More and more people cashing in on the benefits of clean energy.
by Michael Puente
In 2007, TJ Kanczuzewski had an idea while working for his dad’s 2-year-old company, Inovateus Development.
The South Bend based company deals with small commercial and residential developments with a sustainability focus, including the use of solar energy.
“My father, Tom, saw there was a huge opportunity to transition our building practices over to more efficient technologies, recycled products,” Kanczuzewski says. “There wasn’t that much of it happening in our neck of the woods. My dad believed in that and saw an opportunity to move it forward in our area.”
The younger Tom Kanczuzewski, who goes by the nickname “TJ,” decided to start a separate company to only focus on solar energy.
“Solar was becoming a larger part of what we were doing at Inovateus Development,” he says. “My task when I came on board in 2007 was to write a business plan for a solar company so we could focus 100 percent on solar.”
Inovateus Solar was born and is taking advantage of the growth of solar energy as a power source in both residential and commercial development in Indiana. Kanczuzewski, president of Inovateus Solar, says the idea for his solar company came even before he started working for his dad’s company.
In the mid-2000s, he worked with General Growth Properties, which manages residential and retail malls all over the United States–including Oakbrook Center in suburban Chicago and Water Tower Place in Chicago. As a member of the sustainability committee, Kanczuzewski says General Growth Properties began looking to save energy costs by switching to more efficient CFL lightbulbs. He thought the company could do better than just switching lightbulbs.
“We have malls that have up to 2 million square feet and nothing on the roof. The way we make money is by leasing square feet of our space. Maybe there’s an opportunity for us to make money on top of the roof by installing solar panels and creating our own electricity,” Kanczuzewski recalls thinking. “The more I learned about solar, the more I became immersed in it. I’m very passionate about it.”
Kanczuzewski is seeing how the growth of solar energy is expanding so much he says there’s actually a revolution going on. “Most folks don’t see solar or more solar panels and think things aren’t changing or there isn’t more but there really is,” Kanczuzewski says.
Earlier this year, the Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust (CET) released a study showing that nearly 569,000 people work in clean energy throughout the 12-state Midwest region. And that number is expected to grow by more than 4 percent next year. CET released the report in conjunction with Midwest Advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group of business leaders, investors and others who advocate for policies that are considered beneficial toward the environment.
The report found that nearly 70,000 people work in clean, renewable energy, including 31,000 in solar and 27,000 in wind, in the Midwest region. Over the next year, about 25,000 new jobs are expected to be created in the Midwest clean energy sector. Small businesses drive the Midwestern clean energy economy, with more than three-quarters of clean energy workers employed by firms with less than 50 employees.
In Indiana, the report found that more than 44,000 people are employed in clean and renewable energy jobs. That’s more than the number of Hoosiers employed in the telecommunications and real estate sectors combined.
According to the American Council on Renewable Energy, Indiana is endowed with plentiful wind and biomass resources–ranking fourth in the nation for ethanol production capacity–and is also a user of wind, wood waste and other renewable energy resources. And those numbers could increase. The State of Indiana has set a goal to obtain 10 percent of clean energy use by 2025.
Carl Lisek is executive director of South Shore Clean Cities, a nonprofit based in Crown Point that promotes the use of clean fuels and clean vehicle technologies. It works toward the mission through education and outreach, training and acquiring necessary funding to implement projects and develop partnerships with industry and business.
“We’re working with folks like NIPSCO and the building trades,” Lisek says, “doing a lot of education on the benefits of clean energy alternative fuels and alternative energy. We feel this is an economic opportunity for Northwest Indiana.”
Last year, South Shore Clean Cities coordinated an effort to get more residents interested in solar energy. Lisek says more schools, businesses and organizations in Northwest Indiana are moving toward solar energy.
