August 28, 2013

A Word With the Boss: Pika Energy's president putting new spin on power

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Ben Polito is a Georgetown native and a co-founder of Pika Energy, which makes and sells home renewable-energy systems that use wind turbines, solar panels or both.

click image to enlarge

Ben Polito, president of Pika Energy in Westbrook, holds one of three blades on a wind turbine at his new facility.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

The three-year-old company hopes to bring the cost of the systems, to be assembled at the company's headquarters in Westbrook, down to where homeowners will consider them a standard part of a home, rather than a green add-on.

Initially, a hybrid solar-wind system is expected to cost $10,000 to $20,000, before federal and state tax incentives. Polito said prices will vary depending on the home site, and are expected to come down as production increases.

Pika Energy has received investments from the Maine Technology Institute, the Small Enterprise Growth Fund and Maine Angels investors. It received a $150,000 grant from the Department of Energy for its turbine blade design. And this spring, it won Gorham Savings Bank's $30,000 LaunchPad competition for its business plan.

The company just moved into its permanent office and manufacturing space in Westbrook. Polito discussed the company and its place in the renewable-energy sector:

Q. How did you get interested in the field of energy?

A. I grew up in Georgetown, Maine, and grew up off the grid. My parents were initially mountain climbing instructors out West, and when they wanted a family, my mom had spent time in Maine as a kid, so they ended up settling in Georgetown. In the part of town where I grew up, CMP hadn't brought the electric lines in. It was mostly summer places on that end of the island and we were the first year-round residents, so I was fascinated by electricity. It was this magic technology that we had at school and we didn't have at home.

At some point, we took a family road trip out West, and I must have seen some wind turbines in California, and when I got home, I started tinkering and I made some wind turbines to generate electricity. They made a little bit of power, enough to run a light bulb.

Q. You went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then worked around the country as an energy consultant, helping to develop the Skystream small wind turbine. Why did you come back to Maine?

A. When it came time to start my own company, I wanted to do it in Maine. It's become increasingly feasible to start a company like this here, with the advent of Internet technology and the availability of funding -- we've had significant support from the Small Enterprise Growth Fund and the Maine Technology Institute and the University of Maine summer intern program.

We'll start manufacturing later this year and do the assembly here, and that's another reason why setting up in Maine makes sense. I looked at the possibility of building in Boston, but you're not going to do (light manufacturing) in Boston, you're going to be out on Interstate 495.

Q. Why focus on home-scale power generation?

A. There's been a huge amount of focus and innovation and attention and funding toward the improvement of utility-scaled wind turbines. I don't want to say those are solved problems, but it's sort of a big company's game at this point. And, similarly, the cost of solar has come down dramatically, and there's been a lot of innovation in that space.

We saw small-scaled wind technology as a promising field. The companies that are producing these turbines are much smaller and less sophisticated and, as a result, the products are less efficient and more expensive, so it's an area that's ripe for innovation.

A personal wind turbine you can buy on the market today is between $30 and $60 a pound. If you were to buy it at a grocery store, it's like buying caviar. (The cost of a home wind turbine can start around $500.) If you go over to Home Depot, a John Deere mower is about $3 a pound. If we can manufacture these wind turbines as efficiently as a lawn mower, far more people will be able to afford them, cut their electric bills and reduce their environmental impact.

Q. Is Maine a promising place for using your systems?

A. Maine is a good location for hybrid (wind-solar) systems. The primary challenge here is that the wind isn't fantastic except along the coast and in the mountains. The problem is that the trees are really tall. A lot of people have installed wind turbines in places where the turbines aren't as tall as the trees. A better market is west of us, where the winds are stronger and the trees aren't as tall, like in the Great Plains. But solar, you can do anywhere, and you can think of a hybrid system (in Maine) as a diversified investment.

Q. Some people who live near wind farms complain about the noise associated with the turbines. How do you address that for turbines designed to be used right next to houses?

A. They're very quiet. We've done a lot of work on both the dynamics of the blade and our generators. Our test site locally is on County Road in Gorham, and we can't measure the sound (of the unit) over the passing cars on a local two-lane road. The big turbines are fantastic in terms of producing a lot of clean energy, but most people want them a respectable distance from their house.

Q. What does the future look like for your company?

A. The goal for our company is to drive the cost down dramatically ... and improve performance to the point where it becomes a no-brainer (for homeowners). Some people want to do this for environmental reasons, but the way to do this for the larger market is to get it to the point where it makes sense (economically).

We're talking about being a worldwide exporter of these products. It's not an export possibility just for us -- it's an export possibility for the U.S. and Maine to produce and sell these high-quality items.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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