An interview with Jeffrey Perlman, President and Founder at Bright Power
How did you become interested in cleantech?
I graduated from college in 2001 with a desire to work in solar. I studied Applied Physics and was even part of a team that built a solar-powered car that we raced from D.C. to Orlando. That was a great engineering project, but not a practical transportation solution. The car was very aerodynamic -- shaped sort of like a cockroach -- and built with very light weight but strong materials. It could fit one person, the driver, sandwiched into an uncomfortable position wearing a racing helmet. In full sun, it could go about 40 mph without using the batteries, and could go a bit faster using the batteries. It worked, but it was just a demonstration project. For my career, I wanted to do something more practical.
Can you describe your journey from solar car racer to CEO of Bright Power?
After graduating, I met with some folks in New York and D.C. to explore becoming a solar installer, and in the course of those conversations, I met a guy who was consulting for investors on renewable technologies. Then, in 2003, I worked with him on a study about the cost and financial benefits of green buildings. That was the first time that anybody had tried to quantify the full financial benefits, beyond just energy or water savings. So we looked at productivity improvements of having people in a well-lit space that was comfortable. The numbers were a little squishy, but they were not zero. The results showed that the energy and water savings covered the additional 3-4% cost, but the other benefits--employees staying longer, being more productive, and feeling more engaged--were about 10x the amount of the energy and water savings. It was interesting research, but I am a hands-on person. I wanted to actually make it happen. I was 25 years old and I had a choice between going to grad school, finding a job, or starting a company. So I started Bright Power in 2004, to make widespread deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy a reality.
In your own words, how would you describe Bright Power’s business?
Bright Power works with the owners of large real estate portfolios to be a comprehensive energy and water management partner. We have a find, fix, follow framework. We find opportunities to save energy, save water, cut out waste, and put in renewable energy. For the fix part, we actually design and install upgrades or put better processes in place. The third part that I think too often gets over looked is follow. For many decades, there have been companies replacing light bulbs, replacing boilers, and installing solar panels. But these companies often finish the installation of the equipment and then walk away, and the building owners don’t really have a way of evaluating whether or not the stuff is working. At Bright Power, we care a lot about the follow portion. We have a “light” follow level which is a monthly utility-based analysis (EnergyScoreCards) and a more comprehensive follow that is a real-time energy management service (MoBIUS). If there is a problem, we find it quickly, fix the issue and then follow the fix’s impact.
Of the markets that Bright Power serves—Multifamily affordable, multifamily market rate, multifamily cooperatives & condos, commercial offices, hospitality, and higher education—which do you think presents the most growth opportunity to reduce GHG emissions?
In New York City, 50-60% of carbon emissions are from multifamily. If we are going to have the largest impact here in New York, we have to address all multifamily buildings. Nationally, multifamily is about 18% of all housing in the United States. Of the sectors we are in, multifamily and commercial offices are the largest opportunities.
You are based in FiDi in NYC—where are your customers located?
Our offices are in New York and California. The majority of what we do is in those two states, but we work all over the country. We have buildings in all 50 states that are using EnergyScoreCards, which is our utility bill analytics platform. We have regional clients, who may only have buildings in New York or California, but we also have national clients with properties across the country.
Which utilities and utility programs are most innovative in your mind?
So it really comes down to the state policies more than the utility companies, because the utility programs are a reflection of what the states’ public service commissions want to do. Bright Power is in California and New York, which are two of the best states pushing the utilities to be progressive on energy efficiency and renewable energy. Massachusetts is another leader: on a per capita basis, Massachusetts is ranked highest on energy efficiency spending. According to the ACEEE 2018 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard, California, Massachusetts and New York are the three states with the most utility program dollars going into energy efficiency. All three are also strong on renewable energy too. In 2018, both New York’s Governor Cuomo and California’s Governor Brown have committed to 100% carbon-free electricity (by 2040 in NY and 2045 in CA). New York City has a goal to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050.
Which state is the best when it comes to renewable energy and energy efficiency policy? Worst? Up-and-coming?
I’m happy Bright Power is primarily in New York and California. As far as up-and-coming, there are a few contenders. There’s a lot happening in Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, and there are a lot of other states doing good stuff. The ACEEE Energy Efficiency Scorecard is a good reference. The South is generally not great.
You mentioned that Bright Power couples renewables with energy efficiency improvements. Does Bright Power have an internal solar installation arm?
For a number of years, we had the relationship with the client and would sell them the project, design it, and then hire someone else to install it. About three years ago, we acquired a company that was founded and led by an experienced solar installer. We now do the work ourselves and subcontract if demand is too high. When we acquired the installation company, they were 6 people and we’ve now grown it to 20 people!
How big is the whole Bright Power team?
We are about 150 people—about 20 people in California, 20 installers who work on job sites, 10 remote employees and 100 in the Manhattan office.
How would you describe Bright Power’s employee culture?
I think it’s pretty good. You know, I have to work here too. We tend to have motivated, nerdy people who are passionate about energy and the environment. I started the company when I was pretty young, and most leaders here started at the company when they were pretty young. We are accustomed to learning by doing. I think junior people get more responsibility early on, and we try to foster their growth here. We have weekly lunch and learns where we supply the lunch, weekly BEERs (Building Energy Efficiency Roundtables) after work and -- yes -- we supply the beer, coding classes, an annual company retreat, an annual ski trip, a softball team, a basketball team, a running club, and yoga in the office.
If you could give advice to a college senior who wants to work in cleantech, but doesn’t know which technology or which function—what advice would you give this individual? Are there technologies or skillsets that you think are positioned for more growth than others?
You get two types of people: someone who has been working and wants to get into the field and somebody who is fresh out of college. Whatever your skills are, there is a job in this industry that can use your skills. I’ve had a lawyer come to me and say they want to get into renewable energy so they are going to learn how to become a solar installer. But this person has spent all that time going to law school. There are plenty of legal needs in the renewable energy field. So my advice is: look at the skills you have and what you want to do on a day-to-day basis. Whatever you are interested in, there’s a way to apply it. And its not just about technical skills or engineering skills: for example, the clean energy industry especially needs help with creative marketing and social media to make it cool, exciting, and compelling.
What advice would you give to fellow New Yorkers who want to be more energy efficient?
Here are some things that anyone can do, regardless of whether you rent or own your apartment.
The first thing is light bulbs. LEDs have gotten so cheap, and you can find them in all shapes and sizes (including ornamental Edison bulbs). I recommend “warm white” for homes rather than “cool white” or “daylight”. They use much less energy than either regular incandescent light bulbs or CFLs, don’t have any toxic chemicals like the mercury found in fluorescent bulbs, and last ten years. They’re just better in every way.
And then there are all sorts of little life choices: shut off the lights when you leave a room, shut off the water when you’re brushing your teeth or shaving. Use the food in your fridge before it spoils, so all that energy used to keep it cold wasn’t put to waste. Take out your window air conditioner in winter, or at least do a really good job covering it and sealing it up. And while we’re on the topic, you may not A/C as much as you think – fans are pretty amazing and use a lot less energy.
And if your apartment is too hot in winter, turn off the radiator before opening the window. And tell your building super, so that they aren’t just hearing complaints when it is too cold, but also when it is too hot. Many NYC apartments are 5-10 degrees warmer than they need to be in winter, which wastes a lot of energy, even if you’re not the one paying for it directly.