Monday, March 15, 2010

Beautiful Earth: A Sustainable Vision on Columbia Street

A few months back we posted about an interview that had done with local green business Beautiful Earth Group. At the time we thought that it was just a solar car company, which would have been amazing enough in itself, but it turns out that they do a lot more than that. We recently had the opportunity to catch up to the President and CEO of the company, Lex Heslin, to do an interview of our own with a local perspective. Check it out below.

WoCS: What is Beautiful Earth Group exactly? Your mission statement seems to reach beyond the solar charging station we've read about.

BE: That’s right. Beautiful Earth Group is a sustainable energy company founded in 2008, which develops, owns and operates utility-scale solar and wind power generating facilities. The company's first projects are located in the southwestern United States. We invest exclusively in non-carbon emitting electricity generation and promote long-term green solutions towards a goal of sustainability.

Amanda Cleary, Manager of Sustainability at BE, pulls the MINI E into BE’s charging station for a refill.

WoCS: Tell us a little more about the charging station and the electric car.

We built New York City’s first solar-powered electric vehicle (EV) charging station to show that this sustainable form of energy is available just about anywhere, even here on the Brooklyn waterfront. The station, which we designed and built, is off-grid, modular, constructed with recycled, decommissioned steel shipping containers and entirely powered by state-of-the-art Sharp 235 watt photovoltaic panels. The project is part of BE's effort to showcase urban sustainable energy solutions in New York City. It is capable of generating about 6 kilowatts, enough energy to supply your average Brooklyn apartment. We use it to charge our 100% electric, zero emissions Mini E, which is the first of the coming wave of EV’s.

WoCS: Is it something that you plan to replicate elsewhere?

It’s not. It’s really a demonstration project, to show that solar energy can be harvested and used on a local, small scale basis. It has received an incredible response though, in the press and via word of mouth. People love the idea that they can give up gas. And the charging station was
highlighted in Climate Week NYC. UN officials from all over the world came out to see it and to learn how solar works. Most of them had never actually been to a solar installation before, and they were amazed at how simple it is. Many of them wanted to set them up in their home countries. So even though this is not a business line for us, it seems that people have really gotten a lot out of it.

WoCS: If other people in NYC buy electric cars, would they be able to charge at your station?

BE: Our plan is to donate the charging station to a terrific organization which will use it to charge their electric vehicles, so we’re not set up to open it to the public at this time. However, EV manufacturers and charging station companies are pushing to get into the city as soon as possible, and you can expect to see some major announcements over the next 9 - 12 months about places to charge and special services for EV users.

WoCS: What are some of the other projects you have in the works?

BE: As for local/community projects, we have opened the charging station to a green jobs training program and plan to continue in that vein. In addition, we do seminars about sustainable energy at local public schools. We are also taking part in upcoming Earth Day activities, and we are working to make the Brooklyn waterfront a cleaner, greener place. As for development projects, we are building an incredible pipeline of sustainable energy generation capacity which will come on line over the coming years. Most of it is in the United States, but we are beginning to get more calls to do projects overseas.

WoCS: What are your favorite hangouts on Columbia Street?

BE: I’m a big fan of Jake’s BBQ and Margaret Palca’s bakery. You might not know it from the street, but these are very two special places. The food is consistently excellent, they both give great value for money and they cook with love (which my wife says is a key ingredient of good food). I also like to spice it up at Calexico, which does a lot of their dishes with tofu.

WoCS: Do employees of the company all get to use the electric car? If not, how does everyone else commute or otherwise get around?

BE: Yes, our employees do use the car. We try to integrate sustainability into everything we do, even our commute. Most of us walk to work. Otherwise, we use the EV or take the subway, for the most part.

BE’s view of New York Harbor, the port, Governor’s Island, Statue of Liberty and Manhattan.

WoCS: What made you decide to locate Beautiful Earth on Columbia St?

BE: We love the neighborhood, its history and sense of community. We feel like this area is bursting with ideas and creativity, and we love being part of that. Also, our office is located on the top floors of this fantastic building, built by Marshall Sohne. We run the office sustainably, all of our employees enjoy nice space and amenities, including the 10’ tall round picture window, and we have sweeping views of the waterfront.

It is important, in this business, to keep your mind open to change, and to the beauty of the earth around you. Seeing the water every day connects me to the Earth, and the views inspire me to do my best.

WoCS: Are there aspects of the Columbia Waterfront and greater Red Hook that are ideal for environmental organizations and businesses in general?

BE: Absolutely. For environmentally-oriented businesses, the sense of light and space you get here is quite special, very different from Manhattan or even other parts of Brooklyn. Add that to the waterfront location, and you’ve got a pretty great spot. Plus, we’re watching The Brooklyn Greenway develop before our eyes.

But in terms of office space and green infrastructure, there are very few attractive spaces on the waterfront appropriate for medium- to large-scale office users. That puts pressure on growing companies like ours to look for expansion space elsewhere. Surprising really – Brooklyn is home to an incredibly talented pool of professionals involved in the green movement, but the only choices they have for space is DUMBO (limited availability), one or two incubators (for start-ups) and space at the Navy Yard or at Greg O’Connell’s piers (both of which are set up for light industrial businesses). The West Coast is streets ahead of us in terms of almost all things green, and part of the reason is that the business community there gets it. New York has the talent, ambition, smarts and sensibility to lead the world in the green business – I hope we don’t miss the boat simply because we underserve this important industry which is evolving so quickly around us.

Lex Heslin, President & CEO of Beautiful Earth Group, has a vision

WoCS: Are there any local environmental issues that spark your interest or tie into work that Beautiful Earth Group is doing?

BE: Our main interest is sustainable energy use and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so we are working to achieve new solutions which use our Beautiful Energy. My daughter has asthma, and every day I think about how to make the air cleaner for her. One way is through transportation. On the EV and EV infrastructure front, we are working to ensure that sustainable energy-fueled electric trucks, cars and bicycles take a more prominent place in our transportation alternatives. We’re also interested in greenspace, so we are looking forward to supporting Brooklyn Bridge Park (which has an incredible sustainability plan) and the Brooklyn Greenway.

On a larger scale, I would like to see more effective environmental programs being implemented in New York – like carbon neutral residential areas and commercial/industrial zones (Red Hook should be the first!), better recycling, less convoluted permitting for green energy projects, more
attention to local foods, and better sustainability education for our children so that they don’t repeat the mistakes we’ve made.

And this may be a dream, but I believe that if we as individuals start changing what we are doing to impact the planet, and work together through our families and communities, then we just might have a chance at turning this thing around!

1 comment:

Andrea Vaughn said...

Inspiring comments in this interview! Yet another reason to feel proud of our neighborhood.