“We worked to help educate the public on the benefits of solar and reduce some of the barriers on the entry level of solar,” he says. “We’re taking some baby steps but we’re really going to see some big steps made toward solar power in Northwest Indiana. I think there’s been a paradigm shift in attitude in our area. I see a lot of good things happening. There’s not a person in Northwest Indiana who doesn’t want clean water, clean land, clean energy and clean air.”
Kathy Luther, director of environmental programs with the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), says the commission recently partnered with South Shore Clean Cities on a program called Green Fleets. The goal of the program is to significantly improve the environmental performance of business and government vehicle fleets across Northwest Indiana. A number of school districts have participated, including East Chicago, Portage, Hammond and Valparaiso.
“They work with municipal organizations and school districts that have fleets of vehicles,” Luther says. “The program helps them identify ways to have clean energy vehicles that will reduce the air pollution and save them money.”
NIRPC also helped fund an initiative to get more residents signed up in 2015 for solar energy systems at home. The program got at least 100 people interested in switching to solar energy. In the end, about a dozen residents made the switch. Luther says that’s good considering the area is still in the process of educating the public on the long-term benefits of switching to solar energy. Plenty of research has been done that shows that having solar panels increases a home’s resale value, according to Luther.
“I think this is an exciting time in wind and solar,” she says. “The equipment cost is dropping 10 percent or more a year. There are also lots of jobs in clean energy.”
Clean energy doesn’t always mean wind and solar technology. It can also mean how companies operate in producing products such as steel says Chenn Q. Zhou, director of the Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation (CIVS) at Purdue University Northwest.
“Clean energy also means having less [air pollution] emissions and that’s where technology comes in, she says. “What we are doing can improve the environmental issues to make the emissions cleaner.”
Zhou is also director of the Steel Manufacturing Simulation and Visualization Consortium made up of some of the biggest companies in Northwest Indiana, including ArcelorMittal, NiSource, AK Steel, Nucor, Praxair, U.S. Steel, Union Gas, Steel Dynamics, SSAB and Nucor. The consortium was started through a $480,000 federal grant aimed at benefiting the domestic steel industry. The two-year, advanced manufacturing technology planning grant is among 19 totaling $9 million awarded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to universities and other nonprofit organizations.
Zhou says the companies are assisting in research to make the process in steel manufacturing cleaner. Since steel production uses a lot of energy, anything that can make that process run smoother, more efficiently and cleaner is a plus for the area. “We are eager to begin identifying and advancing research projects that will benefit the domestic steel industry,” Zhou says. “The mission of our consortium is to support the competitiveness of the American steel industry by using simulation and visualization technologies as research tools to make steel manufacturing more viable across its value chain.”
The clean energy sector is likely to expand but could expand quicker with more support from Hoosier politicians, says Gail Parsons, Midwest Advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2).
“Policymakers may not think of the clean energy industry as being as big as accounting or other known workforces, but there’s a sizable group of people working in it, and it can be even greater if we had the right policies in place,” Parson says. “Energy should really be a bi-partisan issue. The sector is growing and booming and bringing jobs to states. Clean energy is a job creator. If you’re a pro-growth state, you should pass policies that provide incentives for clean energy companies to want to do business in the state.”
The biggest challenge, according to TJ Kanczuzewski of Inovateus Solar, is the upfront costs for a solar energy system. But, with products becoming cheaper to purchase every year, that challenge is dwindling he says. And perhaps the biggest incentive in the years ahead will be energy storage. Kanczuzewski says, “Combined solar energy and battery storage–that’s when you really start to become energy independent and economics become even better. That means bigger batteries for large industrial storage.”
Inovateus Solar is currently working with DTE Energy of Detroit on one of the biggest solar initiatives to date in the Midwest. They’re helping the City of Lapeer, Michigan, develop a new solar generating project that will power 9,000 homes with clean, zero-emissions solar energy. When completed, it will be the largest operating utility-owned photovoltaic solar array east of the Mississippi and the third largest in the country.
In the end, clean energy technology can aid in cutting costs for companies, residents and just about anybody.