By JOHN HOWELL
Jeff Flath, who started eNow in 2011 with the goal of developing solar-based charging systems for the transportation industry, likes talking about hockey sticks these days.
Itâ€™s not that eNow, based in Warwick, has taken a turn and gone into manufacturing sporting equipment, but rather the term Flath uses to describe where his company is positioned now that it has outfitted 4,000 commercial vehicles with solar panels â€“ and, as announced earlier this week, is providing its technology for 33 new 2019 Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) buses.
The light-weight systems that are mounted on the bus roofs are designed to extend the vehicle battery life â€“ the buses have two batteries costing about $365 each â€“ and to optimize battery performance. RIPTA projects the systems will save $80,000 a year. By maintaining a charge on the batteries, RIPTA will start buses avoiding costly jump-starts and â€ślot rot.â€ť
And what does this have to do with a hockey stick?
Flath uses the analogy to illustrate where he sees eNow going in the near future. While solar-based charging systems for buses and other commercial vehicles are part of the eNow business, the company has carved its niche in truck refrigeration. It has developed a system where the commonly diesel-powered system is run by batteries that are recharged by solar roof panels and the grid. The systems that eNow leases to trucking companies reduce vehicle operating costs by 20 to 30 percent. Flath estimated the savings at $12,000 to $13,000 a year for a Class A semi-trailer refrigeration truck.
With 500,000 of these refrigeration trucks on the road in this country today and a projected 50,000 more by next year, Flath sees tremendous growth potential. He anticipates the system will be an attraction at the TMC Expo in Atlanta, Georgia from Feb. 24-27 but sees the real turning point as coming when a high-profile company starts using the system and others saying, â€śIf theyâ€™re using it, itâ€™s got to be good.â€ť
Such a significant contract would be that â€śhockey stickâ€ť that catapults eNow from relatively level annual sales to a new level. Flath forecasts that within 18 to 20 months, eNow will be doing $50 million in sales and will triple its work force from 10 to 30 employees.
The RIPTA contract â€“ eNow is selling its system that will be installed by GILLIG Bus in California, which is manufacturing the diesel-buses â€“ surely complements the hockey stick effect. According to Flath, RIPTA is the first public transit system in the country to add advanced mobile solar systems on a large scale.
â€śEquipping our RIPTA buses with solar systems is proof that smart investments in renewable energy benefit both the environment and our economy,â€ť Gov. Gina M. Raimondo said in a statement. â€śThis program not only supports a cutting-edge clean technology company in Warwick but will help make commuting with RIPTA a more energy-efficient option for riders. I look forward to continuing to make Rhode Island a leader in clean energy.â€ť
Scott Avedisian, RIPTAâ€™s CEO, noted that the decision to purchase the solar panels was made after RIPTA worked with eNow for more than two years on a pilot program to test the effectiveness of their solar panels on buses.
â€śItâ€™s been great working with eNow on this project,â€ť he said, â€śand weâ€™re very grateful to the Commerce Corporation for making funds available that help us save energy, time and money. This project is a win on many levels â€“ we are working with the state to introduce alternative energy sources into public transit, weâ€™re partnering with a Rhode Island company, and weâ€™re collecting data that will be helpful to others in the transit industry.â€ť
The Rhode Island Commerce Corp. is helping to finance the project with a renewable energy grant of $42,800 that covered about two-thirds of the cost.
Flath said eNow has worked closely with Electro Standards Laboratory in Cranston, which has provided research and development as well as served as a contract manufacturer.
Flath said the silicone cells used in the solar panels are made in China, whereas the panels are manufactured by a North Carolina firm. He explained that the eNow leasing plan is based on projected usage as the batteries on heavily used trucks have a shorter life than those that arenâ€™t typically being constantly discharged. He said in some cases the company expects to replace batteries during the duration of the contract and hence those contracts are higher priced. Yet, on the flip side, the more the system is used the more it is saving in diesel fuel and maintenance costs.