Fast-growing Michigan company thrives with energy-saving services

Think of clean renewable energy, and wind turbines and solar panels usually come to mind before energy efficiency. But a Northern Michigan firm has harnessed the growing efficiency market to score national recognition as one of the fastest growing companies in the U.S.

Keen Technical Solutions of Traverse City is part of a changing Michigan economy where energy conservation thrives, and customers from manufacturers to homeowners embrace money-saving systems and technologies.

Tim Pulliam
Tim Pulliam, Keen Technical Solutions

Co-founders Tim Pulliam and Steve Morse met while teaching energy classes at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. Over dinner one night they talked about the large number of people they had certified to perform energy audits, yet how few of those audits were turning into action.

Businesses needed assistance turning energy audits into completed projects. The seed of their business was planted, and in 2008 Keen Technical Solutions was born.

Just five years later, Keen landed a coveted place on the Inc. 500’s 2012 list of fastest growing companies in the United States. It ranked 1st among Michigan companies and 60th in the nation. Keen finished 2011 with $4.2 million in revenues and grew another 50 percent last year.

To date, Keen has helped clients conserve more than 216,000-megawatt hours (mWh) of energy. That is equivalent to taking 26,000 Michigan households off the grid for a year—comparable to meeting the needs of a small city through energy conservation.

Keen presents clients with customized plans that make the most impact on energy bills. These are often changes to lighting, heating, and cooling, or automation. The plan includes the cost of the project, the energy savings and cost savings to be achieved, and how long it will take for the savings to pay off the investment. Typical paybacks for Keen’s clients are less than three years, and some are less than one year.

Dollars and sense

Keen puts the savings in compelling terms for its clients. For a car dealership, Keen equates how many cars the company would need to sell to achieve the thousands of dollars saved by making the energy upgrades. For Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, they related the savings to the number of meals served to people in need.

However you slice it, the energy upgrades free up money that can be put back into building a company. As Pulliam says, “Efficiency is a good investment.”

Keen also helps businesses finance their energy upgrades. Keen has partnered with banks and organizations like the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Keen and the Chamber set up an energy efficiency fund, which loans money to companies to do a project. The company then pays back the Chamber as part of its energy savings.

Keen Technical Solutions has 11 employees and sends work to subcontractors across the state who perform lighting upgrades, boiler installations, and other jobs. Today, 90 percent of Keen’s work is in the private sector. A ticker on the company website shows a real-time savings of their clients: $21.5 million and climbing.

“Energy optimization has created a micro-economy. We reinvest back into our people and the local infrastructure, giving good wages to our employees, and offering good benefits,” said Pulliam.

State policy a catalyst

State policies encouraging energy efficiency are helping to get businesses to act. The main energy efficiency policy is Public Act 295, which passed in 2008 with strong support from the Michigan Environmental Council. It requires utilities to demonstrate 1% of annual electricity savings (and 0.75% for natural gas utilities) each year by 2012 and each year thereafter. Part of this is passed on through rebates to ratepayers for their upgrades, and almost all of Keen’s clients take advantage of these rebates.

Pulliam says he hopes to see further policies driving energy efficiency and renewable energy, which Keen also incorporates into its plans for some clients.

Environmental plus

The environmental and public health impact of energy conservation is significant. Since the majority of Michigan’s energy comes from fossil fuels, every dollar saved by energy reduction means reduced pollution, cleaner air and water, and fewer greenhouse gases emitted.

“We like to say that when it comes to energy policy, better efficiency is our first, second and third priority,” said David Gard, Michigan Environmental Council’s energy program director. “We love renewable energy, but efficiency beats generation for cost savings and emissions reductions every time.”

Keen shares with its clients the positive environmental impact of their energy savings. For example, the energy upgrades made by car dealership Dick Genthe Chevrolet has an annual energy savings of 356,066-kilowatt hours (kWh). This is equivalent to saving 718 barrels of oil or planting 67 acres of trees each year.

Pulliam is clearly happy doing the work that he does, and hearing him describe his company makes you understand why. “You kind of feel like a rock star,” he says. “You show up and your customers are happy. They like you because you are helping them save money.”

He adds, “It keeps the level of enthusiasm up, so everybody is able to have fun, do well and share in that together. It is a light-hearted and exciting team to be a part of. Like a family.”

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