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Darien-based Greenworks invests in Connecticut car dealerships

August 19, 2018

For five years, Gregg Miller looked with frustration at the sprawling white roof of his car dealership in Fairfield. Not anymore.

In a few weeks, hundreds of blue solar panels installed on the roof this summer of the family-owned Miller Nissan dealership at 930 Kings Highway E., will start operating — and saving his family’s business thousands of dollars on their electrical bills.

In a state that has become a leader in renewable-resource investments, the project shows how a growing number of local businesses like Miller Nissan are taking advantage of falling green-energy costs and promising partnerships with financiers to reduce their energy footprint as they upgrade their infrastructure.

“I had all this beautiful white roof space that I could see on Google Earth that made me nuts,” Gregg Miller said in a recent interview at the dealership. “But now, when the sun’s out like this, I’ll be smiling. That means it’s saving us money.”

Going solar

Since the dealership installed a new roof in 2013, as a part of a renovation, Gregg Miller has aspired to cut down the business’ energy expenditures.

Gregg Miller tried working with a few companies on green-energy initiatives, but no projects materialized. Those prospective contractors only offered “smoke and mirrors,” he said.

But he eventually found a reliable partner in Encon, a heating and ventilation specialist and solar-energy installer. The Stratford-based company has bought a number of vans from Miller Nissan in the past few years.

With Encon’s support, Gregg Miller connected around the turn of the year with Darien-based Greenworks Lending, which specializes in financing for commercial renewable-energy projects.

With Greenworks’ support, Miller Nissan secured financing for the nearly 15,000-square-foot solar installation, which cost approximately $800,000.

Managed through the Connecticut Green Bank’s Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy program, the deal represents a de facto loan. Through a charge on its property taxes, Miller Nissan will pay back the capital provided by Greenworks, at a 6 percent interest rate during the next 20 years.

“I felt comfortable,” Gregg Miller said. “C-PACE and the lending process was pretty in-depth and pretty intimidating at points. They made it simple. And thank God they made it simple, because we have a very complex business here.”

The partnership with Miller Nissan comprises one of seven solar-energy installations, worth a total of approximately $6.4 million, that Greenworks has financed at Connecticut car dealerships since 2015.

Those projects’ energy savings equate to taking about 5,400 cars off the road, according to an estimate provided by Greenworks.

“We’re really excited about the growing demand for solar at car dealerships and general uptick in interest for our products,” said Greenworks Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer Ali Cooley. “We expect that interest to continue and grow across sectors.”

Started in June, most of the setup work at Miller Nissan is now done. The 259-kilowatt solar array, which consists of about 720 silicon modules sheathed with tempered glass, should be operational by the end of September.

Complementing the solar work, Encon is also replacing about 450 of the dealership’s lights with LED fixtures and installing a new heating-and-ventilation control system.

With the new solar panels, lights and control system, Miller Nissan expects to cut by nearly 100 percent its monthly energy bills, which have recently run from about $9,500 to $12,000. That outlay covers lighting, heating and ventilation and the operating of vehicle-servicing equipment.

“It’s a very energy-intensive business, so anything we can do to drop that down is a worthwhile investment,” Gregg Miller said. “Expense control is crucial in this business.”

Encon’s work has not disrupted the dealership’s operations, Miller said. Each day, the business services between 60 and 70 cars and sells about a half-dozen vehicles.

“The whole process has been a piece of cake,” Gregg Miller said.

Growth potential

C-PACE has closed on more than 200 projects, worth a total of more than $114 million, since legislation supporting the program was passed by the state General Assembly in 2012.

Among the states, Connecticut trails only California in total dollars financed through programs like C-PACE, according to PACENation, an industry group that promotes PACE financing.

“It’s amazing that Connecticut is second only to California,” said Mackey Dykes, the state Green Bank’s vice president of commercial, industrial and institutional Programs. “We weren’t the first state to do this, but we were the first state to get it right. We’ve create a market that’s viable. Because of that leadership, we’ve set the bar nationally to how to design and implement a program.

Some 70 percent of the capital distributed through C-PACE comes from private investors such as Greenworks. Jessica Bailey, Greenworks’ co-founder and CEO, was an author of the 2012 legislation and a former Green Bank director.

With similar bills having passed in 30 states, Greenworks is aiming to become a large-scale provider of green-energy capital nationwide. The firm now operates in 13 states.

“It’s a really good win for the public sector because they can provide support for clean-energy innovation without having to provide direct funding for it,” Cooley said.

Businesses such as Encon also see major growth potential in C-PACE initiatives.

Most of Encon’s revenues still come from heating and ventilation services. But its “energy services” division is growing. Annually, it is working on 10 to 20 C-PACE projects, worth a total between $3 million and $4 million, according to Tim Sadler, Encon’s energy-solutions manager.

“We’ve formed new relationships with builders and businesses that previously Encon hadn’t dealt with, and this is helping to bring in more HVAC business,” Sadler said. “It’s a great way to diversify our business so we can really absorb tougher times and capitalize when times are good.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; twitter: @paulschott

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