Today, I spoke with Zach Drennen, President of Revolt Energy in Nitro, West Virginia. Revolt Energy is a clean-energy start-up focused on solar. Zach and a colleague, Keena Mullins, founded the company in August of 2019.
Zach had me on speaker phone as he worked in his office and I had him on Bluetooth as I sat in my backyard. We were interrupted by cheery trills from lingering robins. “Those are loud birds!” Zach observed as I discreetly began toggling to mute when I could to minimize the noise. He was gracious to give time to me on a busy Monday morning mid-Covid crisis, where he was just “trying to stay afloat” amidst uncertain waters. He had an easy, open way of talking that I mused must be partly derived from his varied experiences –as parish priest in West Virginia, chaplain and teacher at an urban school in Pittsburgh, project-leader for an international NGO in Kenya, and then back in West Virginia as president of another social enterprise venture.
Both Zach and Keena also had a wealth of experience on residential solar and with projects large and small. They created Revolt Energy, in part due to a shared a passion around a social good mission, “to secure Central Appalachia’s place in a 21st century energy future.” In particular, they wanted to help bring larger scale, commercial and industrial, solar development to reclaimed mine sites and brownfields in southern West Virginia.
They learned soon that passion had to be balanced with reality. As a for-profit enterprise, they needed a mix of activities to ensure regular cash flow. That meant a bit more residential solar work than they had hoped, as it has proven a more ready and reliable source of modest revenue. And, in West Virginia, the demand for residential solar has even “steadily increased”, particularly in the corridor from Huntington through Charleston to Lewisburg.
At the same time, Zach and Keena have worked to position Revolt Energy for larger commercial-scale projects. For Zach, that has made this a particularly difficult period as they had a number of larger contracts and projects that were “on the cusp” before the Coronavirus altered the playing field for all of us.
The pre-development work involved to bring these larger projects to life is extensive and complex and represent hours and days of lost time and efforts if some of the projects do not ultimately move forward. In West Virginia, even before the current crisis, there was “virtually no demand for commercial solar”. This seems largely a factor of policy, of awareness and of complexity. When investors or customers see and understand the returns for commercial solar, and how projects pay for themselves and more quickly than most expect, than the economics make the case for themselves, according to Zach. However, this awareness requires education, hands-on work, and cutting through complexity in understandable ways.
And the environment has become much, much more difficult as many of the company’s contracts for commercial, residential, and industrial are now on hold since “no commercial entity is going to make an investment right now”. Revolt is seeing some continued interest in residential projects, but even in those instances, contracts are often delayed and sales are difficult. Drennen wondered out loud if the apocalyptic nature of the Covid crisis might ultimately drive future interest in clean energy, as more people see value in greater local self-sufficiency and their ability to live off the grid, when needed.
Despite the challenges, Zach enjoys being a small business owner and remains passionate about helping West Virginia become a major clean energy producer. He is also proud of the team he has built. It can be challenging to find and retain talented workers for smaller, newer firms in more rural places, regardless of industry. But for solar, the specific skillsets most often need to be learned on the job. Revolt assumes that every hire requires extensive training, particularly in specialties such as electricity since it, “can take a while to get up to speed.”
I asked Zach about what advice he would offer other small companies or clean energy entrepreneurs. His response boils down to two words: people and passion.
Personal relationships are central. Zach stressed that operating a business in a smaller community or rural region means not only tending to the financial side, the accounts and balance sheets, which of course are necessary. But, you have to give equal or even greater attention to the human side, to the people, whether customers, partners, or employees. As he put it, “you’ve got to love on your people a little bit.” In selling and deal-making, the relationships matter, and trust-building can be time-intensive.
You also have to generate and maintain your own passion for what you do and what you can provide. In West Virginia, for instance, the utilities and other partners are just “not super solar-friendly.” They will work with you, Zach says, but you also have to bring your own energy to the work and it can be very difficult if you don’t have that. The policy context in the state remains a challenge. Solar is more discussed now as an energy source, but not in a large-scale way, and there remain few, if any, state incentives for solar projects and power-purchase agreements are prohibited. Such agreements would make clean energy projects for hospitals, schools, or other institutions more viable.
Zach’s observations about the state’s climate for renewable energy are backed up by others. Earlier in 2020, West Virginia News printed an article on renewable energy in the state by Clarissa Cattrill. Cattrill quoted Autumn Long, regional field director and West Virginia State Director for Solar United Neighbors, who said, “Our state lacks a very positive policy environment”, as the “main barrier for deployment of renewables are policy-based.”
The article included a number of examples of needed policies such as renewable portfolio standards, regulation that would require increased production of energy from solar, wind, and other renewable sources. Utilities would need to alter their energy supply to achieve a percentage goal from renewable sources by a target date. According to James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and West Virginia University law professor, such standards are perhaps the most important policy step.
Others include providing state incentives for renewables or lifting the ban on power purchase agreements for solar (mentioned earlier). Allowing such agreements would help companies like Revolt to serve as installer or co-developer of larger-scale solar projects with schools and other institutions without large up-front costs to those customers. Instead, they would buy or lease the energy over time from the developer-owner of the systems.
Still, policy changes are longer-term solutions. For Revolt Energy, Zach was both concerned and hopeful for the future. He described this time as “incredibly stressful” but said that I should ask him again in 6 months, as he remained cautiously optimistic about some of the on-hold, on-the-cusp deals his team had worked to put together. He apologized for ending the call early, as I thanked him for sparing what time he did. He was off to meetings and client calls, all “just trying to keep the doors open.”