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.

(Continued on page 2)

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