Watts Up New York Interviews Jeff Perlman


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 other part that I think gets lost sometimes is the final part: follow. For many decades, there have been companies out there replacing light bulbs, replacing boilers, and installing solar panels. But these companies may walk away, and at that point, maybe it worked or maybe it didn’t, but at least the building owners know they tried. 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 comprehensive real-time energy management service (MoBIUS). If there is a problem, we are aware of it immediately so we can 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%-19% of all housing in the United States. It’s definitely important but it’s not as big. 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 too, 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 states more than the utilities, because the states 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. Massachusetts is another to look at. On a per capita basis, Massachusetts is ranked highest on energy efficiency. I’d say New York and California have the most dollars going into energy efficiency and renewables. They also have really strong goals. In New York, Governor Cuomo has said he wants 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040. New York City has a goal to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. All of these factors determine the requirements that regulators place on utilities. Energy efficiency and renewable programs are typically paid for through systems benefits charges. So basically these are fees on consumers’ utility bills, and that goes into the pool of funds. This pool of funds is what an agency like NYSERDA or the utilities can tap into.

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 in New York and California. As far as up-and-coming, there are a few contenders. There’s a lot happening in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and there are a lot of other states doing good stuff. 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. We 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 led and started by an experienced installer that had great installation practices. We now do the work ourselves and we 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 in the field, about 95 in the New York office, and a few remote individuals.

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 more junior people get responsibility early on, and we try to foster the growth here. We have lunch and learns, coding classes taught by software developers, an annual company retreat, an unofficial 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 the industry. 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 I tell people to look at the skills you have and what you want to do on a day-to-day basis. I recommend looking at what you have and what you can bring to the table instead of scrapping it all. Whatever you are interested in, there’s a way to apply it. One thing that people may overlook is that the industry needs help with creative marketing and social media to make it cool and exciting.

What advice would you give to fellow New Yorkers who want to be more energy efficient?

The first thing is light bulbs. LEDs have gotten so cheap. Even if you’re looking for a weird light bulb, you can probably find an LED version on Amazon. They’re just better.