about 10 to 15 years ago, in 2017 it was zero.
That's because coal was phased out and renewables and other types of technology were phased in. We have it within our means to be able to move to a much cleaner, greener future, and community solar, rooftop solar and commercial solar, generally, have a really big role to play in that.
Could you tell us about the role that UGE is playing in the future of solar?
The role that we play, first and foremost, is what we call a developer. Let me define that a little bit because it's not necessarily a common term outside of the industry. Let's say that we're discussing this hypothetical warehouse, and what we can do for them.
Our job, ultimately, is to maximize the value of the potential project - this empty rooftop that's otherwise not being used.
As a developer, we're going to understand the regulatory, financial, and technical barriers involved in taking that empty rooftop and turning it into a solar project that will produce energy right there in the city.
What ends up happening is that we go through all those hurdles that I mentioned and get the project to a point where we can engineer, build, and finance it. So that when we say “Go” and that project is turned on, we've been able to bring it all the way from the initial idea to an up and operating solar project that's generating energy for the benefit of those using it.
About Nick Blitterswyk
Nick Blitterswyk, CEO of UGE International, founded UGE with a focus on distributed renewable energy to address the world’s energy challenges. His leadership and belief in a productive and enjoyable company culture has grown UGE into a global leader.
Raised on a provincial park in British Columbia, Nick is a Fellow of the Society Actuaries with previous experience at JPMorgan and AIG. Nick then went on to found UGE, which he has grown from inception to becoming a leader in the commercial and industrial solar sector.
Nick is a frequent speaker on TV and conferences on matters related to renewable energy, as well as sustainability more generally and international business. Nick is a graduate of the University of Calgary and a winner of its Graduate of the Last Decade award.
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