The unexpected reward of sustainable energy - Interview with Harbec Inc. President Bob Bechtold

When winter storm Stella hit the greater Rochester area earlier this year causing power outages in thousands of homes Harbec, a manufacturing company, kept running. The company was started 40 years ago by a Rochester native Bob Bechtold, who transformed the factory into a “carbon neutral” business operated almost entirely on renewable energy.

Photo Credit: David Zheng

Combining wind turbines, solar panels, advanced heating systems and thermal-efficient generators, the company is able to produce up to 85 percent of its energy requirement. In 2016, Harbec, along with green giants such as Intel, Apple, and Google, received the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partner Award.

Photo Credit: Connor Hakan

According to the U.S Energy Information Administration, the total global energy consumption is expected to rise from 549 quadrillion British thermal units in 2012 to 815 quadrillion Btu by 2040, an increase of about 48 percent.

One solution to the growing demand for energy is to use more energy from renewable resources. With cutting-edge innovation, solar power is now so affordable that it is replacing natural gas: It is even used in Oman to pump up oil. The share of renewables in global electricity consumption has doubled over the last four years, according to the Global Energy Statistical Yearbook 2016.
Photo Credit: Dr. Vaxon, flickr
Source: Department of Energy: Revolution...Now Rewind: Illustrating the Wind Energy Story. https://energy.gov/eere/articles/revolutionnow-rewind-illustrating-wind-energy-story
While other companies are still learning how to make use of renewable energy, Bob Bechtold was a pioneer. Building something like Harbec has been his dream since childhood.
Credit: Falkenpost, pixabay

As a child, he was a kite runner and a tool maker. “I used to have a buddy Tom Tytler,” Bechtold said. “His parents were sweethearts. They would let us use their basement and we had that basement full of everything that anyone ever threw out.” He added, “We had everything pulled apart down there because we were going to make something new, something better.” He and Tytler were able to build their own “go karts” from old lawn mowers. They took he engines off the mowers and attached old wagon wheels. Even without a brake system, the two kids were happy with the go karts. “At least they went! You know we figured out the brake part later. Just all that kind of craziness,“ he said.

Credit: WinterSeitler, pixabay
His experience as a kite runner inspired Bechtold to harness the power of the wind. He was one of the first entrepreneurs incorporating wind turbines into a factory.

However, the path was not smooth. In the early 1990s, when Bechtold planned a hybrid energy system for Harbec -- including renewable energy and a tranditional gas-powered plant -- no bankers would approve his idea and his financing proposals were repeatedly denied. It was a frustrating time. After going to dozens of banks for financing, even the bank broker Bechtold had hired to help him quit. The bankers, Bechtold said, told him, “No businessman is going to go out and do these kinds of things. So why would we give you money to prove that it works.”

Photo Credit: David Zheng

It was Bechtold's persistence and curiosity about renewable energy that saved the project. It wasn’t until he went to the New York State Energy Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) that his effort was recognized, and he was provided with project funding by the agency – support that Bechtold said he is very grateful for. “I love them forever,” he said of the state energy authority, “because it wasn't really the loan that I needed, I needed I NYSERDA to say they would help.” With the approval by the agency, Bechtold could then go back to the banks. “I said NYSERDA is helping us, and we're going to put the wind turbine on hold, and then it happened because of something beyond us,” Bechtold said. In the end, the wind turbine project was funded by four banks along with the state authority.

Credit: Andy Arthur, flickr

People have debated which type of renewable energy is best suited to the Northeast: Are wind turbines better than solar panels for the region? Bechtold said the two technologies are about equal, if harvesting of the energy is limited to a few weeks or months.

“Think about it annually,” he said. “You always measure renewable energy in terms of an annual production because it changes. While solar is good in the summer and wind is good in the winter, the average annual production from either is about the same."

Credit: Seagul, pixabay

Bechtold and Harbec have taken on every challenge presented to them. Once they had succeeded in making the company carbon neutral, they pledged to achieve “water neutrality” as well. “Our pond that we had initially was put in for fire prevention purposes,” He said, “we collect rainwater off all of our roofs and parking areas and deliver it to our pond and we use it in industry. We've become equally responsible for water so if you buy a plastic part from Harbec, it has no carbon footprint and no water footprint.”

Credit: WinterSeitler, pixabay
Now they are ready for a new challenge: storing the energy they produce. Bechtold said, “We are working on a storage solution, it's the last piece to making our micro-grid in a perfect example of what you need in the future.”
Credit: Stokpic, pixabay
Bechtold said he regards Nature as precious, and his sense of social responsibility has made a traditional manufacturing company into a sustainable one. “The electricity that you're using, the vehicles that you drive, they are dumping trash into your children's future,” he said. If you care about your impact on the planet and your neighborhood, you absolutely need to change.”

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Created by Connor Hakan, David Zheng

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